These old programming languages are still critical to big companies. But nobody wants to learn them

Large organizations still rely on ageing IT systems and programming languages to run their mainframes. But as traditional developers reach retirement age, new hires are reluctant to pick up old skills.

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Large organizations still rely heavily on legacy mainframes

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Large organizations that are reliant on legacy IT systems face an urgent skills shortage as older developers retire from the workforce - and take their expertise with them.

A report by Advanced Software suggests that nearly 9 in 10 (89%) of large businesses worry about a shortage of IT staff with the skills to maintain and manage their legacy IT systems.  

These systems are typically underpinned by programming languages like COBOL, a programming language that was designed in 1959 and yet is still used widely by large organizations to process data from important central systems such as billing, accounts, payroll and customer transactions.

Tim Jones, managing director of application modernisation EMEA at Advanced, said developers who understand procedural languages such as COBOL are becoming increasingly difficult to find – largely because they are steadily retiring.

"To make matters worse, most universities no longer offer mainframe instruction courses since no one would dream of using procedural languages like COBOL for greenfield development projects anymore," Jones told TechRepublic.

"To some, it is difficult to understand why organisations continue to use such old technology for their critical applications, especially when we live in an era of accelerating change. The reason is quite simple: the legacy systems are stable and robust. They perform satisfactorily and continue to meet the functional requirements around which they were originally built."

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According to a 2018 Forrester Consulting study, enterprises have lost an average 23% of specialised mainframe staff in the last five years, with 63% of these vacancies remaining unfilled.

Three-quarters of the 400 organizations surveyed by Advanced said COBOL remained the most prominent language in their mainframe estate.

While COBOL is the most prevalent language, a typical mainframe estate will often contain a combination of language types, from CA Gen and CA Telon to Assembler, Natural and PL1.

Assembler is still used by 66% of large enterprises, Advanced found, with other prominent languages including ADS/Online (40%), CA Gen (37%), CA Telon (24%) and PL/1 (15%).  

It's these languages that are putting companies at greater risk, said Jones. "The talent pool for developers of these languages is shrinking at the same rate COBOL's is, but it is significantly smaller; COBOL remains the most universally supported and understood procedural language in the mainframe arsenal. 

"I know a steel company that spent millions in training a few consultants in Natural because it literally could not find anyone who knew the language besides the guy in charge of the system on-site."

Demand for developers has been particularly urgent over the past 12 months as businesses were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated IT modernization initiatives and shone a spotlight on the outdated systems that continue to prop up huge governmental and organizational databases.

In April 2020, hundreds of thousands of residents submitted applications to the State of New Jersey's unemployment system, leading to a 1,600% increase in claims which quickly overwhelmed its COBOL-based mainframe and resulted in a plea for COBOL programmers from state Governor, Phil Murphy.

The US Department of the Treasury's Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) 'System 6', which houses taxpayer data, is also written in Assembler and COBOL, said Jones, meanwhile Assembler is still commonly used in core banking applications because of its close proximity to machine code, which allows it to execute transactions quickly. 

A third of organizations surveyed by Advanced said they were concerned about staff retiring and taking legacy skills with them.   

The consequences of developers with legacy tech skills leaving the talent pool can be huge, said Jones, particularly as it can lead to difficulties in scaling up IT to meet new demand, or integrating legacy systems with modern technology.

"The problem is these systems have passed through many hands over many years, often without proper documentation of features or functional relationships," Jones said.

"As the technology, infrastructure, and architecture of the businesses around them changes, the burden of retaining continues to grow."

At the same time as developers with legacy expertise are leaving the jobs market, new developers are not being trained to maintain older systems – and have little desire to do so. 

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More than a third (36%) of organizations surveyed by Advanced said they were concerned that people entering the workforce only have "modern" skills.  At the same time, 29% said their staff didn't want to learn legacy skills, while 28% fear they may lose talent to competitors using more modern technologies such as Java, Python and C#, where there is an ever-increasing demand for application development. 

Jones said enterprises were at risk of "hyper-focusing" on recruiting modern skills and disregarding the need for legacy talent, when in fact, both are vital.

"It's important organisations cross-train existing talent to improve their staff's ability to support both legacy and modern systems, particularly during and after major modernisation initiatives," said Jones.

One question that might be asked is why the disappearance of legacy IT skills should be considered a burgeoning issue; the industry has, after all, been talking about it for years.

"The reality is that the resource pool has been shrinking for a long time but now it's happening at an accelerated rate," said Jones.

"Consider that the mainframe had its heyday in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This was a time when people were coming out of college and starting their first jobs programming in COBOL. We are now 40 years on, these people are at the end of their careers and about to move into a well-earned retirement, yet for the last 30 years or more there has been no new talent coming through the funnel to replace them."

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