The top 10 dead (or dying) computer skills

Are your skills in need of upgrading?

Those in search of eternal life need look no further than the computer industry. Here, last gasps are rarely taken, as aging systems crank away in back rooms across the U.S., not unlike 1970s reruns on Nickelodeon's TV Land. So while it may not be exactly easy for Novell NetWare engineers and OS/2 administrators to find employers who require their services, it's very difficult to declare these skills -- or any computer skill, really -- dead. (Readers have their own views on dead and dying skills. Others offer their own suggestions for the pyre.)

In fact, the harder you try to declare a technology dead, it seems, the more you turn up evidence of its continuing existence. Nevertheless, after speaking with several industry stalwarts, we've compiled a list of skills and technologies that, while not dead, can perhaps be said to be in the process of dying. Or as Stewart Padveen, Internet entrepreneur and currently founder of AdPickles Inc., says, "Obsolescence is a relative -- not absolute -- term in the world of technology."

Don't miss this update, 8 Hottest Skills for '08.

1. Cobol

Y2k was like a second gold rush for Cobol programmers who were seeing dwindling need for their skills. But six-and-a-half years later, there's no savior in sight for this fading language. At the same time, while there's little curriculum coverage anymore at universities teaching computer science, "when you talk to practitioners, they'll say there are applications in thousands of organizations that have to be maintained," says Heikki Topi, chair of computer information services at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., and a member of the education board for the Association for Computing Machinery.

And for those who want to help do that, you can actually learn Cobol at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, which according to Mary Sumner, a professor there, still offers a Cobol course. "Two of the major employers in the area still use Cobol, and for many of their entry-level jobs, they want to see that on the transcript," she says. "Until that changes, we'd be doing the students a disservice by not offering it." (see also: "Cobol Coders: Going, Going, Gone? ")

2. Nonrelational DBMS

In the 1980s, there were two major database management systems approaches: hierarchical systems, such as IBM's IMS and SAS Institute Inc.'s System 2000, and network DBMS, such as CA's IDMS and Oracle Corp.'s DBMS, formerly the VAX DBMS. Today, however, both have been replaced by the relational DBMS approach, embodied by SQL databases such as DB2, Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server, says Topi. "The others are rarely covered anymore in database curricula," he says.

3. Non-IP networks

TCP/IP has largely taken over the networking world, and as a result, there's less demand than ever for IBM Systems Network Architecture (SNA) skills. "It's worth virtually nothing on the market," says David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn. Foote tracks market pay for individual IT skills, which companies usually pay as a lump sum or a percentage of workers' base pay, either as a bonus or an adjustment to their base salary. SNA, Foote says, commands less than 1% premium pay. "It's like a penny from 1922 -- there has to be someone who wants to buy it."

Despite the fact that many banks, insurance firms and other companies still have large investments in SNA networks, the educational offerings in this area are also rare, according to Topi. "The dominant model of protocols is TCP/IP and the Internet technologies," he says.

4. cc:Mail

This store-and-forward LAN-based e-mail system from the 1980s was once used by about 20 million people. However, as e-mail was integrated into more-complex systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, its popularity waned, and in 2000, it was withdrawn from the market. According to Foote, "cc:Mail is a bygone era. Now e-mail is tied into everything else, and cc:Mail didn't make that leap." Just the same, the product continues to be commercially supported by Global System Services Corp. in Mountain View, Calif.

5. ColdFusion

This once-popular Web programming language -- released in the mid-1990s by Allaire Corp. (which was later purchased by Macromedia Inc., which itself was acquired by Adobe Systems Inc.) -- has since been superseded by other development platforms, including Microsoft Corp.'s Active Server Pages and .Net, as well as Java, Ruby on Rails, Python, PHP and other open-source languages. Debates continue over whether ColdFusion is as robust and scalable as its competitors, but nevertheless, premiums paid for ColdFusion programmers have dropped way off, according to Foote. "It was really popular at one time, but the market is now crowded with other products," he says.

6. C programming

As the Web takes over, C languages are also becoming less relevant, according to Padveen. "C++ and C Sharp are still alive and kicking, but try to find a basic C-only programmer today, and you'll likely find a guy that's unemployed and/or training for a new skill," he says. (see also: "Hot Skills, Cold Skills ")

7. PowerBuilder

Recruiters that have been around since the 1990s, such as David Hayes, president of HireMinds LLC in Cambridge, Mass., remember when PowerBuilder programmers were "hot, hot, hot," as he says. Developed by Powersoft Inc., this client/server development tool in 1994 was bought by Sybase Inc., which was once a strong Oracle competitor.

Today, PowerBuilder developers are at the very bottom of the list of in-demand application development and platform skills, with pay about equal to Cobol programmers, according to Foote. Nevertheless, the product keeps on trucking, with PowerBuilder 11 expected this year, which has the ability to generate .Net code. (see also: "35 Technologies that shaped the industry ")

8. Certified NetWare Engineers

In the early 1990s, it was all the rage to become a Certified NetWare Engineer, especially with Novell Inc. enjoying 90% market share for PC-based servers. Today, however, you don't have to look far to find CNEs retraining themselves with other skills to stay marketable. "It seems like it happened overnight," Hayes says. "Everyone had Novell, and within a two-year period, they'd all switched to NT." Novell says it will continue supporting NetWare 6.5 through at least 2015; however, it has also retired several of its NetWare certifications, including Master CNE and NetWare 5 CNE, and it plans to retire NetWare 6 CNE. "Companies are still paying skill premiums for CNEs, but they're losing value," Foote says.

9. PC network administrators

With the accelerating move to consolidate Windows servers, some see substantially less demand for PC network administrators. "You see the evidence for that in the demise of those programs at the technical and two-year schools and the loss of instructors," says Nate Viall, president of Nate Viall & Associates, an AS/400 (iSeries) recruiting company.

10. OS/2

A rough translation of OS/2 could be "wrong horse." Initially created by Microsoft and IBM and released with great fanfare in 1987, the collaboration soon unraveled, and after repeated rumors of its demise, IBM finally discontinued sales in 2005. OS/2 still has a dedicated community, however, and a company called Serenity Systems International still sells the operating system under the name eComStation. (see also: "IBM, Bankers at Odds Over OS/2 Migration Path ")

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