Some of the hottest languages include Python, go lang, Java and Swift. But there is one that seems to never show up on any list: COBOL. The perception is that it is, well, a dinosaur.
Yet consider the following about COBOL:
- It powers about 80% of in-person financial services transactions and 95% of ATM swipes.
- On a daily basis, it processes $3 trillion in commerce.
- There are over 220 billion lines of code and 1.5 billion are written each year.
Dead? Far from it.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about COBOL today is that it’s a legacy language that can’t support digital demands and growth,” said John McKenny, who is the Senior Vice President of ZSolutions Strategy and Innovation at BMC. “On the contrary, COBOL is purpose built for what it does and excels at transaction processing with unbelievable amount of resiliency.”
What Is COBOL?
COBOL stands for Common Business-Oriented Language. Back the in late 1950s, the US Department of Defense sponsored its development, which included the support of the era’s top tech companies like IBM, Sperry Rand, Boroughs and Honeywell.
“COBOL’s core is based in part on the work of Grace Hopper, whom many consider the ‘grandmother of computer programming,’” said Russ Martin, who is the founder and Technology Lead at QuirkyCube Software.
The goal was to create a language focused on the needs of business. This meant having English-like commands, an ability to handle large amounts of data (say for customer records) and extensive reporting functions (by the way, if you want to try the language out, I have a two-hours course on COBOL, which is free for Forbes.com readers).
“COBOL is known for its innovation, heritage, portability, fitness-for-purpose and readability,” said Derek Britton, who is the Product Director of Mainframe Solutions at Micro Focus. “Through continued vendor investments, COBOL supports contemporary technology and integration with other languages, platforms and applications such as Java & C#, Cloud and Containers, .net and JVM. It is designed to run anywhere, unchanged, and modern COBOL allows for developers to analyze, debug, develop, test and deploy applications across a large variety of platforms. The language offers accuracy, speed, accessibility, robustness, strong data manipulation and it was created with the advantage of being easy to understand.”
Back in the 1990s, there was heavy demand for COBOL programmers because of the need for the Y2K fix. But interestingly enough, there appears to be another spike in demand. Part of this has been the secular trend for digital transformation, a process that means rethinking legacy systems.
“Even in today’s age of the cloud, we’re seeing organizations opt for hybrid IT models so they can leverage the high security and reliability of mainframes, yet have certain applications live in the cloud for benefits like agility and flexibility,” said Lisa Dyer, who is the global VP at Ensono. “COBOL workloads vary in degree in the need for continuous DevOps and requirements, so with more mature workloads it makes more sense logistically and from a cost perspective to undergo a partial transformation versus migrating completely off a mainframe.”
But there is also the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Systems such as for unemployment claims–which were developed in COBOL–have been under much strain. The Governor of New Jersey created a commercial to recruit programmers because of this!
“Many legacy systems, such as those in the government, healthcare and banking, have shown problems as they’re forced to scale up massively during the pandemic,” said Dev Ittycheria, who is the president and CEO of MongoDB. “There’s no opportunity to rewrite these applications, so the adjustments have to happen in the programming language they were written in.”
But this is not necessarily a problem. Evolution is probably a better approach when it comes to mission-critical systems. “ I don’t think it’s an all or nothing decision, that is, let’s scrap our legacy software and replace it by January 1, 2021,” said Mike Loukides, who is the VP of Content Strategy at O’Reilly Media. “One advantage of a microservices approach (and also one of the difficulties) is that you can split your existing infrastructure into different independent services. So it’s not an all or nothing thing. You can start with pieces like authentication, then move on to things like billing and other services. Whatever you do, you want an approach that’s modular, so that it’s easy to add new features as needed. That does require careful thinking about design—and that thinking is more important than the programming language itself.”
OK then, so might there be a boom in COBOL hiring? It does seem likely. And it could last awhile.
The fact is that many COBOL programmers–who come primarily from the Baby Boomer generation–are retiring. There is also the issue that the language is no longer taught in schools. “Very few folks are learning COBOL,” said Navin Manglani, who is a professor of technology at the NYU Stern School of Business. “But as long as legacy systems stay around, there will always be a need for COBOL programmers.”
Greg Jakacki, who is the founder and principal scientist of Codility, has seen strong uptake for COBOL recently. His company operates a platform to help companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Tesla and Slack to hire programmers.
To help this along, his company has developed skills evaluation systems for COBOL.
Although, given all the demand, there are some veteran programmers who are coming out of retirement or becoming consultants. “I have a friend that retired about a decade ago to a condo on the East Coast of Florida,” said Jeff Hall, who is a senior consultant at Wesbey Associates LLC. “He makes a very, very good six figure salary consulting to organizations supporting their mainframes and legacy applications from his balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.”
Tom (@ttaulli) is an advisor to startups and the author of Artificial Intelligence Basics: A Non-Technical Introduction and The Robotic Process Automation Handbook: A Guide to Implementing RPA Systems. He also has developed various online courses, such as for the COBOL programming language.