July 12, 2019No Comments

COBOL is dead! Long live COBOL!
A living collection of COBOL articles

Despite its age and multiple reports of its impending death, the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) remains responsible for a large portion of the world’s daily financial transactions – credible estimates include as much as $3 trillion per day and roughly 90 percent of all ATM and in-person financial transactions.

COBOL was first published in January 1960 by the Conference on Data Systems Languages (CODASLY), who based it on the first compiler developed by Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and her team at Remington Rand in 1952. It’s designed to develop portable business applications that could be run on systems developed by multiple manufacturers.

It remains vital to the world’s financial systems because of its simplicity and reliability.

One measure of its importance is the number of news and commentary articles published in reliable industry sources that repeat a common theme, namely that the programming language is ancient, nobody wants to use it, but it’s so vital to the financial and government sectors that it won’t go away – COBOL is dead! Long live COBOL!

Once or twice a year a new piece pops up and we typically pass it around the office, discuss new information or opinions it reveals, and archive it.

Recently, one of our shrewd colleagues suggested we post links to these articles here on our website so others in the small but influential COBOL community can reference them.

So we did. We’ll update this page when we discover new COBOL media pieces. If we’ve missed something important, email terickson@phasechange.ai.

Long live COBOL!

Articles
2018

Quartz Obsession: COBOL
What's going to happen when all the Baby-Boomer COBOL developers retire?
June 28, 2018
by Justin Sablich, qz.com
https://goo.gl/C7Ykv1

In digital transformation top banks are leading
Instead of ripping and replacing legacy systems and code, which can be prohibitively expensive and time consuming, some banks are maintaining these systems and wrapping customer engagement systems around them.
April 3, 2018
by Tom Groenfeldt, Forbes.com
https://goo.gl/W7WHHM

It’s Cobol all the way down
COBOL-based systems continue to run much of the world’s financial systems. But its supporting workforce is retiring and efforts to convert these applications to modern programming languages are expensive and time-consuming.
April 2018
by Glenn Fleishman, Increment.com
https://goo.gl/QpnUFa

2017

COBOL is everywhere. Who will maintain it?
Many of the world’s financial institutions and U.S. government agencies, such as Homeland Security, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Social Security, rely on COBOL-based systems, but a shortage of programming talent and education institutions that provide programming courses is on the horizon.
May 6, 2017
by David Cassel, The New Stack.io
https://goo.gl/InzR48

Trump said government has one 40-year-old IT system. It actually has at least 10.
A list of 10 U.S. government computer systems that are at least 40-years old. Three of the systems run on COBOL code.
April 12, 2017
by Frank Konkel, Nextgov.com
https://goo.gl/BSu37t

Banks scramble to fix old systems as IT 'cowboys' ride into sunset
Organizations that rely on Cobol-based applications have a hard time replacing retiring programmers and support personnel, which has given veteran developers opportunities to continue working, even after retirement.
April 9, 2017
by Anna Irrera, Reuters.com
https://goo.gl/TcxjXa

2016

Why it’s time to learn COBOL
Acquiring COBOL programming skills might be a wise career move. Hundreds-of-billions of lines of COBOL code are still in use and many universities have stopped offering classes in the 50+ year old language.
April 1, 2016
by Paul Rubens, CIO.com
https://goo.gl/Jkuj7G

2015

The inevitable return of COBOL
The looming shortage of COBOL programmers will inevitably lead to COBOL programming once again becoming an in-demand skill set.
July 6, 2015
by Ritika Trikha, HackerRank
https://goo.gl/EuSH6c

2014

CIOs should prepare for lack of Cobol (Yes, Cobol) developers
While the demand for talented and skilled Cobol programmers remains steady, the programming language’s lack of popularity has shrunk the available talent pool. As the existing Cobol support workforce ages and retires, companies are resorting to novel strategies to acquire and train staff.
October 2, 2014
by Sharon Florentine, CIO.com
https://goo.gl/1XA1KG

Cobol is dead. Long live Cobol!
CIOs that rely on Cobol-based systems keep developer staff as long as possible while others prefer new hires with multi-language capabilities over Cobol-specific or Cobol-only skills.
October 2, 2014
by Gary Beach, Wall Street Journal CIO Journal blogs
https://goo.gl/HmH5K8

All the rich kids are into COBOL – but why?
COBOL isn’t sexy or even that popular. But the basic tenants of supply and demand remain true – if there are still a lot of COBOL applications running critical systems and not a lot of programmers interested in learning the 50-year-old programming language, then brushing up on your COBOL skills might make it easier to find a job earning more money.
September 17, 2014
by Matt Asay, readwrite.com
https://goo.gl/AZNFPi

The government’s COBOL conundrum
The U.S. federal government’s Office of Personnel Management released its “Strategic Information Technology Plan” for revamping the agency’s IP operations. Part of the plan discusses the office’s plans for maintaining and eventually migrating away from the roughly 60-million-lines of production COBOL code that enable the agency to meet a number of its regulatory requirements.
June 2, 2014
by Nicole Blake Johnson, FedTech magazine.com
https://goo.gl/Sqeo6b

2012

Brain Drain: Where COBOL systems go from here
Not only does losing experienced COBOL programmers hurt many companies’ ability to maintain its mainframe systems, but it also means the loss of the programmers’ deep understanding of the business logic. A number of organizations are teaming with private businesses to educate younger programmers and team them with experienced developers before it’s too late.
May 21, 2012
by Robert L. Mitchell, CIO.com
https://goo.gl/8UKvPg

Cobol brain drain: Survey results
Results from the Compuworld survey on Cobol use in business and government, which showed that nearly 50 percent of respondents had operational Cobol-based systems and large number continue to develop new business applications with Cobol.
March 14, 2012
by Staff, Compuworld.com
https://goo.gl/oJdB3D

The future of COBOL: Why it won’t go away soon – Part 2
When thinking about maintaining or replacing their COBOL systems, companies must consider the employee angle. Can they continue to hire COBOL programmers when experts forecast that a major COBOL skills gap in on the horizon, and is that enough of a reason to rip and replace?
Date: January 11, 2012
by Brian Bloom, IT World Canada
https://goo.gl/ksDWkZ

The future of COBOL: Why it won’t go away soon – Part 1
COBOL-based systems will not be going away anytime soon because of the millions of invested man-hours and dollars already spent to develop these mainframe programs and the enormous predicted replacement costs. There’s also the fact that we don’t have anything better enough to make the change.
January 10, 2012
by Brian Bloom, IT World Canada
https://goo.gl/cRjaPk

Fun

*All images are copyrighted by their respective owners

Are you a COBOL programmer?
November 4, 1997
by Scott Adams, Dilbert.com
http://dilbert.com/strip/1997-11-04
Are you a COBOL programmer?

 

The Holy Grail of [programming] technology!
June 10, 1994
Scott Adams, dilbert.com
http://dilbert.com/strip/1994-06-10
It's the Holy Grail of programming! dilbert cartoon

 

 

 

 

updated October 30, 2018
by Todd Erickson

*Todd Erickson is a tech writer with Phase Change. You can reach him at terickson@phasechange.ai.

July 10, 2019No Comments

Why is COBOL cool again?

Discover why the recent spotlight on COBOL systems and the shortage of qualified COBOL programmers aren’t due to a lack of qualified engineers, it's due to a lack of knowledge.

Reuters and The New Stack recently published articles about COBOL, an often-overlooked programming language that was developed before John F. Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States.

At Phase Change, we pay attention to legacy systems and their challenges. So, why was a mainframe language developed in 1959 suddenly the topic of multiple news articles?

The U.S. government developed the common business-oriented language (COBOL) in conjunction with Rear Admiral Grace Hopper and a coalition of industry and higher-education envoys. It's simplicity and portability have stood the test of time, and are the main reasons why 60-year-old COBOL applications continue to play a critical role in finance, banking, and government operations. That plus the inertia that characterizes large, critical systems.

Organizations like the Department of Veteran Affairs and large financial companies, such as Bank of New York Mellon and Barclays PLC, are examples of the types of institutions that rely on COBOL applications for nearly $3 trillion worth of daily transactions. But they’ve used COBOL for decades, so, that doesn't explain the recent attention.

It's because the engineers that maintain COBOL-based systems are leaving the workforce, there aren't qualified developers available to replace them, and these institutions are freaking out. The COBOL brain drain is threatening the organizations that economies are built upon.

Brain drain refers to how departing software engineers leave with all of their system and domain knowledge supposedly locked away in their brains. That knowledge is thought to be lost from the organization forever.

The average age of a COBOL programmer is somewhere between 45 and 60 years old and they are retiring. The problem is that few programmers are interested in replacing them, and the availability of COBOL training resources has dropped precipitously because it's just not a cool language anymore.

We won't repeat all of the statistics that show how much COBOL code is still in use and how important those systems are. Read the Reuters and The New Stack articles, which both mirror a series of comprehensive feature articles published by ComputerWorld in 2012. The metrics and themes haven’t changed much.

You can also follow the "official" COBOL Twitter account, @morecobol (spoiler: it's clever).

Basically, these companies have three options to deal with COBOL brain drain, and all involve high risks. First, they can simply replace their COBOL systems with systems built on more modern programming languages. That project took the Commonwealth Bank of Australia 5 years and $749.9 million, which was 30% over budget. The risk associated with implementing such a massive new system has kept most financial institutions from doing it.

Second, they can engage consultants like the Cobol Cowboys, or hire and train new programmers to support their COBOL systems. This option also involves a great amount of risk because companies have to find engineers that have the skills and interest to support COBOL applications, and then hope they can unravel the layers of modifications and system integrations that accrue with five decades of maintenance, usually with little documentation.

Third, they can completely stop modifying core systems that nobody understands, but are too critical to risk changing or replacing. The USDA faced that choice.

It's not a people problem

But from our perspective, the issue is not a human-resources problem. The companies that rely on COBOL-based systems don't lack the right people, they lack the right knowledge.

If the new engineers assigned to work on COBOL-based applications could access the departing developers' system and domain knowledge, or better yet, all of the programming and domain knowledge imbued into the system from prior engineers, imagine how much easier it would be for them to comprehend these complex systems. It would be like having a personal mentor always available — even while the previous engineers are off enjoying retirement.

That's why this is a knowledge problem and not a people problem.

And it's a huge opportunity. Unlocking the encoded knowledge that's trapped in COBOL systems will give large institutions the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about their legacy systems.

Learn more at CodeCatalyst.ai.

Originally published on May 25, 2017, by Todd Erickson and Elizabeth Richards.

Todd Erickson is a tech writer with Phase Change. You can reach him at terickson@phasechange.ai.

Elizabeth Richards is Phase Change's director of business operations. You can reach her at erichards@phasechange.ai.

December 11, 2018No Comments

Prevent software application knowledge from walking out the door

Brain drain is a serious problem facing organizations that use software applications to run their businesses. Learn how you can seal the drain and retain all of the knowledge trapped in your applications.

At the end of every workday, your software development teams walk out the door with all of their knowledge leaving with them. Some of them don’t come back, and that loss of information and expertise, or brain drain, is a growing business problem, especially with IT industry turnover rates hovering between 20-30% annually.

Consider how much knowledge your organization loses when key members of your development team retire or join other companies. Not only do you lose development expertise, but the knowledge your engineers have regarding how your software applications work, such as:

  • How the system is architected
  • The subject-matter expertise used to implement functionality
  • The business considerations that drove product and feature designs
  • How third-party and external systems are integrated

The plight of developing and supporting older and large-scale applications is exacerbated when companies have to scramble to replace retiring software engineers with unqualified replacements. Multiple reports suggest that 10,000 Baby Boomers walk out the corporate door in the U.S. for good every day.

Many of these retirees are the software engineers that developed and maintain the many systems that still run on Cobol and other mainframe programming languages. The impact of losing thousands of mainframe engineers and their vast programming and business knowledge will be widespread. The 240 billion lines of Cobol code running today power approximately 85 percent of all daily business transactions worldwide.

Most organizations don't have the processes in place to capture their employees' business and system intelligence before they leave for good.

It’s especially difficult for engineers. Today’s software tools don't allow them to easily convey their expertise to others – or enable developers, business managers, and executives to easily discover and utilize any previously shared knowledge.

What can you do?

You might be surprised to discover that your engineers’ domain and system knowledge already resides in one other place outside their minds – your software. While creating the code, development teams pour their organization, programming, and business intelligence into your applications.

Imagine what you could do if your organization's technical and business stakeholders had access to all of the knowledge and human intent embedded in your software applications. Imagine asking your software application how it works and having it answer you back.

How can you unlock all of that untapped knowledge?

Liberate encoded knowledge

Phase Change Software is creating AI-assistive technology that unlocks the encoded knowledge embedded in your software applications.

Our assistive AI understands your software and turns it into formal units of knowledge. In essence, software is transformed into data.

Our AI assistant will liberate your software's hidden knowledge and help it understand itself. Our natural language processing (NLP) techniques will enable your technical and business stakeholders to easily interact with applications.

You will soon be able to literally have a conversation with your software and have it teach you its encoded programming, business, and domain knowledge.

Learn more at CodeCatalyst.ai.

Originally published on April 10, 2017, by Todd Erickson.

Todd Erickson is a tech writer with Phase Change Software. You can reach him at terickson@phasechange.ai.

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