California's Cobol conundrum

Maintenance fix or complete overhaul? A state's budget hangs in the balance.

If you can program in Cobol, the state of California might like to talk to you.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed an order recommending temporary pay cuts for some 200,000 state workers. But state controller John Chiang says such a move simply isn't possible now, owing to the state's antiquated payroll accounting software.

According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, Chiang testified before the state Senate Committee on Governmental Organization that the software updates needed to facilitate the 200,000 cuts would take at least 6 months. Furthermore, Chiang said, when the pay cuts are eventually reversed, rolling back the changes and delivering back pay to those workers would take another 9 to 10 months.

Obviously, there's more going on here than meets the eye. Now 38 days into its new fiscal year, California remains without a budget as legislators debate how best to reduce the state's $15 billion deficit. A Democrat, Chiang's true motive for refusing to comply with the Republican governor's order is not hard to deduce.

But politics aside, Chiang has a point. Maintaining aging software of the size and scope of California's payroll system can be harrowing. As Michael Cohen of the California Legislative Analyst's Office told the Bee, the payroll system is "an example of a number of computer systems in which the state made a large investment decades ago and has been keeping it going the last few years with duct tape."

Cobol programmers are increasingly hard to come by -- find me a college that teaches it -- and InfoWorld recently ranked "legacy systems archaeologist" as the seventh dirtiest job in IT. Maybe it's time for California to ditch the existing system altogether and start over afresh?

As it turns out, there is such a plan in place. Aptly named the 21st Century Project, the modernization effort is scheduled to kick off next year. Unfortunately, the estimated cost of the project has ballooned to $177 million -- not an easy pill to swallow for a state without a budget.

But hold on. Is this trip really necessary? If we read between the lines of a recent IDC study, sometimes "duct tape" can have advantages.

The study, which was commissioned by software quality management vendor Coverity, looked at the overall effects of software defects on business performance. Of the 139 companies surveyed, 41 percent said they had found up to 10 critical bugs in their code within 12 months of deploying it. For medium and large-sized companies, IDC estimated the cost of fixing such defects at between $5 million and $22 million per year.

Got that? So if California goes ahead and builds a new payroll system, within nine years -- about as much time as it has taken to get the 21st Century Project off the ground -- the cost of fixing bugs in the new code could exceed the original cost of the project.

It gets better. According to the IDC study, complexity ranked as one of the top software quality issues. California's payroll system must certainly be complex if it takes 6 months to update. But the companies in the IDC survey said that not only was their code complex, but that it had actually grown more complex in just the last two years. What's going on?

Check out this gem from the study: It turns out that it isn't the applications that are growing more complex, but the technologies themselves. Multicore processing, SOA, and Web 2.0 all contribute to rising software development costs, says IDC. In other words, new code is more expensive than old code. The more you take advantage of today's hot new technologies, the more likely you are to experience development delays and software defects.

It's enough to make you want to take up Cobol.