Cobol Coders: Going, Going, Gone?

Many IT managers slowly migrating away from Cobol wonder whether they'll run out of Cobol programmers before they run out of Cobol code.

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“These systems are fairly sophisticated,” Walker says. “Some have been around for 20 years; there’s a lot in them, and they work pretty well.”

Nevertheless, she says, “we’d like to migrate off Cobol, but whenever we’ve gone out to look at packages or at [writing custom software], it was cost-prohibitive.”

The pool of Cobol programmers for hire is shrinking, and those available often require costly relocations, says Walker. She says she brings in consultants to work as Cobol coders when she needs to add staffers, but consultants with Cobol experience are getting harder to find as well. Walker says her Cobol programmers are “older,” as are most job applicants with Cobol experience. Hiring programmers for Cobol work presents a catch-22, she says, because the ones willing to do it are the ones who will retire soonest.

And, Walker says, it’s no simple matter to train novice programmers in Cobol because local schools no longer offer Cobol courses, and on-staff Cobol programmers don’t have the skills to train others.

Asked about the possibility of outsourcing Cobol maintenance to India, Walker says the state government probably would bar that. “Also, the company I left before I came here was doing that, and that was one of the reasons I left,” she says. “I felt like it wasn’t giving users the quality they deserved because of time and language differences.”

Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., says companies that are having trouble finding experienced Cobol programmers should hire programmers with other skills — especially business skills and applications knowledge — and train them in Cobol internally. Murphy says companies should ask their senior Cobol programmers to train the younger ones. Many of these older workers don’t want to learn new technology and aren’t suited for management positions. “So their career path is to mentor new programmers,” he says.

Rory Read, IT vice president at Columbia Insurance Group Inc. in Columbia, Mo., says he has no problem finding Cobol programmers, many of whom have been laid off from other insurance companies. But he acknowledges that hiring them often involves relocating them from distant cities.

Read says Columbia Insurance’s policy management and claims processing software is 20 years old and has 1 million lines of Cobol code with some 3,000 modifications layered on over the years. “Despite everyone pronouncing Cobol dead for a couple of decades, it’s still around,” he says. “We continue to enhance the base system. It’s still green-screen, if you can believe that.”

Read says getting younger workers to take on Cobol chores is a “real challenge, because that’s not where technology is today.” He simply tells them they must do some Cobol work, promising a switch to other things at the earliest opportunity.

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