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Cobol Coders: Going, Going, Gone?

Many IT managers slowly migrating away from Cobol wonder whether they'll run out of Cobol programmers before they run out of Cobol code.

By Gary Anthes
October 9, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Cobol, that mainstay of business programming throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, is not going away anytime soon. In a Computerworld survey early this year of IT managers at 352 companies, 62% of the respondents reported that they actively use Cobol. Of those, three quarters said they use it “a lot” and 58% said they’re using it to develop new applications.

Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, companies aren’t enthusiastically expanding their use of Cobol. In the survey, of those who use Cobol, 36% said they are “gradually migrating away” from it, 16% said they will replace it “every chance we get,” and 25% said they’d like to replace Cobol with something else but have found that too difficult or too expensive.

The persistence of Cobol — welcome or not — presents a dilemma for many companies. Their legacy code will require significant resources for years to come, yet younger software developers often don’t want to work with Cobol, and in most cases, they’re no longer learning it in school. And while there are thousands of Cobol coders still in the workplace, a large percentage of them are nearing retirement age.

In the Computerworld survey, 45% of the respondents whose organizations use Cobol said their ability to hire Cobol programmers was either “worse” or “much worse” than their ability to hire programmers for modern languages such as Visual Basic, C++ and Java.

Companies are dealing with the squeeze between supply and demand in a variety of ways. Some outsource Cobol work, some bring in contract Cobol programmers, and others find clever ways to motivate their cadres of Cobol coders. A number of organizations have found that the best way to keep Cobol programmers happy is to get them to focus on the applications and end users, not the technology.

Whether through devotion to duty, an interest in the applications or just plain inertia, many Cobol programmers seem happy with their lot — or so say their bosses. In the survey, asked if it’s hard to motivate programmers to use Cobol, 32% of IT managers whose organizations use Cobol said yes, and 64% said no.

Cobol Goes to Court

Terry Walker, manager of application development at the Connecticut Judicial Branch, says she worries about running out of available Cobol people before she’s able to migrate systems to newer technology. Walker has a software development and maintenance budget of $4.5 million a year and a development staff of 50, with 15 devoted exclusively to Cobol. The state agency’s payroll, human resources and other administrative systems are written in Cobol, as are the judicial applications for its civil and criminal courts and child protection department.

Are you noticing a shortage of Cobol programming skills in the labor market?
 Yes - 36%
 No - 26%
 Not today, but expecting a shortage in the next five years. - 27%
 Don't Know - 11%

What's the average age of your current, in-house Cobol programmers?
 25-35 years of age - 5%
 35-45 - 34%
 45-55 - 52%
 55+ - 7%
 We don't have any Cobol programmers - 2%
 Don't know - 1%

What's the average age of Cobol programmers hired by your company in the past 12 months?
 25-35 years of age - 9%
 35-45 - 24%
 45-55 - 13%
 55+ - 3%
 We don't have any Cobol programmers - 47%
 Don't know - 5%

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