In the fast-moving, ever-changing IT industry, businesses are always chasing the "Next Big Thing" - the latest programming languages, emerging technology and project methodology - as they try and gain a competitive edge. But there's a more pressing problem looming for many companies, especially in the finance, travel and government spaces: a shortage of Cobol developers.
You read that right. The demand for talent skilled in and experienced with Cobol has remained steady, even as the pool of talent with those skills shrinks, says Ed Airey, product marketing director at Micro Focus, a software and consultancy services firm that helps clients modernize legacy systems.
"One of the most significant challenges is changing people's perception of Cobol and other legacy skills," says Airey. "Generally, in IT, newer is better, but a lot of our clients have built their businesses on this technology, and it still holds value for them," he says.
Cobol Every Day
End-users interact with Cobol-based systems and solutions much more often that you might think, says Airey. Banking, insurance, and even air and rail travel solutions that are customer-facing are often Cobol-based, because the language excels at both exact computation and at handling large volumes of data efficiently, he says.
"Cobol was designed in the 1950s and 1960s as a business language and it does some things really well," says Airey. "It does computation and advanced arithmetic very well, up to 32 places on each side of a decimal point; that's important to large businesses for whom a simple rounding error could result in millions of dollars of loss," he says.
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"Cobol's very good at processing large volumes of data, which is why it's used in industries that still perform batch processing," Airey says. "The Federal Reserve Bank, many credit card companies, the IRS; these large financial institutions often still rely on batch processing - where all transactions are processed after a short delay at one time - instead of implementing newer, real-time payment and accounting systems," he says.
In addition to these use cases, Cobol's used for security and screening purposes; to run background checks, for immigration and border protection and to process information against terrorist watch lists, for example, Airey says.
Aging Tech, Aging Workforce
But the problem is that, as these legacy technologies age, so does the workforce with the skills to manage and use them, and it's difficult to find new talent to take their places, says Airey.
[Related: Brain Drain: Where Cobol Systems Go From Here]
"What we're seeing is a lot of the workforce is aging out. The average age of a Cobol programmer is close to 55-years-old, and the challenge is to find the next-generation talent to continue working on these technologies," Airey says.
"Most colleges and universities aren't teaching these; they're favoring newer languages like Java, C++, UNIX and Linux, and therefore Cobol and skills like mainframe are at a premium," he says.
"Our clients are having a hard time figuring out how to innovate on top of this old code and with these old systems," says Laura McGarrity, vice president of Digital Marketing Strategy at Mondo. "It can be hard to find the talent with the skills and knowledge to do that for our clients; it's a really tricky market. The pool of available talent isn't growing as quickly, and in many cases, talent's close to retirement age," she says.
Addressing the Cobol Shortage
Some organizations with deep investment in Cobol-based systems are handling the shortage by creating internships within their company, or by sponsoring education and learning opportunities to train existing staff. Micro Focus itself has modernized the language and integrated Cobol into the top two software development environments, Visual Studio and Eclipse, to make the language easier to learn and remove the 'proprietary' nature of individual companies' implementations, says Airey.
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"We looked at why Cobol was so difficult to learn, and why there wasn't as high a demand for it, and realized so many companies have their own proprietary toolsets," Airey says. "So we took the language and integrated it into Visual Studio or Eclipse so developers could use familiar integrated development environments (IDEs) to build application software for their employers in what we call Visual Cobol - we made it easier to learn," he says.
Micro Focus offers Visual Cobol personal edition for free to anyone who wants to work with the language, Airey says. The personal edition, available in a 12-month software license, is available through Micro Focus' Bridge the Gap initiative.
Airey adds that a few Micro Focus clients put local university students through ten- or twenty-week programs to learn Cobol in the context of how the business uses it in their own systems, he says.
"We have clients like IBM and CA that teach these skills in the classroom. Over 350 universities worldwide are using our software, support and courseware to teach these skills, and we've seen an upswing in the subscribership to these programs," he says.
Cobol endures because businesses must continue to focus on profit margins and competitive advantage; in many cases, switching to newer, more costly systems isn't an option, Airey says. The key is using legacy tech like Cobol effectively and in such a way that it furthers innovation, not stifles it.
"How can you keep your profit margins and also maintain that competitive advantage? Well, you keep the stuff that's working - like Cobol - that you've already paid for, and instead work on building a path from the legacy tech to the new way of doing business," Airey says.