Other functions, such as general ledger and reporting, are moving to distributed computing platforms, where they are either replaced by packaged software or re-engineered into Java or .Net applications.
But Brown still needs Cobol programmers to replace those expected to retire, and the learning curve can last for a year or more. That means adding staff and having a period of overlap as Cobol's secrets get passed on to the next generation. "I'm trying to get those people on board and do the knowledge transfer sooner rather than later," Brown says.
But that kind of proactive approach, and the extra costs it incurs, can be a hard sell. "We haven't gotten to the point of feeling the pain yet. When we do, it will happen," he says.
Brown wouldn't specify the number of people he's hoping to hire, but he says the "real heavy need" will happen in the next five to 10 years, when the original mainframe programmers are expected to retire en force. BNY Mellon currently employs "a few hundred" Cobol programmers, he says.
Brown's concerns are well placed, says David Garza, president and CEO of Trinity Millennium Group, a software engineering firm that has handled code transformations for large businesses and government organizations. "Almost every job we get has Cobol in it," he says, and most of the calls come from organizations that have already lost their collective knowledge of the business logic. At that point, he says, a migration is "a big risk."
The Cost of Waiting
Trinity Millennium Group and similar vendors have established processes for analyzing and extracting the business rules embedded between the lines of Cobol code. "The solutions have come a long way in terms of the ability to extract logic and rules," says Burden.
But the process is time-consuming and costly. One Millennium client recently spent $1 million to have its Cobol programs analyzed and business logic reconstructed as part of a migration off of a mainframe. "If they had the legacy programmers there and we had done the exercise with them, it would have cost $200,000 and taken one-tenth of the time," Garza says. If you wait until that institutional knowledge is gone, he warns, the costs can be as much as 10 times higher than they would have been beforehand.
Compounding the loss of skills and business knowledge is the fact that, for some organizations, decades of changes have created a convoluted mess of spaghetti code that even the most experienced programmers can't figure out. "Some systems are snarled so badly that programmers aren't allowed to change the code at all," Garza says. "It's simply too risky to change it. They're frozen solid."