Cobol: The New Latin

This 'dead language' must be embraced and taught

I remember a day during junior high school when we spent a few minutes with our guidance counselor to discuss our ambitions for the future.

Student: I wanna fly jets!

Counselor: You gotta know trig.

Student: I wanna be a movie star!

Counselor: You gotta study English literature.

Student: I wanna be a doctor!

Counselor: You gotta know biology and chemistry.

Lou: I want to be a lawyer!

Counselor: You gotta know Latin.

Almost everyone I spoke to about my curriculum for that year had the same reaction. They all asked why I would want to study Latin; it was, after all, a "dead language."

Cobol Cobbled?

People are saying the same thing about Cobol. Don’t waste your time learning Cobol. If they put you into a Cobol project, your career will be over.

Cobol is for geezers. It’s a dead language.

Let’s put a couple of things to rest right now.

First, the statuses of Latin and Cobol are quite similar. Neither is really dead; both are deeply ingrained, intertwined and embedded in our contemporary world — the former in many of our written and spoken languages, and the latter as the underpinning of much of the world’s existing data systems.

If you ignore Latin, you risk losing the ability to understand the derivation of thousands of words in many modern languages, and hence your full understanding will be compromised. If you ignore Cobol, you run the risk of failing to understand how your enterprise actually works. It is impossible to fully understand the processes within your organization without understanding the systems that support them. Grace Hopper didn’t just invent a programming language; she invented the concept of business rules.

227 Miles of Cobol Code

Gartner has estimated that there are 180 billion lines of Cobol code in use around the world. Imagine that you printed out all of that Cobol code. Let’s say you get 50 lines per page in landscape mode. Copy paper comes in 2-in. reams with 500 sheets per ream. That figures out to a 227-mile-tall printout. OK, so you print on both sides of the paper; then it’s 113.6 miles tall.

Gartner estimated in 2003 that there were 90,000 Cobol programmers in the U.S. These guys are all looking for something to do, so let’s have them handle the conversion for the whole world.

Let’s see, 180 billion lines of code and 90,000 programmers works out to 2 million lines per programmer. Surely a decent Cobol programmer can translate 20 lines per hour. At that rate, each programmer will require 100,000 hours to complete the conversion of 2 million lines. That works out to 12,500 eight-hour workdays. If we figure 250 workdays per year (though it’s unlikely any Cobol programmers are settling for just two weeks of vacation per year), these guys should be done in 50 years.

An Inconvenient Truth

Oh, I forgot to mention: The use of Cobol is growing — by about a billion lines per year. And those 90,000 Cobol programmers? They are all out buying fishing boats, Winnebagos and Hawaiian luau shirts.

There is only one reasonable course of action: Cobol must be embraced, it must be taught, and it must become cool again.

Rather than running away from Cobol, we need to look for ways to integrate it more fully into our new development processes.

Our educational institutions must make Cobol a basic requirement in their IT curricula. It doesn’t matter how much Java you know; it doesn’t matter if you can Web-enable your kid’s Etch-a-Sketch in your sleep. It will all be for nothing if the legacy systems in use in your enterprise aren’t effectively tied into the snazzy new systems you want to deploy. If these two worlds don’t play well together, your enterprise will be imperiled.

I can’t imagine why anyone interested in programming would not jump into this arena like a big wet dog jumping on a white couch. Companies will be begging for Cobol-literate people for years to come, and based on current trends, there will be fewer and fewer people with this expertise. That means the price per head will be going up.

An Action Plan for the Young Folk

Meanwhile, how do companies free up the people to handle this body of information? Start looking at alternative programming strategies.

Let’s say you have a staff of 50 programmers and none of them wants to work on geezer code.

Going outside is no good because your business is complex, and knowledge of the systems requires knowledge of the business itself. Here’s a plan for redeploying your human assets to maximize their effectiveness.

First, you take 25% of your programmers and get them started learning Cobol. This may be done outside your corporation or with private contractors teaching on-site. Whichever way you go, one out of four of your programmers will be knowledgeable in Cobol in six months.

Next, you take another 25% and get them proficient in one of the newer languages such as Mantis, Visual Basic or Java. Within a single week, these people will be productive programmers turning out applications 90% faster than their Cobol counterparts.

At the conclusion of six months, you make whatever adjustments you need to make as far as getting people into their "happy" zone. Now you have a crew of programmers who are well able to take on all of your systems, support all of your code and create new applications as needed with assurance that they are properly interfaced with your legacy systems.

Your future will be secure, and Cobol will be cool again.

Lou Washington never became a lawyer. Instead he is the master of MIPS at software and services provider Cincom Systems Inc. In his spare time, he’s also a senior business manager. He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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