Thu, Jun
4 New Articles

A Simple Case for COBOL

Programming - Other
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

The answer to the COBOL programmer shortage is simple: train more programmers.

I’ve always liked the band AC/DC. I wouldn’t call myself a fan per se, but there’s nothing that brings me happiness quite like getting into the car for a long drive at night, turning on the stereo, and hearing the opening bell of “Hells Bells,” arguably the best nighttime driving song ever. And if you think I’m idiosyncratic like that, it’s because I am. Best daytime driving song? “It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll).” Bagpipes and all, it just makes me feel good.

AC/DC has been around since 1973. They’ve sold 200 million records worldwide. They’re one of the couple of bands (the other being Van Halen) who’ve either maintained or gained in popularity after a lead singer change (AC/DC original singer Bon Scott died in 1980}.

What is it about AC/DC that gives them such longevity?

It just works. The formula works. They have meat and potatoes, three-chord rock songs. Great hooks. And it’s worked for nearly 50 years. Their investment into their craft has paid off.

Long preamble aside, that investment is an obvious parallel with two programming languages: RPG and COBOL. While both languages have certainly evolved and modernized from their initial iterations, much of the foundational business logic written in these languages continues to run to this day all over the world.

Let’s talk about COBOL. A few weeks ago, New Jersey Governor Phil Murray put out an open call for volunteers who know the language because their applications needed maintenance work to help process the massive amounts of unemployment and public assistance claims generated by the COVID-19 crisis. Suddenly, COBOL is hot again, like it was the last time a major influx of COBOL programmers were needed: Y2K.

So how pervasive is COBOL? A couple of years ago, Reuters reported that 95 percent of ATM swipes and 43 percent of banking systems rely on COBOL. It has 220 billion lines of code running in the world today.

I wanted some perspective, so I reached out to a developer group called COBOL Cowboys. I received a very gracious but honest email response stating that they were inundated with media activity and inquiries from COBOL programmers. They’re so busy they don’t need any promotion right now. It’s not a bad problem to have!

I then reached out to fellow IBM Champion, Cameron Seay, Ph.D., who’s an Adjunct Professor at East Carolina University. Here’s what he had to say about the preconceptions and misconceptions about COBOL.

Cameron Seay: What it is, actually, is a fundamental lack of understanding by the populace at large of how the global financial infrastructure is put together and a fundamental lack of understanding on the part of college administrators about the benefits of these courses for their students. It’s a lack of understanding how important these “legacy systems” are. Ask any guy on the street: Do you know [that] 70–80 percent of business transactions that your financial life depends on depends on a language called COBOL that’s developed in the 1950s? Nobody knows it, but that’s a fact.

I’ve taught mainframe at five schools. I have had never a problem convincing a substantial percentage of students to seriously consider mainframe as a career choice.

He recently surveyed students, and the results were certainly refreshing:

CS: Final results of my course survey: 79 percent had never heard of mainframe before the class; 89 percent said they will now consider mainframe as a career choice. Bottom line? Most students don't even know about this technology, but when you explain to them what it is and what it does, they will consider it for a career. Companies say they can't find mainframe candidates. But it's clear that once the students are properly exposed to this technology, they like it.

I know technology departments at other large schools, and I’m not going to name them and throw them under the bus, but they graduate information systems students and very few of them actually get a job in IT. The kids leave there with debt, and nobody seems to have a problem with this. It’s not rocket science. I have to give props to our dean at East Carolina because he really cares about kids getting jobs.

Steve Pitcher: From a jobs perspective, how many are directly employed that have graduated your program?

CS: When I was with other schools and we tracked that stuff, we placed maybe 120 people! It’s not complicated.

SP: So, what about the press? The naysayers. It’s almost like they preface every article with how old and archaic the language is. We see the same thing on the RPG side of the coin all the time. Even the darn name. People still call IBM Power Systems an AS/400. It’s not. They think that RPG is all fixed-format. It’s not.

CS: They have it all wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the technology. The technology is all solid. The solution is not to move it to something else. You’re not going to be able to do that. It’s almost physically impossible. Well, it’s not impossible; it’s unfeasible from an effort and risk standpoint. The easiest thing to do is teach people COBOL. My inbox is full of people who want COBOL programmers.

A bank I know of has 50 million lines of COBOL code. The scale of this problem…the press is all about New Jersey right now. Every state is in the same situation. It’s just New Jersey’s governor happened to mention it in a press conference. And it’s a fixable problem! Very fixable! Teach COBOL! It’s simple.

You’re not going to migrate all this code to Java. It’s too risky and too expensive and too unnecessary. That’s not the smart play. IBM makes new mainframe technology all the time. It’s not outdated technology. We need to teach it.

SP: What about a life of making maintenance versus “new development.” That’s another thing I think our communities share. Some people think that when you’re hired as a developer with a predominantly RPG shop, then you’ll be programming maintenance programs all day every day. It’s probably the same perception for COBOL.

CS: Yes, but nothing can be further from the truth. I know a lot of IT managers. They’re having new lines of COBOL written every day. They need functionality. It’s just as easy to write it in COBOL as anything else. Now are there more new lines of COBOL than lines of Java in the world? Probably not. But that doesn’t matter. If you’re a developer, it’s highly unlikely you’ll only ever program in one language. Highly unlikely. You have a toolbox. If you know Java, then COBOL is a walk in the park and vice versa. It’s not either/or. It’s and. We have to keep adding tools to the toolbox. And COBOL is just a tool. It’s a marketable skill. Any of my students graduate with a marketable skill. And that’s a fact.

COBOL may be the scapegoat to a larger problem. The problem is both perception and hardware. The perception problem is easy: education. The more we understand about the value of COBOL, the more developers will learn the language.

Another concern is budget for new hardware. If your state is running COBOL that runs perfectly well under normal circumstances, when things go sideways like now or during the 2008 financial crisis, overloading the systems may be more related to older hardware that just doesn’t have the horsepower to move things along at a reasonable pace. Make no mistake, IBM mainframe is a machine designed for processing ridiculous amounts of transactions per day. But as those workloads increase and years go by, the hardware underneath must be updated and upgraded. Hardware is the foundation of the technology pyramid, no matter what the applications are written on. For the last 25 years, state funding for application development has been on a serious downswing. I can only assume that the same goes for appropriations for server hardware. Either way, we need to ensure that all technology designed to run state and federal infrastructure is modernized regularly. Modernization doesn’t mean replacement. It’s means modernization. It means education. It means building new solutions. It means augmenting critical applications and business investments that have had a 60-year run. And it means a regular hardware refresh.

The technology works. COBOL isn’t the problem. The problem is widespread ignorance of the technology that we all rely on to keep our world running.

And for those about to learn COBOL, we salute you.


Steve Pitcher
Steve Pitcher works with iTech Solutions, an IBM Premier Business Partner. He is a specialist in IBM i and IBM Power Systems solutions since 2001. Feel free to contact him directly This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Support MC Press Online

$0.00 Raised:

Book Reviews

Resource Center

  • SB Profound WC 5536 Have you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application. You can find Part 1 here. In Part 2 of our free Node.js Webinar Series, Brian May teaches you the different tooling options available for writing code, debugging, and using Git for version control. Brian will briefly discuss the different tools available, and demonstrate his preferred setup for Node development on IBM i or any platform. Attend this webinar to learn:

  • SB Profound WP 5539More than ever, there is a demand for IT to deliver innovation. Your IBM i has been an essential part of your business operations for years. However, your organization may struggle to maintain the current system and implement new projects. The thousands of customers we've worked with and surveyed state that expectations regarding the digital footprint and vision of the company are not aligned with the current IT environment.

  • SB HelpSystems ROBOT Generic IBM announced the E1080 servers using the latest Power10 processor in September 2021. The most powerful processor from IBM to date, Power10 is designed to handle the demands of doing business in today’s high-tech atmosphere, including running cloud applications, supporting big data, and managing AI workloads. But what does Power10 mean for your data center? In this recorded webinar, IBMers Dan Sundt and Dylan Boday join IBM Power Champion Tom Huntington for a discussion on why Power10 technology is the right strategic investment if you run IBM i, AIX, or Linux. In this action-packed hour, Tom will share trends from the IBM i and AIX user communities while Dan and Dylan dive into the tech specs for key hardware, including:

  • Magic MarkTRY the one package that solves all your document design and printing challenges on all your platforms. Produce bar code labels, electronic forms, ad hoc reports, and RFID tags – without programming! MarkMagic is the only document design and print solution that combines report writing, WYSIWYG label and forms design, and conditional printing in one integrated product. Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Request your trial now!  Request Now.

  • SB HelpSystems ROBOT GenericForms of ransomware has been around for over 30 years, and with more and more organizations suffering attacks each year, it continues to endure. What has made ransomware such a durable threat and what is the best way to combat it? In order to prevent ransomware, organizations must first understand how it works.

  • SB HelpSystems ROBOT GenericIT security is a top priority for businesses around the world, but most IBM i pros don’t know where to begin—and most cybersecurity experts don’t know IBM i. In this session, Robin Tatam explores the business impact of lax IBM i security, the top vulnerabilities putting IBM i at risk, and the steps you can take to protect your organization. If you’re looking to avoid unexpected downtime or corrupted data, you don’t want to miss this session.

  • SB HelpSystems ROBOT GenericCan you trust all of your users all of the time? A typical end user receives 16 malicious emails each month, but only 17 percent of these phishing campaigns are reported to IT. Once an attack is underway, most organizations won’t discover the breach until six months later. A staggering amount of damage can occur in that time. Despite these risks, 93 percent of organizations are leaving their IBM i systems vulnerable to cybercrime. In this on-demand webinar, IBM i security experts Robin Tatam and Sandi Moore will reveal:

  • FORTRA Disaster protection is vital to every business. Yet, it often consists of patched together procedures that are prone to error. From automatic backups to data encryption to media management, Robot automates the routine (yet often complex) tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:

  • FORTRAManaging messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. Messages need a response and resources must be monitored—often over multiple systems and across platforms. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events? Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:

  • FORTRAThe thought of printing, distributing, and storing iSeries reports manually may reduce you to tears. Paper and labor costs associated with report generation can spiral out of control. Mountains of paper threaten to swamp your files. Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing. Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

  • FORTRAFor over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i. With batch job creation and scheduling at its core, the Robot Job Scheduling Solution reduces the opportunity for human error and helps you maintain service levels, automating even the biggest, most complex runbooks. Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:

  • LANSA Business users want new applications now. Market and regulatory pressures require faster application updates and delivery into production. Your IBM i developers may be approaching retirement, and you see no sure way to fill their positions with experienced developers. In addition, you may be caught between maintaining your existing applications and the uncertainty of moving to something new.

  • LANSAWhen it comes to creating your business applications, there are hundreds of coding platforms and programming languages to choose from. These options range from very complex traditional programming languages to Low-Code platforms where sometimes no traditional coding experience is needed. Download our whitepaper, The Power of Writing Code in a Low-Code Solution, and:

  • LANSASupply Chain is becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable. From raw materials for manufacturing to food supply chains, the journey from source to production to delivery to consumers is marred with inefficiencies, manual processes, shortages, recalls, counterfeits, and scandals. In this webinar, we discuss how:

  • The MC Resource Centers bring you the widest selection of white papers, trial software, and on-demand webcasts for you to choose from. >> Review the list of White Papers, Trial Software or On-Demand Webcast at the MC Press Resource Center. >> Add the items to yru Cart and complet he checkout process and submit

  • Profound Logic Have you been wondering about Node.js? Our free Node.js Webinar Series takes you from total beginner to creating a fully-functional IBM i Node.js business application.

  • SB Profound WC 5536Join us for this hour-long webcast that will explore:

  • Fortra IT managers hoping to find new IBM i talent are discovering that the pool of experienced RPG programmers and operators or administrators with intimate knowledge of the operating system and the applications that run on it is small. This begs the question: How will you manage the platform that supports such a big part of your business? This guide offers strategies and software suggestions to help you plan IT staffing and resources and smooth the transition after your AS/400 talent retires. Read on to learn: