Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, 50 years of business processes encapsulated in the software they created may follow.

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A legacy continues

Is there a role for Cobol off the mainframe? "I don't believe there is. Cobol and the mainframe run well together, and that's where I want to keep it," says Brown of BNY Mellon. But the bank is still creating new Cobol components on the mainframe, and it will continue to do so.

That's a common sentiment among Accenture's large corporate customers, says Burden. Cobol will continue its gradual decline as midrange systems are retired and businesses continue to modernize legacy Cobol code or move to packaged software. Today, Cobol is no longer the strategic language on which a company builds new applications. But it still represents the "family jewels" of many organizations, Burden says. "They're enhancing existing applications and adding functionality to them," he says. "I've seen no slowdown in those activities."

Cobol

If companies can't find talent to keep that infrastructure going, third-party service providers such as Accenture are ready, says Burden. The scale of Accenture's support operation is large enough to provide a career track for Cobol programmers, and he notes that it's easy to cross-train programmers on the language. "We can turn out new programmers quickly. So if clients can't support Cobol, we will," he says.

"People make too much of that trend that we're not graduating enough Cobol programmers," says IBM's Stoodley. Preserving the institutional knowledge is what's critical. "You can make a problem for yourself if you don't keep your team vibrant," he says. But as long as there's a demand for it, "businesses will find people willing to work on Cobol."

Cobol may have been created for simpler times in application development, but it remains the bedrock of many IT infrastructures. "You have to respect the architecture of Cobol," Burden says. "I don't see that changing for another 10 years, or even longer."

Next: Full Cobol survey results

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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