October 18, 2006

I was a professional COBOL programmer

Via the O'Reilly Radar, a Computerworld article on the computer language that will not die.

Cobol, that mainstay of business programming throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, is not going away anytime soon. In a Computerworld survey early this year of IT managers at 352 companies, 62% of the respondents reported that they actively use Cobol. Of those, three quarters said they use it “a lot” and 58% said they’re using it to develop new applications.

Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, companies aren’t enthusiastically expanding their use of Cobol. In the survey, of those who use Cobol, 36% said they are “gradually migrating away” from it, 16% said they will replace it “every chance we get,” and 25% said they’d like to replace Cobol with something else but have found that too difficult or too expensive.

The persistence of Cobol — welcome or not — presents a dilemma for many companies. Their legacy code will require significant resources for years to come, yet younger software developers often don’t want to work with Cobol, and in most cases, they’re no longer learning it in school. And while there are thousands of Cobol coders still in the workplace, a large percentage of them are nearing retirement age.


For years, pundits have said that the way to avoid the headaches of maintaining Cobol — and mainframes, green screens and other legacy paraphernalia — is to replace them. But that hasn’t happened, even in the massive Y2k remediation effort.

Indeed, Cobol promises to be around for many more years, challenging the IT managers who must support it. “A lot of people have said they were going to get rid of the mainframe, but that hasn’t happened,” says Mark Washik, a consultant at Schneider Electric SA in Palatine, Ill. “And for us, all that code is working. There’s no sense in rewriting it.”
A very interesting article on a growing niche job market. Maintaining old code. It's interesting, because we certainly don't train new programmers/developers/SEs to maintain old code or to re-engineer old systems, but that's often what they end up working on at the beginning of their careers. And schools certainly don't teach COBOL anymore. Fortunately it's easy to learn. I took two courses in it way back in my CS days at Concordia and even they I realized that the second, advanced course, in COBOL programming was a waste of time. I really wanted it to be a advanced database/systems course, but it was just plain old COBOL. A wasted opportunity from the prof (whose name I still remember), who was just calling it in for a course that I'm sure was viewed as low priority by the school.

Of course, a small chunk of that old code out there may very well be mine. For 5 or 6 years, I did a lot of COBOL coding as part of the Wang PACE 4GL system. It was the back-end language for the PACE UI and data dictionary functionality. You also had to do any really tricky reports involving specialized calculations in COBOL.

My first, and favourite, programming language was FORTRAN.


Carolyne Sidey said...

Fortran was my favourite as well. I bet i could still code and debug it today!!

Anonymous said...


I am a fairly recent graduate, and guess what I got my first job as a COBOL developer. I have been a COBOL developer for three years since graduating. I can truly say I wish I stayed away from COBOL and so should all you recent graduates.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not there are 70 billion lines of COBOL and all that other stuff; if you can’t get a job in this area (trust me I’ve been looking). All you have to do is type COBOL in a job search (and there we have it – the last time I got 100 hits) – “COBOL IS DEAD” if you want to get a job. When you narrow down your search to say London and you only get about 12 hits – so if you want to work as a software developer stay away from COBOL.

It really doesn’t matter if some developer says “COBOL is not dead, I’ve recently got a job in COBOL”. These people probably been programming in COBOL for a life time (that’s like 25 years) so you are competing with these guys for those handful of jobs.

It really doesn’t matter if one says “there will be plenty of jobs when these old people retire and a company will give you loads of money if you have COBOL experience”. They may give people with COBOL skills loads of money to fix a bug but how often do these bugs cause faults (remember if its working don’t touch it). So you maybe sitting unemployed for years before anything goes wrong, waiting for your one off big contract payment (sounds like too much of a risky investment).

Anyway I’ve been looking for work out their and finding it very hard (almost impossible) to find a job. I am a First Class graduate and have a Masters and even with these academics three years of doing COBOL has crippled my chances. I wish I had not done COBOL and stayed with the skills (what you should be learning at university) that have jobs. I have got 3 years COBOL and someone has 3 years of Java or C or C# etc.. so I am out of the competition when looking for jobs. Don’t listen to those that say it don’t matter what the language is (because it does), all you have to do is look at the job specs (they generally mention the programming language because it really does matter).

I am now hoping to build on those skills at university and then will keep trying to apply for jobs. I am also hoping to do some courses to refresh my knowledge in areas I have neglected over the last three years (which from my experience you don’t get from COBOL and my opinion is this language should not be taught at university). Certainly its IT and you have too keep up with recently skills set (that’s RECENT!! skills set), but why get into the position I am in and many (I hope not too many) recent graduates may be in.

I know this is very negative and may not read well, but COBOL has made it very difficult for me to forward my career and I really don’t want this to happen to any other graduate.

Basically “COBOL is truly dead” if you look at it from the perspective of your career. Go out there, do the research and see the truth for yourself !!