Beat the clock

They should feel a bit cheered to know that the Veterans Affairs Department's Austin
Automation Center in Texas already has finished converting 1 million lines of its
mission-critical Cobol code for about 80 cents a line. That's lower than many industry
estimates we've been hearing.


Per-line costs can be misleading, because they're averages. Code conversion costs more
if the code is complex, less if it's well-documented. The average per-line cost of the
VA's conversion project represented a lifecycle cost for everything done from the initial
inventory and analysis phases, through to the code-fixing and final test phases.


The VA's conversion contractor, CTA Inc. of Rockville, Md., used automated tools on
site under a fixed-price contract. More and more agencies and states seem to be going out
for fixed-price bids rather than time-and-materials contracts, CTA officials report, based
on the requests for proposals they've been seeing.


Even when automated tools are used, it's essential to have someone who thoroughly
understands the Cobol infrastructure watching every step of a conversion to ensure the
automated tool does the right things, said Carla von Bernewitz, year 2000 program manager
in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


"All the interoperability issues associated with which version of the compiler and
which libraries you've installed must be considered up front in the assessment"
before allowing changes to any application code, she said.


There's a common belief that mainframe Cobol experts will be earning spectacular
salaries a year or two from now. Does that mean U.S. Cobol programmers will come out of
retirement or put aside their new C language careers to lend a hand? Probably not.


Conversion companies have been setting up software factories in India and Pakistan,
which have no immediate shortage of inexpensive Cobol programmers. One ex-Cobol engineer
has even suggested just bundling up all the government's Cobol code and shipping it
overseas to be fixed. There's no sensitive data in source-code Cobol programs, he argued.


On Capitol Hill, an aide to Rep. Steve Horn (R.-Calif) said the foreign Cobol labor
issue has become a concern to Congress, but so is the cost of federal conversion,
"and we just haven't gotten to that bridge yet."


Perhaps only IRS officials can be confident of not being hurt by any nationwide
shortage of Cobol programmers. IRS has its own Cobol experts and no intention, or need, to
send its source code overseas.



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