Clive Thompson on the stranglehold that COBOL code has on the older/bigger end of the finance business:
In fact, these days, when the phone rings in the house [retired COBOL wizard] Thomas retired to — in a small town outside of Toronto — it will occasionally be someone from the bank. Hey, they’ll say,_ can you, uh, help… update your code? Maybe add some new features to it?_Because, as it turns out, the bank no longer employs anyone who understands COBOL as well as Thomas does, who can dive in and tweak it to perform a new task. Nearly all the COBOL veterans, the punch-card jockeys who built the bank’s crucial systems way back when, who know COBOL inside and out — they’ve retired. They’ve left the building, just like Thomas. And few young coders have any interest in learning a dusty, 50-year-old computer language. They’re much more excited by buzzier new fields, like Toronto’s booming artificial-intelligence scene. They’re learning fresh new coding languages.
It seems amazing that this situation has dragged on this long. Is it just that the small number of coders who understand COBOL code well enough to step in when banks absolutely need to tweak their COBOL codebase are making out like bandits because they can demand vast rewards for their services from an industry that didn't understand it was creating this situation and is now willing, if it must, to pay top dollar when it must keep basic functionality running at scale? Or is it more that when it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of balancing the books banks feel little pressure to rip out the plumbing and rebuild their systems so there's really much less demand for changes to existing COBOL codebases than you'd expect?