The Cobol Brain Drain

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?

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The down economy has helped put off the inevitable, says Compuware's Vallely. "Economic issues provided everyone with a hall pass because not as many folks were looking to retire," he says. But as the economy improves, retirement plans may pick up too. "Organizations are trying to be more proactive," he adds.

"No other language has seen as big an impact from changes in the demographics of the workforce as has Cobol," Vecchio says. Going forward, it will become more difficult to maintain a Cobol portfolio. "The inflection point will come when enough Cobol programmers have retired that an organization can no longer tolerate the risk," he says. At that point, most of those programs will migrate -- but not all.

Rightsizing Cobol

For BNY Mellon, those Cobol batch and transaction processing programs on the mainframe represent an enormous investment. And while Gartner says it's technically possible to move individual mainframe workloads of up to 3,000 MIPS, the bank's aggregate workload, which relies heavily on Cobol, uses a total of 52,000 MIPS of horsepower, spans nine mainframes and is growing at a rate of 10% each year.

"The business wants us to make investments in programming that buys them new revenue. Rewriting an application doesn't buy them any value-add," Brown says.

Instead, the strategy is to "rightsize" some noncore applications off the mainframe where there's a business benefit, try to keep mainframe MIPS growth under 5%, and stay the course with the bank's core Cobol applications by passing on the business knowledge to younger programmers the bank will need to recruit and train (see "Closing the Talent Gap").

Other functions, such as general ledger and reporting, are moving to distributed computing platforms, where they are either replaced by packaged software or re-engineered into Java or .Net applications.

But Brown still needs Cobol programmers to replace those expected to retire, and the learning curve can last for a year or more. That means adding staff and having a period of overlap as Cobol's secrets get passed on to the next generation. "I'm trying to get those people on board and do the knowledge transfer sooner rather than later," Brown says.

But that kind of proactive approach, and the extra costs it incurs, can be a hard sell. "We haven't gotten to the point of feeling the pain yet. When we do, it will happen," he says.

Brown wouldn't specify the number of people he's hoping to hire, but he says the "real heavy need" will happen in the next five to 10 years, when the original mainframe programmers are expected to retire en force. BNY Mellon currently employs "a few hundred" Cobol programmers, he says.

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