Cobol’s still alive and thriving

There you are, sipping your latte while banging out code in Django, Drupal, and Ruby, and feeling pretty cutting-edge. Sure, those are the hot skills of the moment, and they’ll probably help you land your next job.

But take a minute to think about the guys who came before you and the tools, particularly COBOL, they used. And give ’em some respect. They deserve it.

What brings this to mind is the rather comical dilemma faced by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger whose effort to cut (albeit temporarily) state employee salaries to the level of fry cooks at McDonald’s has allegedly been foiled by a lack of COBOL programmers.

In case you missed it, California is in the midst of a distinctly unfunny fiscal crisis made worse by the inability of the Democrat-controlled legislature and the Republican governor to put together a budget.

So the Governator, as we call Schwarzenegger in these parts, issued an order to cut employee salaries to the federal minimum wage for at least a month.

Putting aside the merit (or lack thereof) in his idea, state Controller John Chiang, the guy who issues the checks, says the state simply can’t do it.

“In 2003 my office tried to see if we could reconfigure our system to do such a task,” he told a State Senate committee on Monday. “And after 12 months, we stopped without a feasible solution.” D’oh!

The story has been interpreted by the media (including the New York Times on Wednesday) to make it seem like COBOL is similar to ancient Egyptian, carved on stone walls and only read by priests in loin cloths or cloistered academics.

In particular, the writer quoted some bozo at Carnegie Mellon University who likened COBOL to “a television with vacuum tubes,” and then said: “There are no COBOL programmers around anymore. They retired centuries ago.” Wrong, wrong, wrong.

COBOL ain’t dead

In 2003, Gartner estimated that there are 180 billion lines of COBOL code in use around the world and that there are still 90,000 programmers who use it.

In a funny column a couple of years ago, a writer at Computerworld, our sister publication, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and figured that if you printed out all that code “you’d get 50 lines per page in landscape mode. Copy paper comes in 2-inch reams with 500 sheets per ream. That figures out to a 227-mile-tall printout.”

Last month, Gartner analyst Dale Vecchio wrote a report that touched on this very topic, noting that he expects the number of COBOL-skilled programmers to shrink by about 5 percent a year as the Baby Boomers reach retirement age.

Fair enough. COBOL is certainly an older language, and a verbose one at that. And many of the people skilled in its use are older. But “retired centuries ago”? Good grief.

Now let me introduce you to Charles Townsend, CEO of LegacyJ in Los Gatos, Calif. Townsend’s company works with code written in COBOL, runs it through a compiler it has developed, and then redeploys it on a customer’s application server where it executes in Java.

Because these guys are smart, they give the compiler to universities who train people in computer science. During a typical semester, he says, there are about 1,600 students around the world learning COBOL using his tools. And that doesn’t count students learning COBOL by using tools developed by other companies, he adds.

Townsend thinks the 90,000 estimate of available COBOL programmers might be a bit low, but that’s not the point. There’s a lot of those dudes (and dudettes) out there, and major businesses, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, use COBOL for mission-critical applications every single day.

The real culprit in the California snafu

As to California’s problem, Townsend has some interesting insights.

The real problem in California’s payroll system, he says, has to do with an IBM CICS subsystem that runs on top of z/OS, the mainframe operating system. Typically those systems are maintained by outside companies, like IBM.

Indeed, Townsend says that when the state’s child welfare organization wanted to update its system, IBM came back with an estimate of three years and $30 million.

Hmmm. Maybe California should have enough programmers around to do the job itself. It would cost a lot less than $30 million. (The IBM incident became public during legislative hearings, by the way.)

But that’s another story. As for this one, it’s worth remembering that older languages, and yes, older programmers, still play an important role in IT. One can imagine that there aren’t a lot of state employees beating on Schwarzenegger’s door to fix the problem and nuke their own paychecks.

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