Discover your dream Career
For Recruiters

“Most banks have systems written in COBOL, RPG, assembler”

If anyone knows about the tribulations of working with legacy systems in banking, it’s Richard Hawkins, the former chief information officer for Europe at HSBC. Hawkins spent 17 years at the British bank, before officially leaving this April. He’s now working as a consultant, helping banks navigate legacy technology issues and regularly requirements.

Most banks have a lot of legacy technology, says Hawkins – especially in transactional areas like payments, current accounts and basic products like loans. These systems are the “backbone of banking services,” says Hawkins. Because they’re part of the core product and involve “years and years of evolved build,” moving away from them is often hugely risky, and hugely costly.

If you work in banking technology, this means you have a strong chance of coming across systems written in languages that most developers had consigned to the grave. “There are systems that have evolved over 20-30-40 years written in things like COBOL, RPG and assembler,” says Hawkins, referring to languages dating back to the mid-1950s. “Some of that code will have been written 40 years ago, although it’s continuously refreshed.”

Developers who take jobs in banking expecting exposure to cutting edge systems, can therefore be disappointed. “Graduates are often keen to do the sexy digital stuff and to work with new technologies,” says Hawkins. However, he says that working with legacy technology isn’t always as bad as people think. - Legacy systems can give you a really good understanding of the business, and understanding them can make you indispensable as banks seek to modernise.

“Everything in a bank is end-to-end,” says Hawkins. “From the front end, where you’re dealing with the customer, through to the back-end processing. Even if you’re working on a legacy system you’ll therefore be interacting with other elements of technology and will often be adapting the product to suit customers’ evolving needs. Working on legacy systems can therefore give you a great deal of insight into the business.”

Understanding legacy systems can also make you invaluable to banks considering a merger, says Hawkins. “Migrating the tech is often a significant consideration in any acquisition as banks consider potential cost efficiencies.”

In theory, it should be possible to rearchitect legacy systems. In fact, Hawkins says the costs can often be prohibitive, at least in the short term. “The return on investment is often very poor, making it difficult to overcome the investment hurdle.” This is compounded by the fact that the systems themselves are often very complex and “like technical archeology,” says Hawkins. To improve upon them, you need to understand them deeply and to either seek to replicate or to simplify them. Both are highly specialist skills.

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: in the first instance. Whatsapp/Signal/Telegram also available. Bear with us if you leave a comment at the bottom of this article: all our comments are moderated by human beings. Sometimes these humans might be asleep, or away from their desks, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. Eventually it will – unless it’s offensive or libelous (in which case it won’t.)

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ke
    29 May 2021

    Another question is what is the operating system? Not just the language. Transitioning to completely new branch hardware / software and the same for ATM's pose a massive problem that can not be taken lightly.

  • Di
    26 May 2021

    first paragraph, last sentence, "regularly requirements", should be "regulation requirements".

  • Ni
    Nicolas Bourbaki
    25 May 2021

    There are plenty of people who started coding in the 80/90s in assembly, and who learnt Cobol at univ, who are on the job market.

    There are two problems for the banks still using those systems:
    1. How much they are willing to pay for such skills (I have never seen an advert asking for Cobol skills, let alone a good salary and career prospects wanting me to apply)
    2. How much they are willing to spend to not address the fundamental of moving forward? (yes, it has a cost, but the technical debt is humongous).

    There real issue is that people managing the teams on these systems are political dinosaurs who are just waiting to go to retirement, and that the redundancy package would be probably much bigger than hiring a good team willing to do the job properly, once and for all.

Sign up to our Newsletter

The essential daily roundup of news and analysis read by everyone from senior bankers and traders to new recruits.

Boost your career

Find thousands of job opportunities by signing up to eFinancialCareers today.
Latest Jobs
Goodman Masson
Bid Manager
Goodman Masson
London, United Kingdom
McCabe & Barton
Senior Software Engineer 12 month FTC
McCabe & Barton
London, United Kingdom
McCabe & Barton
C# Developer - 12 month FTC
McCabe & Barton
London, United Kingdom

Sign up to our Newsletter

The essential daily roundup of news and analysis read by everyone from senior bankers and traders to new recruits.