COBOL developers go gentle into that good night
By Jennifer deJong Lent
September 11, 2012 —
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Several years ago, pundits issued a dire warning: The impending retirement of COBOL developers, most of them baby boomers, would spell doom for big organizations that rely on mainframe apps. With young developers entering the workplace skilled in modern languages, not Common Business-Oriented Language invented in 1959, surely financial apps, reservation systems and the like would come crashing down.
But now it looks more like no big deal than doom. COBOL developers, born between 1946 and 1964, are quietly exiting the workplace in droves, and no one appears particularly alarmed.
There are two reasons why this is so. First, the COBOL apps that power core business operations today aren’t just COBOL. “They are COBOL surrounded by modern technologies,” said Ed Airey, product marketing director for COBOL tool maker Micro Focus. The core business rules may be written in COBOL, but that code is linked to user interfaces running on everything from a smartphone to a kiosk, he said. “No one is interacting with the green screen.”
Airey offered two examples: an insurance company that delivers a mobile app that lets prospects get auto insurance quotes on their smart phones; and an airport kiosk that lets passengers check in by swiping a credit card or scanning the barcode from a piece of paper confirming their itinerary. In both cases, COBOL is operating in the background, calculating the quote or zeroing in on the reservation, he said.
The second reason why developer retirement doesn’t spell disaster for COBOL-dependent shops is that COBOL apps in operation today are highly stable. They are, in a sense, walled off from the modern technologies that provide access to them, often interacting at only the database level, said Steve Gapp, president of LANSA, which provides legacy modernization tools and services. “COBOL code has been well maintained by COBOL developers who have been in their jobs for a long time.”
While the threat was clearly overblown, the retirement of COBOL developers is not without its challenges. “There is business risk associated with it,” said Gapp, noting that modernization of COBOL apps is a continual process, not a one-shot deal.