COBOL programmers are back in the game

Thought you were done with COBOL after Y2K? Think again. COBOL specialists are in demand again, and in this week?s Tech Watch, columnist Bob Weinstein tells you where to look and what skills to look for when hiring COBOL programmers.

If you think COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) programmers are doomed to go the way of the Edsel, you’re wrong.

After being in demand for Y2K solutions, COBOL programmers saw both the need for their services and the level of their salaries suddenly diminish after the Y2K dust settled. But this decline has since turned around because companies now need COBOL programmers to help them integrate their legacy systems with new e-business applications. As a CIO, you may find yourself looking for COBOL expertise, and it’s out there if you know where to look.

Take, for example, Bill Lockhart, a veteran COBOL programmer from Los Altos, CA. A couple of years ago, Lockhart, 63, was hard pressed to find a company who’d take advantage of his 30-plus years of experience. He began as a COBOL programmer back in 1966, and more recently has worked as a database specialist, writing in COBOL, PL/I, REXX, and assembly language during several assignments for IBM.

“The tables have turned,” Lockhart said. “IT industries need my COBOL skills to get going on the Web.”

In this Tech Watch, I’ll talk about the renewed importance of COBOL data to today’s companies, and what CIOs should be looking for when hiring COBOL programmers.

COBOL: Hundreds of billions of lines of code served
Approximately 75-85 percent of the world’s business data is written in COBOL, according to Bill Payson, president and CEO of SeniorTechs, an Internet job bank for experienced IT professionals based in Campbell, CA. That translates to some hundreds of billions of lines of code, he added.

COBOL is used in some capacity in almost all Fortune 500 companies. Many of these companies have a large pool of COBOL-based primary business systems that must now be integrated and connected to the outside world to fulfill the needs of e-business.

“With the future of all commerce linked to the Internet, companies with massive databases know that success depends on the ability to move data in and out of the Internet,” Payson explains.

“If all the COBOL programs stopped working, the U.S. economy would collapse,” said Paul Halpern, director of traditional development solutions at Merant, a Web-enabling technology training company in Mountain View, CA. “Nine out of ten of the top Internet brokers use COBOL with CICS [Customer Information Control Systems]. Chances are that when you use an ATM card, you are starting a COBOL/CICS process. An IBM report published last year indicates 30 billion COBOL/CICS transactions are executed worldwide each day—more than the total number of Web pages hit each day.”

It’s widely known that Java and C++ programmers are hard to find. But even if those programmers were more accessible, companies are quickly realizing that it is impossible to translate COBOL into those Internet-based languages. “Even if you could, you’d end up putting all your data at risk because the Internet is notoriously vulnerable,” said Payson. “The entire world is paranoid about Web security.”

An estimated 1.5 million COBOL programmers are available worldwide. Payson has the names of more than 2,500 COBOL experts in his database alone.

“The challenge is not just finding veteran COBOL people, but finding COBOL developers who know the Internet,” he says. “Our strategy is based on the belief that it is easier to train veteran COBOL staff in the Internet than it is to teach dot-commers the complex business rules of COBOL. For the most part, young dot-commers don’t know COBOL, nor do they want to learn it. They think it is something from the walls of King Tut’s tomb.”

Complicating matters, most major universities don’t even teach COBOL anymore, according to Payson.

The solution? “Go where the bodies are,” Payson suggested. “Find unemployed veteran COBOL programmers and get them to train themselves about the Web.”

But that’s easier said than done. Despite the well-documented shortage of IT pros, experienced techies (usually age 50 and older), find that even a hungry technical job market is not that quick to embrace their talents. Seasoned techies like Lockhart must work twice as hard to convince employers they’re not over the hill. But it’s worth the battle, because both the senior techs and companies benefit.

For information about the demand for COBOL skills, check out some of the large Web-enabling companies like Fujitsu and Merant. Or, consider attending the COBOL World 2001 conference in Anaheim, CA, on Oct. 2-4.

What will you do about your COBOL applications?
One recent survey of CIOs indicated that many IT executives intend to keep their mainframes in use for at least 15 more years. But as COBOL programmers reach retirement age and younger developers focus on more contemporary languages, CIOs could be challenged to find the staff to support mainframe programs. Join our discussion by posting your ideas on how CIOs should respond to this problem.


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