Looking for a Job? How’s Your COBOL?

August 04, 2014

vintage computer operator illustration

Looking for a great technical skill to develop to make you all the more marketable in today’s increasingly fast-paced industry? Have you considered COBOL?

No, we’re not kidding, and no we aren’t confused because we’ve been binge watching Mad Men and Halt and Catch Fire with their throwbacks to ancient systems and software. The industry—particularly the U.S. federal government—is facing a shortage of experts in the venerable language, and they’re willing to pay handsomely for expertise.

For all you Millennials out there who probably aren’t familiar with this particular acronym, COBOL is a computer language designed in 1959 (based on work by Grace Hopper). Unlike its primary competitor at the time, FORTRAN, COBOL was intended for business use, rather than scientific use. Hence its name: Common Business Oriented Language. And in the heyday of computer commerce and administration in the 1960s, billions of lines of it were written. (One could argue this is because it took so many lines of COBOL to do anything.)

As we all know, hardware may come and hardware may go, but software is forever. Despite all the talk about reengineering business processes, it takes a long time and a lot of money to rewrite a program, especially one that works. Major federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration are based on COBOL. The SSA has 60 million lines of COBOL in production as of 2013, and found that the benefits of replacing COBOL would not outweigh the risks. Remember the issues with software in the Veterans Administration? What do you think would happen if the tax system or Social Security went down?

COBOL vendor Micro Focus claims:

  • COBOL supports 90 percent of Fortune 500 business systems every day
  • 70 percent of all critical business logic and data is written in COBOL
  • COBOL powers 85 percent of all daily business transactions processed
  • $2 trillion worth of mainframe applications in corporations are written in COBOL
  • 1.5 million new lines of COBOL code are written every day
  • 5 billion lines of new COBOL code are developed every year
  • The total investment in COBOL technologies, staff and hardware is estimated at $5 trillion
  • An estimated 2 million people are currently working in COBOL

Some COBOL programs did get rewritten in other languages to deal with the hype surrounding the Y2K problem. (This is when people believed programs might fail upon reaching the year 2000, because they’d all been written to expect years to start with 19.) But some COBOL programs were just patched to deal with it. Others actually had four-digit year fields to begin with, and those COBOL programs just kept chugging along.

So what’s the problem? As the Department of the Navy said when it explained why it still used 200 billion lines of COBOL code, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right?

The problem is that the program is in operation, but the world isn’t cranking out many COBOL programmers anymore. The COBOL programmers we do have are nearing retirement, with as many as half of them aged 50 or more, according to Bloomberg Business Week. This goes beyond the government, as it affects private industry as well. “In some cases, only one or two people understand the core banking software the bank runs on and the older programming language in which it is written,” writes American Banker, which it calls the “key person” problem.

Consequently, active COBOL programmers are in short supply. So, thanks to the law of supply and demand, salaries for COBOL programmers are going up. “The salary for top talent can reach six figures, and agencies and companies are still awarding contracts today for COBOL software maintenance,” writes FedTech. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management estimated that the maintenance costs for the retirement system could go up 10 to 15 percent due to the lack of programmers.

The most difficult aspect of learning COBOL might be finding classes. A number of schools dropped COBOL courses because nobody was enrolling in them anymore. A 2013 survey by Micro Focus found that 73 percent of academics running IT courses at universities around the globe do not have COBOL programming as part of their curriculum, although 71 percent still believed that business organizations will continue to rely on applications built using the COBOL language for more than the next 10 years.

The survey also found that the universities believed students weren’t all that interested in learning COBOL, either.  When asked about student attitudes toward learning COBOL, 65 percent of universities gave a negative response, with 39 percent saying their students viewed COBOL as un-cool and outdated, 13 percent saying they believed COBOL was dead and 15 percent saying their students wouldn’t know what COBOL was.

Perhaps they just hadn’t heard this joke:

A COBOL programmer made so much money doing Y2K remediation that he was able to have himself cryogenically frozen when he died. One day in the future, he was unexpectedly resurrected.

When he asked why he was unfrozen, he was told:

"It's the year 9999—and you know COBOL."