Survey: Cobol noose tightening

Six years after Computerworld first surveyed its readers about their use of Cobol, the installed code base for the 50-year old language hasn't changed much. But the impending talent crisis appears to be hitting home in more organizations.

This spring Computerworld conducted a follow up Cobol survey, which ran with our recent story, Brain Drain: Where Cobol systems go from here. But we didn't have room to talk about the change in attitudes about Cobol in the six years since our original 2006 survey came out.

As the aging base of Cobol programmers prepares to retire, businesses need to bring in a new generation of Cobol programmers sooner rather than later, so that they can train them on the business logic behind those programs before that knowledge walks out the door forever. Most have yet to do that.

In both surveys Computerworld asked readers who manage application development or maintenance in their organizations about their use of and plans for Cobol. In 2006 352 readers responded. This year we had 208 responses. Here's how their responses changed from then to now:

The number of companies that say their Cobol programming talent is graying has increased sharply.

Age of Cobol programmers

Base for 2012 survey: 208 responses. For 2006: 219 responses.

The number or organizations experiencing a shortage in talent has jumped.

Shortage of Cobol programmers

Base for 2012 survey: 131 responses. For 2006: 219 responses. 

On the one hand, organizations aren't relying on Cobol as much as they used to.


Base for 2012 survey: 131 responses. For 2006: 352 responses.

On the other hand, most organizations say that more than half of their internally developed business applications still remain in Cobol.


Base for 2012 survey: 131 responses. For 2006: 219 responses. 

 ...and they're still writing new business applications in Cobol.

Use Cobol for new business apps

Base for 2012 survey: 131 responses. For 2006: 219 responses. 

Outsourcing firms are available to maintain and develop new Cobol programs, but IT managers are strongly opposed to outsourcing the work. One possible reason: The core business applications written in Cobol include business logic that runs the business, and that may give the business a competitive advantage. Few organizations want to outsource that.

Outsourcing Cobol maintenance
Outsource Cobol development

Base for questions above: 2012 survey, 131 responses. For 2006, 219 responses.

Organizations that still rely on Cobol will need to:

  • Get busy transitioning Cobol to modern object oriented languages running on distributed computing platforms (which may not be feasible due to time and ROI constraints),
  • Start training replacements who can work side-by-side with the current programming staff to learn the business logic (a process programmers say can take a year or more), or
  • Procrastinate. Wait until those people retire, bring in the replacements and hope they can hire back the retired employees at $125 per hour to impart that institutional knowledge after the fact. 

Note: The original charts that accompanied this blog used accurate data but the scale was out whack, which tended to distort the differences between the bars. All charts have since been updated.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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