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 Cobol brain drain is becoming critical for many government organizations, says Garza. "It's a high-risk problem in many countries [Trinity Millennium is] doing work in. The people have retired. Even the managers are gone. There's no one to talk to," he explains.

Saginaw County found itself hemmed in by the complexity of its Cobol infrastructure. It has 4 million lines of highly integrated Cobol programs that run everything from the prosecutor's office to payroll on a 46 MIPS Z9 series mainframe that is nearing the end of its life. With mainframe maintenance costs rising 10% to 20% each year, the county needs to get off the platform quickly.

But commercial software packages lack the level of integration that users expect, and Miller's team doesn't have the time or resources to do a lot of integration work or to re-engineer all of the program code for another platform.

So the county is starting a multiphase project to recompile the code with Micro Focus Visual Cobol and rehost it on Windows servers. An associated VSAM database will also be migrated to SQL Server. Miller hopes that the more modern graphical development suite will make the Cobol programming position, which has gone unfilled for two years, more attractive to prospective applicants. But he acknowledges that finding talent will still be an uphill battle.

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 BNY Mellon's Brown. The bank still creates new Cobol components on the mainframe and 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 business builds new applications. But it still represents the "family jewels" of business, Burden says. "They're enhancing existing applications and adding functionality to them. I've seen no slowdown in those activities," he explains.

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 on the language. "We can turn out new programmers quickly. 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."

Mari Keefe, editorial project manager, provided research assistance for this survey.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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