COBOL programmers back in the game

ITworld.com –

You're wrong if you think COBOL programmers are doomed to go the way of the Edsel. Despite predictions to the contrary, the world kept revolving around its axis after Y2K. Yet, the job market for COBOL programmers suddenly plunged -- and so did their salaries. However, this decline has since been stemmed thanks to the Internet's transition into a sprawling shopping mall selling everything from toothbrushes to tractors.

In the late 1990s, organizations fired up Y2K remediation projects and sought COBOL programmers to immunize legacy (database management systems running on mainframes or minicomputers) business applications against Y2K-related problems. Today, companies are finding that they need help integrating these legacy systems with new applications.

A couple of years ago Bill Lockhart, 63, a veteran COBOL programmer from Los Altos, Calif., was hard pressed to find a company that would take advantage of his more than 30 years of experience. His experience as a COBOL programmer dates to 1966 when he worked as a systems programmer. More recently, as a database specialist, he worked on several assignments for IBM writing in COBOL, PL/I, REXX, and assembly language.

"The tables have turned," chuckles Lockhart. "IT industries need my COBOL skills to get going on the Web."

Most of the world's business data, approximately 75 to 85 percent, is written in COBOL," adds Bill Payson, president and CEO of Senior Techs, an Internet-based job bank for experienced IT professionals in Campbell, Calif. "That translates to some hundreds of billions of lines of code."

COBOL is used in some manner by almost all Fortune 500 companies. Many of these companies have a large pool of COBOL-based applications that are primary business systems. E-business requires these systems to be integrated and connected to the outside world.

"With the future of all commerce linked to the Internet, companies with massive databases know that success depends on the ability to move data in and out of the Internet," Payson explains.

Paul Halpern, director of traditional development solutions at Merant, a Web-enabling training company in Mountain View, Calif., maintains that, "If all the COBOL programs stopped working, the US economy would collapse." And he points out: "Nine out of ten of the top Internet brokers use COBOL with CICS [Customer Information Control Systems]. Chances are that when you use an ATM card you are starting a COBOL/CICS process. An IBM report published last year indicates 30 billion COBOL/CICS transactions are executed worldwide each day, more than the total number of Web pages hit each day."

It's no secret that Java and C++ programmers are hard to find. And companies are fast realizing it is fiscally impossible to translate COBOL into an Internet-based language such as Java, C++, or Visual Basic. "Even if you could, you'd end up putting all your data at risk because the Internet is notoriously vulnerable," says Payson. "The entire world is paranoid about Web security."

An estimated 1.5 million COBOL programmers are available worldwide. Payson has the names of more than 2,500 COBOL experts in his database alone. "The challenge is not just finding veteran COBOL people, but finding COBOL developers who know the Internet," he says. "Our strategy is based on the belief that it is easier to train veteran COBOL staff in the Internet than it is to teach dot-comers in the complex business rules of COBOL. For the most part, young dot-comers don't know COBOL nor do they want to learn it. They think it is something from the walls of King Tut's tomb." Complicating matters, most major universities don't even teach COBOL anymore, according to Payson.

Solution? "Go where the bodies are," Payson suggests. "Find unemployed veteran COBOL programmers and get them to train themselves about the Web."

Easier said than done. Despite the well-documented shortage of IT pros, experienced techies who are age 50 and older find that even a hungry technical job market is not that quick to embrace their talents. Fearing age discrimination lawsuits, no employer will admit to not hiring capable candidates because of their age. Seasoned techies like Lockhart must work twice as hard to convince employers they're not over the hill. But, it's worth the battle because both the senior techs and companies benefit.

For information about the demand for COBOL skills, check out some of the large Web-enabling companies like Fujitsu and Merant. Or, consider attending the COBOL World 2001 conference in Anaheim, Calif., October 2-4.

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