Confessions of a Cobol programmer

Don't laugh. Intrepid young programmers are using dusty old Cobol to boost their careers. Some of them even like it.

Last summer, Michael Vu, a 40-year-old independent IT consultant, found himself in a wholly unexpected place midway through his career.

He'd signed a three-week contract to help a major U.S. retailer with an enterprise reporting project. The initial work was so successful that the project was extended. As a consequence, Vu was suddenly deep in the world of Cobol.

Yes, Cobol, the programming dinosaur that was last hot in the '80s. Cobol, notorious for its overrich syntax and overlong code. That Cobol.

Although he'd never worked in Cobol before, Vu actually had wanted to learn for a while. In the midst of predictions of a massive retirement by baby boomers, Vu saw an opportunity. "I said to myself, even if only 0.1% of those baby boomers are Cobol developers, that would open up a huge market."

As Vu's work on the project proceeded, he realized that the retailer had 10 years of code living in Cobol. And the next phase of the project depended on that code.

So Vu, whose training and experience are in C and C++, jumped in and learned quickly. And he wound up with a skill that enhanced his strategic value to the organization. "I ended up moving from just being a regular coder with no idea of how the business runs to being someone they're relying on to extract business knowledge from their code base," he says. He now spends 30% of his time working in Cobol, and he expects that to stay the same or even increase.

For Vu, working in Cobol feels a bit like discovering a lost art. "The shocker for me was that Cobol is still heavily in use, even when my client is using the latest in enterprise Java, C+ and Visual Basic technologies," Vu says.

What's going on here? To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Cobol's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Some 75% of the world's businesses data is still processed in Cobol, and about 90% of all financial transactions are in Cobol, according to Arunn Ramadoss, head of the academic connections program at Micro Focus International PLC, which provides software to help modernize Cobol applications.

Because of the massive installed base, it would be too expensive to try to replace all that code, he says. Instead, many companies are looking for ways to integrate Cobol with newer applications.

The experienced Cobol programmers who can best do that job, however, are dying, or at least retiring. In a 2007 Micro Focus survey of its customers, more than 75% of CIOs said they would need more Cobol programmers over the next five years, and 73% were already having a hard time finding trained Cobol professionals.

Aging out the market

"Without a doubt, it is a challenge to find a developer in Cobol who is not nearing retirement age," says Dale Vecchio, research vice president of application development at Gartner Inc. In 2004, the last time Gartner tried to count Cobol programmers, the consultancy estimated that there were about 2 million of them worldwide and that the number was declining at 5% annually.

"Cobol will head downhill quickly over the next 10 years ... as baby boomers retire and there is insufficient recharging of the population," notes Vecchio.

As Vu's experience shows, that may mean career opportunities for IT professionals willing to learn and work in Cobol. (How long those opportunities last, however, is a subject of debate. See "Cobol: Going, but when?" for details.)

We surveyed Cobol programmers and companies involved in the Cobol field and determined that the market these days supports two types of careers:

  • An emerging role in which the programmer serves as a bridge between Cobol code and new applications. Such jobs require people who understand Cobol, the business rules and processes on which old Cobol programs are based, and more modern languages such as Java.
  • A more traditional programming path, in which the employee maintains and fixes old Cobol code in addition to writing new code, also still in Cobol.

The Cobol liaison role can be an interesting career path, says Ramadoss. "Cobol doesn't stop at Cobol," he points out. "You can integrate it into any modern technology."

With the emergence of service-oriented architectures, companies are able to more easily reuse their Cobol code, notes Nate Murphy, president of Nate Murphy International, an IT professional services firm.

The 66-year-old Murphy, who has decades of mainframe and Cobol experience, sees a resurgence in the value of Cobol because of the emergence of SOA and IBM's Language Environment, which provides a common runtime environment for combining many different languages, including Cobol.

"Now you can extend and add subroutines for other Web-based features that you need," he says. "All of a sudden you've got a valuable asset in these old Cobol programs, and you can extend them and expand their capability without writing new code."

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