North Dakota needed to hire Latvians to manage an ancient state computer system

So few people have an expertise in the inner-workings of 1980s mainframe computers that state officials had to look overseas to the eastern European country of Latvia to find a pair of programmers to maintain the state’s ancient technology.

In an effort to modernize North Dakota’s outdated mainframes and improve other technology programs, Gov. Doug Burgum earmarked nearly $105 million for information technology projects in the budget he proposed this month. Specifically, North Dakota’s unemployment insurance program runs on a dated mainframe, and Burgum said it has been costly to maintain the old technology.

“(T)he current unemployment insurance mainframe has been miraculously patched together, at considerable cost, to get us through the pandemic surge, but this 1980s technology is beyond end of life and is almost impossible to manage,” Burgum wrote in his proposal summary.

Part of the “considerable cost” Burgum references is the hiring of the Latvian contractors, who are some of the few people in the world who can still manage the intricacies of the mainframe, said Duane Schell, chief technology officer for the North Dakota Information Technology Department.

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“This particular skill set has been diminishing in popularity for quite some time and doesn’t have a whole lot of skilled workforce in the United States in this space,” Schell said. “Ironically, Europe still uses this. They’ve got a little bit more of this (technology) in use in this era, specifically Latvia.”

Schell said a college in Latvia still teaches a curriculum on this outdated programming language, so North Dakota opted to hire two Latvians to help manage and maintain the state’s unemployment insurance mainframe.

Schell compared the old technology to a classic car. An older car can still get a person from one place to another, but modern cars are much more efficient and cost-effective than classic cars, which often need specialty parts or extra maintenance.

“We’re constantly trying to make sure we’re providing the right technology, the modern technology, that drives efficient and effective government, and ultimately serves the citizens,” Schell said. “When you aren’t keeping up with your technology, it puts us in this position where we’re seeking globally for particular skill sets, which is a challenge.”

In Burgum’s proposed budget, he highlighted that the state’s system for processing payments for foster care and adoption providers is also outdated, as is the Department of Transportation’s Roadway Information Management System. Burgum said it’s important to update these systems to protect information from hackers and outside attacks.

“We have kicked this IT replacement can down the road for decades,” Burgum wrote. “There is not much can left to kick, and we’ve run out of road. The perpetually deferred replacement of these 30- to 40-year-old systems increases both cost and risk to the state and our citizens. We must act now to protect citizens and their information.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at [email protected].

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