Developer

The resurgence of COBOL

If you are an aging programmer, you have likely seen and/or programmed in COBOL at some point in your life. Indeed, most baby boomers learned COBOL as a first, second, or third language as they began their programming careers. Still, most of us think of COBOL as a dead language that is in the process of being replaced in business.

If you are an aging programmer, you have likely seen and/or programmed in COBOL at some point in your life. Indeed, most baby boomers learned COBOL as a first, second, or third language as they began their programming careers. Still, most of us think of COBOL as a dead language that is in the process of being replaced in business.

Or is it? A glance at a recent article in ComputerWorld may provide part of the answer.

COBOL stands for Common Business-Oriented Language, having its foundations in Grace Hopper's "FLOW-MATIC" and COMTRAN invented by Bob Berner. According to a 1997 survey by the Gartner Group, 80% of the world's business runs on COBOL, with an estimated 200 billion lines of code in existence and an estimated five billion lines of new code annually.

Because there is a massive installed base, the expense to replace the code would be prohibitive. So, many companies are looking for ways to integrate COBOL with newer applications.

In addition, the average COBOL developer is generally nearing retirement age. In 2004, Gartner made an effort to count COBOL programmers. They estimated then that there were about two million of them worldwide and that the number was declining at 5% annually.

From ComputerWorld:

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."

It would seem that being a COBOL programmer isn't such a dead end after all. With a significant installed base and no apparent signs of significant replacement, COBOL may be a viable and vibrant career path for some time to come.

Do you program? Java, AJAX, .NET, and others are the hot languages, but it is impossible to deny that COBOL is still a vibrant skill set. Would you consider COBOL as a career path, or do you think that it has had its day in the sun?

More information:

The looming day of reckoning (ComputerWorld)

Top technology, media and telecommunications trends for 2008 showcase society's struggle with the "double edged sword" of progress (Exchange Morning Post)

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