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Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, so may 50 years of business processes within the software they created. Will you be ready?

May 21, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - David Brown is worried. As managing director of the IT transformation group at Bank of New York Mellon, he is responsible for the health and welfare of 112,500 Cobol programs -- 343 million lines of code -- that run core banking and other operations. But many of the people who built that code base, some of which dates back to Cobol's early days in the 1960s, will be retiring over the next several years.

"We have people we will be losing who have a lot of business knowledge. That scares me," Brown says. He's concerned about finding new Cobol programmers, who are expected to be in short supply in the next five to 10 years. But what really keeps him up at night is the thought that he may not be able to transfer the deep understanding of the business logic embedded within the bank's programs before it walks out the door with employees who retire.

More than 50 years after Cobol came on the scene, the language is alive and well in the world's largest corporations, where it excels at executing large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframes. The language is known for its scalability, performance and mathematical accuracy. But as the boomer generation prepares to check out of the workforce, IT executives are taking a fresh look at their options.

In a recent Computerworld survey of 357 IT professionals, 46% of the respondents said they are already noticing a Cobol programmer shortage, while 50% said the average age of their Cobol staff is 45 or older and 22% said the age is 55 or older.

"Organizations are trying not to get backed into a corner because of the skills issue," says Paul Vallely, mainframe sales director at software vendor Compuware. "I haven't seen companies move off mainframes due to the Cobol skills shortage yet, but it's looming."

For Bank of New York Mellon, which bought its first mainframe in 1955, keeping the core Cobol applications that run the business on the mainframe makes sense. Modernization efforts have made BNY Mellon's Cobol-based programs more accessible through the use of Web services and up-to-date user interfaces.

But for some noncore applications, and for smaller workloads, organizations have been gradually migrating off of mainframes -- and away from Cobol. In several cases, Cobol programs are simply rehosted on Linux or Windows servers; in other cases, they're rewritten in object-oriented languages; and some programs are being replaced with packaged software.

"Over the past five years, there has been an acceleration of [some] businesses moving off host platforms," says Adam Burden, global application modernization lead at Accenture. That often means leaving Cobol behind by either rewriting it for J2EE or .Net or moving to packaged software.

Cobol Training

Closing the talent gap

Where do you find Cobol programmers these days? College graduates with Cobol training are in short supply. In Michigan, for example, state schools that offer Cobol programming education have cancelled classes because of a lack of interest. "They can't get anyone to enroll," says Jonathan Miller, director of information systems and services for the government of Michigan's Saginaw County. But some colleges are still providing Cobol training -- with help from IBM. The mainframe vendor has developed curricula in association with more than 80 colleges and universities ranging from Brigham Young to Texas A&M.

"We donate hardware and software, help with the curriculum, and they graduate hundreds of people every year," says Kevin Stoodley, an IBM fellow and CTO.

Guardian Life Insurance has recruited Cobol programmers from Workforce Opportunity Services, a nonprofit that collaborates with business clients and local colleges to train economically disadvantaged students to work in less popular technology disciplines such as Cobol programming. "They take kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods and provide them as consultants," says former Guardian CIO Frank Wander, who now has his own consultancy, IT Excellence Institute.

"It's sort of a work-study program. We have over 200 consultants today in five states, and we're expanding," says Workforce founder Art Langer.

BNY Mellon and many other organizations also increasingly rely on outsourcers to pick up maintenance and support duties. But for many users, an offshore locale is not the place to keep the institutional knowledge of the business rules behind the code. David Brown, managing director of BNY Mellon's IT transformation group, says the bank wants those skills in-house. Fortunately, it's not all that difficult to cross-train programmers in Cobol. "Right now, it's pretty easy to hire programmers. And if they understand Java, I can bring them back to procedural languages like Cobol," Brown says. The trick is to develop a curriculum that teaches not just Cobol, but the business rules behind the code that runs the company, he says, adding, "We need to make sure we can roll that forward."

— Robert L. Mitchell

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