Resolving Timeline Issues

Archive for August 8th, 2008

On Thursday, when I went into surgery, my lense prescription was about 20/600 (-4.75 diopters).

On Tuesday, when I went in to have the temporary contact bandages removed, my vision was 20/30.

And its just gotten better every day. Unfortunately, for the state of California, it hasn’t.

See, a couple of weeks ago, the Governator wanted to cut all public servants in the state of California back to $6.55 an hour. There are a bunch of problems with this, which you can read about here and more recently, here.

That last post is from Cynematic who interviewed the state comptroller (or is that controller in the US?), who told her he couldn’t violate the Fair Labor Act. Great.

But there’s a bigger problem, which Darren spoke of and I put in a comment on the MOMocrats (who are divine, goregous and brilliant):

I get the legal/social side of this, but uber-geek Darren has another perspective on this.

Apparently there’s an article on Infoworld ( about it.

What it boils down to: the State of California’s system is based off an ancient programming language called COBOL. Back around the turn of the century, most states got rid of their COBOL programmers – who have moved on to bigger and better things.

The result is that any changes, including changing pay rates for people, have to be entered manually rather than through the programming – because nobody programs in COBOL anymore. Now, if someone goes up a pay grade or whatever, fine – that’s just one person.

But the entire California public service? HA!

From the article: 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.

The option, of course, is to contract out the COBOL programming. Which would probably exceed the savings since its damn near impossible to find a COBOL programmer these days.

The SacBee article is here:

Yes, I ROFL’d. Lack of foresight in government – NEVER. 🙂 (and I am a public servant)

Of course, there is a plan to modernize the system – which due to delays is now at a cost of $177 million.

Makes you wonder – is California just the tip of the iceberg? Darren’s rumours from the info/tech sector say New York, Philidelphia and Texas are all on the line because of this too.


And although I scooped Cynematic on this, she doesn’t seem too upset by it. 🙂

The problem is, any changes involve large amounts of money. Any non-changes also involve large amounts of money. As it stands, California can:

  1. Bring COBOL programmers out of retirement/bribe them to come back (at considerable cost) to do all the reprogramming; or
  2. Enter changes manually and fuck over public servants for the next 18 months; or
  3. Bring COBOL programmers out of the retirement/bribe them to come back (at considerable cost) to train existing employees to program existing databases; or
  4. Start the migration to a new system which will involve considerable costs in terms of programming, retraining, and ultimately screw over public servants for awhile. Hence the $177 million pricetag.

And Canadians, don’t think we’re immune. COBOL was invented in 1959 and popularized in the 1960s and the 1970s. A lot of agencies and organizations use it to manage various systems. And nobody programs in COBOL any more.

Migrations are problematic. What you have to do, according to Darren (who actually went a bit pale when he was telling me about this) is you have to set up a new, empty system while you’re still running the old one. Then you have to get a program to translate the old data into a format the new system can understand. Then you migrate it and lock the old system so its read only. Its not reasonable to have two live, parallel systems because people will make changes in both and then they won’t match up.

BUT (and this is the big one where technology and sociology collide), you haven’t trained anyone on the new system because you can’t until its live.

So you bring in people to train the people (accountants, human resources, purchasers, etc.) so that the new system can be used. And people might get their paycheques on time.

There’s a term in the technology sector for this: clusterfuck.

So, if you know COBOL or are otherwise a legacy systems archaeologist, the state of California may be interested in talking to you.

Cross-posted at Wet Coast Women.

August 2008


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