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Where are the Old Geeks

Did They Just Fade Away?

By: Skip Stein


Almost everyone recognizes the term ‘Geek’ as one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things technical. This no longer refers to the ‘bespeckled scientist’ in a white lab coat with a pocket protector’! It now refers to just about anyone who loves and uses electronic gadgets and is consumed by new technology; computers, cell phones, PDA’s, home electronics, home automation etc.


This moniker seems to have started to apply to anyone in the Information Technology (IT) Field; programmers, systems analysts, computer operators, etc. These IT professionals soon began to wear this nickname as a badge of honor. Once derided as shy and retiring ‘Brianiacs’, these Geeks have created an entire professional industry dealing with all things electronic computer chip related. This includes almost every appliance and electrical device in use today, from the car you drive and the washing machine to the cell phone. I won’t even discuss the advanced aerospace and defense industry; those guys are the OberGeeks who still do wear white coats and pocket protectors; those geniuses that make the Space Shuttle Fly and Rockets hit the correct targets on the battlefield.


We all recognize the current youth centric ‘geek’ wandering the isles of CompUSA, BestBuy and the rest. The cell phone belted and blue-tooth wearing young people texting away about who knows what. They have created an entire vocabulary and abbreviation system to communicate with each other. This is a more recent phenomenon; and they run the computer systems, server farms and networks supporting today’s American industry.


The question is what ever happened to the original pioneers of Geekdom; those who created the industry of Computer Professionals. Where are those COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) and PL/I programmers who worked with behemoth machines that filled basement rooms of financial institutions and industrial complexes? Where are those number crunching, disk spinning, console jockeys who ran and continue to run the nations computer centric business and institutional mainframe computer systems?


Well, many are retired or close to retiring. Most are still out there, now managing their own companies or consulting with Fortune whatever companies. Many hold responsible and senior positions in almost every industry. Others are just trying to make a living like so many of us; reporting to work every day, ensuring that the balance sheets balance, that the banking debits and credits debit and credit, and the ATM’s work.


These older Geeks hold the business and systems knowledge developed and integrated into computer systems for the past 50 years. Some estimates indicate that there could still be somewhere around a Trillion lines of COBOL, PL/I and other older code still active in the world today. That’s a lot of code.


Gone is Grace Hopper, that feisty Admiral who practically invented COBOL. What a wonderful woman she was! Gone are the design and development standards that created the business systems still running today. These systems just run; much like the energizer bunny, they just keep running and running. That is why they are still active and continue to process the bulk of the worlds financial and operational business systems. They were ‘ultra reliable’ because that was how they were built.


Today, we embrace a technology and development platform that so frequently fails that the term “Control, Alt, Delete” is part of our every day language; worldwide! The business users understand what ‘bounce the server’ means (it means re-boot to correct a failure!); because it happens so often. Mainframe based systems have to be scheduled in advanced (often weeks!) before they are ‘bounced’ or re-initialized. The ultra-reliable performance based systems developed in past years were designed for stability, reliability and performance. Today’s systems, not so much.


Today’s systems are much easier to use; more ‘user friendly’ with the graphical user interface (GUI). They integrate into the World Wide Web, which is fast becoming a singular global intelligence. The systems of today are orders of magnitude more complex and contain multiples of what the old code base contains, but are they as stable? They are also vulnerable to virus and hacker attacks; security is often not in the basic design; but considered an ‘add on’ shell or feature that often fails.


Combine the old COBOL and PL/I and other older code sets with today’s web based and JAVA code, not to mention the ‘firmware’ code that make the computer processors function, we may have two or three trillion lines of code in the world today.


Maintaining these systems is the world of Geekdom. The world relies on our Geeks to keep the systems and infrastructure running. We can no longer survive without computer systems or the Geeks who maintain them. Don’t tell the Geeks, they are happy with the technology.


This is where the Old Geeks are a critical resource. Their experience with systems in general and the older systems in particular is critical to the world wide infrastructure that they continue to maintain. We can’t ignore this. It is just a simple fact, that as the Old Geeks retire, we must either train new Geeks in the old code structure or replace a trillion lines of code with new computer programmed systems.


Who will do this? Who will manage these massive combined hardware and software engineering projects? Who has the knowledge and understanding of what these older systems even do? The Old Geeks do; that’s who! These experienced technology professionals remaining in the workforce have the ability and understanding to help create new, reliable and stable systems. We must change our attitude and acceptance of the ‘Ctl/Alt/Del’ world. We must have reliable ‘bullet proof’ systems to run the Nation’s infrastructure (roads, railways, utilities, power plants) as well as financial systems and world wide communications.


Eventually it must be done. At what cost? It will make the ‘Y2K’ software fix seem like a dime store project. It will also take time! Time is a luxury that many of the intellectual resources, our Old Geeks, do not have in abundance. And it will take money; big buck$. In many cases some of the Old Geeks will have to be coaxed off the gold course and back to the world of computers they either left or were forced to leave.


We need their experience and understanding of the computing process. These Old Geeks understand how the computer technology systems were and are developed; they lived the experience. They have the background and knowledge in developing stable, reliable computer architecture. They can train and lead.


So, where does that leave us? Do we wait until these older systems fail due to the demands of a changing business process infrastructure that they were never designed to manage? Do we wait until they fail, due to modifications that are not compatible with their basic design and structure? Do we wait until there is no one left to maintain them and the cost of maintenance and infrastructure support force a migration? Or should we plan now to utilize the experienced resources that are still available and develop a road-map to replace the older technology with a flexible, but stable and reliable technology that the Old Geeks understand and can deliver?


Experience Counts! Let it count for the Old Geeks who still have much to contribute. American industry can not afford to wait until the Old Geeks are no more!