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Hope Is Not a Plan for Insurance IT Leaders

Rob McIsaac | March 24, 2015

As Baby Boomer COBOL programmers increasingly have the opportunity to say “bon voyage” to working 9-5 and retire, some insurance IT executives are having restless nights trying to figure out how they are going to address the resulting brain drain. Not only are insurers losing vast amounts of programming knowledge, but they are losing vital business knowledge as well.

Documentation on aging systems in many cases is more akin to tribal knowledge than a true knowledge management “system”, and the potential for things to go bump in the night increases as these environments face generational transition. For example, one CIO recently shared a story about the transition of responsibilities for running an annual production job from one retiring individual to another programmer. The transition involved, by definition, a year between education and execution. And what was the final result?

A minor error sent an entire production run of annual statements, totaling 400,000 documents, to a single address! Somehow “oops” fails to capture the full magnitude of such an event.

The insurance industry isn’t the only sector trying to figure out what they are going to do next. Banking, retail, manufacturers and even the federal government will be looking to find new sources for COBOL talent as the generational transition accelerates. As of 2015, 10,000 boomers achieve retirement eligibility daily, so the issue won’t resolve itself easily or quickly. This will be the pattern until 2029, so “hope is not a plan” may have never been a more appropriate sentiment.

With such a competitive marketplace to find COBOL programmers what can you do? Three options immediately present themselves:

  • Move off big iron platforms dependent on COBOL, Assembler, VSAM and related technologies
  • Find COBOL programmers offshore
  • Leverage COBOL programs at local universities

For many entities, the first option really isn’t feasible based on economic factors alone. The business case for converting old blocks of business can be weak at best, leading carriers to conclude that these systems will be running for the foreseeable future in tandem with more modern capabilities designed to handle new products, channels, and priorities.

The second and third options, however, can offer some immediate relief for these legacy programming needs. I’m pretty sure most people have a good handle on offshore providers, but some IT executives may not be familiar with the third option.

Currently, I’m on the Advisory Board for the Computer Science and Engineering Department at North Carolina State University which provides some interesting visibility into both the demand and the development of new onshore resources. We are certainly seeing training programs emerge that are intended to restock some of the lost talent in this space. We are also seeing some fascinating collaborations between educational institutions, private enterprises and technology providers as they look to address gaps.

One example of this is a collaboration between IBM, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina. BC/BS has the need, USC has the capacity to train, and IBM has been an active participant in framing the curriculum and capabilities. Other examples are emerging as well, which provide an opportunity to collaborate with either traditional colleges and universities as well as technical schools. Junior/community colleges may also provide some interesting options. We also understand that some companies are reverting to a tried and true technique deployed in the 1960’s: internal development programs to build new skills around aging technologies.

At the end of the day, if the only tool a CIO has in the toolkit is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In this case, it is incumbent on CIO’s to develop a broader set of tools that can allow them to creatively and effectively build up the talent pool required to keep aging platforms and systems functional until such time as they can be retired. The reality for many mid-career CIO’s today is that these platforms may still be running after they retire, so considering the options sooner rather than later may minimize pain points.

If you would like to learn more, or share your own experiences in this potentially mission critical area, please feel free to contact me via email.


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