By Michelle V. Rafter
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org .
Last September, Brian Boyer celebrated turning 60 by retiring after a long career at Citibank /zigman2/quotes/200594362/composite CIT +0.67% starting as a software programmer and ending as a tech project manager. He couldn’t have known he’d be back in the digital trenches six months later, putting his skills to use fighting the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Boyer, of Key West, Fla., is one of a legion of software developers and tech talent over 50 who’ve answered the call to remotely volunteer or work for pay on older government computer systems overloaded by the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.
“I’m learning a bunch, doing a bunch, and pushing myself, which is fun,” Boyer said.
He’s part of a generation —make that two generations — of coders who can still program in computer languages like COBOL that are no longer taught by most college computer science departments or in coding bootcamps. Though these languages might seem antiquated, they continue to power everything from computer systems some states use to process unemployment benefits to ATMs.
In the weeks since the coronavirus has spread throughout the country, hundreds of older coders proficient in COBOL, .net, Linux and other languages have come out of retirement or otherwise stepped forward to help. Some are doing so through public-interest technology initiatives such as U.S. Digital Response and Code for America. According to job board Indeed.com, full-time jobs for programmers who know COBOL pay $30 to $70 an hour or more.
Calling all COBOL programmers
Mainframe companies also have responded to states’ call for help by making it easier for men and women with COBOL skills to share what they know. Less than a month after IBM /zigman2/quotes/203856914/composite IBM +0.98% launched its Calling All COBOL Programmers forum, asking coders to post their profiles, more than 1,610 have signed up, according to spokeswoman Elizabeth Banta.
The Gainesville, Texas-based job placement agency Cobol Cowboys has been overrun with recent requests from programmers in their 40s, 50s and older to be added to its pool of people available for paid private- or public-sector work.
Co-owners Bill and Eileen Hinshaw named the firm after “Space Cowboys,” the 2000 movie about four retired astronauts who rocket into space to repair aging equipment). They’ve recently had so many inquiries, they posted a message to the firm’s LinkedIn page asking applicants to be patient while they work through the backlog.
Cobol Cowboys has around 350 coders in its database. The average age of the independent contractors they work with is 45 to 60.
“Our goal is pretty simple,” said CEO Bill Hinshaw. “People who started in the IT [information technology] business in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — we want to reward them and help them earn a little money.”
In the initial months after Boyer retired, he did some volunteering, including helping low-wage earners file their tax returns and assisting students who have reading disabilities. When shelter in place orders put an end to volunteering in person, Boyer looked for other ways to contribute.
Buckling state agency computer systems
That was just as U.S. companies began shutting down and laying off millions of workers, inundating state employment departments with new benefits claims. States sent out virtual flares for help when their older computer systems and online and phone-based processes began to buckle.