In looking around the conservative commentary, as well as various other comments highlighted by various news media, I’ve been seeing a constant refrain of “it was built with 10-year-old technology!” with the strong connotations that it was “obsolete” and of course private business would never be caught out like that! One of the amusing (to me) comments was this one:
“I have never seen a website — in the last five years — require you to delete the cache in an effort to resolve errors,” said Dan Schuyler, a director at Leavitt Partners, a health care group by former Health and Human Services secretary Mike Leavitt. “This is a very early Web 1.0 type of fix.”
He apparently doesn’t browse the web much. I do, and you know what? It’s amazing how many sites ask you to do that when something … doesn’t work. Amazon, Microsoft, Adobe, and a number of others have all suggested that as a “fix” for a problem I’ve had on their websites, within the past three months. So pardon me if I take that statement with a grain of salt. I also take a great deal of issue with the idea that private business is “more up-to-date” than the public sector.
Why? Because I’ve worked in the private sector. In a previous post, I talked about how many businesses Microsoft estimates are still using XP – almost a third of them. The New York Times, in their throwing out the figure of “500 million lines of code” for public consumption, mentioned banking software as being much “more compact” with few lines of code. What they didn’t know, or mention? Most banks – in fact a great deal of the financial sector – tends to run code that’s …. 30+ years old. Yes, that’s right, it was written in COBOL back in the 70’s, and early 80’s. They still use the same code, with some new “front ends” wrapped around it. Why? Because it’s insanely expensive to “rewrite from scratch” using a “modern language.” It’s cheaper for them to recompile it for each new generation of computers, along with making a few tweaks here and there to it.
Walk through most private businesses, and the odds are you’ll find that many of the computers are “not new.” The first reason for that? Financial. Besides the acquisition cost, there’s a depreciation schedule. It’s been accelerated for computers, but the core reality is that it still takes time to depreciate them “off the books.” A second reason comes down to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They have no reason to replace a computer that’s still performing adequately. There’s no “business case” for many of them to run out and buy the hottest new one on the market. A third reason has to do with the software. Anyone who ever tried to run an old DOS program on Windows, or a Windows 95 program on Windows 7 can attest to the “compatibility issue.” That is, it may not – and often won’t – work. Which may be a minor annoyance for you personally, but it’s a major headache when it relates to the software your business relies on for its daily operations. If my business relies on “Bookkeeper 5” and it doesn’t run on Windows 8, I’m not going to go to Windows 8. Maybe the next generation of that program will, but right now, I’m going to sit right where I am. The last reason is that it costs a lot to migrate to the next generation. Not just the computer purchases, but you have to also train your people in the new systems, and migrate all your critical business data over to it. It’s a major pain in the ass, and it’s expensive in lost time and productivity.
So the government isn’t really any different from private business, when it comes to “10 year old technology.” It’s misleading. If you thought that businesses are “more up to date,” you haven’t been around them very much. They’re just as prone to having it as the government, and for the same reason: Until there was a reason to change to newer, it wasn’t necessary. Of course, if they had done it “just because,” we’d be hearing conservatives screaming about “government waste.”