Is COBOL the 18-Wheeler of the Web?

Coffee: Legacy code may be stuck at the truck stop if tomorrow's coders choose other rides.

If youre looking for a hot combination of highly employable skills, consider writing code to provide Web services--in COBOL.

Can a person build a 21st-century IT career on this 1960s foundation? Well, foundations are better than shifting sands. Legacy Reserves, a databank for over-35 IT pros, cites Gartner estimates that retirement and death will shrink the population of working COBOL coders by 13 percent between 2002 and 2006, even while 15 percent of all new applications are being written in the language--and quotes the GIGA Group as predicting that "The most highly paid programmers in the next ten years are going to be COBOL programmers who know the Internet."

It doesnt matter whether you enter the world of Web services through the door marked ".Net" or the one labeled "Java" (and after all, the whole point is to avoid being locked into either one). Fujitsus NetCOBOL for .Net produces Common Language Runtime code that integrates with Microsoft languages like C# and Visual Basic .Net; Micro Focus plans to do the same by summer. Fujitsu has also commissioned a multimedia training course, with textbook, for developers who want to learn more.

Meanwhile, at GigaWorld IT Forum last week in Phoenix, Micro Focus rolled out its Enterprise Server platform for COBOL/J2EE integration. LegacyJ Corp.s PERCobol takes another road, compiling 15 dialects of COBOL source code to Java Virtual Machine executables. And earlier this month, Acucorp announced forthcoming release of its extend6 lineup of COBOL-based integration tools for XML--along with file system extensions for handling large objects, such as images and other multimedia, in record sizes as large as 64 megabytes.

One of my sons favorite T-shirts bears an IBM COBOL logo, along with a cartoon drawing of a shark in sunglasses and a quotation from one of my columns. Though its often called a dinosaur, I argued in that column that COBOL better resembles the shark: Its been ruling its niche since the beginning, with a plausible challenger yet to emerge.

But if you query Google with "Java," youll get almost 34 million hits. Ask Amazon.com about Java books, and youll find more than 2,000 titles. Do the same things with "COBOL" as the search term, and youll get fewer than 1 million Google results and only 700 books. I wonder what language is being used to cut the paychecks of all those Java coders?

To paraphrase the old proverb about accomplishments and credit, theres no limit to how much work a language can do if its vendors and practitioners dont care who gets the buzz. But if the COBOL community wants to know why it gets so little street cred, perhaps it should take a collective look in the mirror. Follow that first Google hit to The COBOL Center, and youll find a "COBOL News" list whose leading items are mostly past their first birthday: Of the six news items on that home page as of last week, only one bears a 2003 date. Hype alone is certainly not sufficient, but a modest amount may be a necessary catalyst to the production of future talent.

It takes a while to refill the pipeline of critical skills, after we notice that its running dry. If were going to need people in, say, 2008 who have current knowledge of the Internet and the Web, practiced skills in writing COBOL code that can use those network resources, and five to 10 years of experience in leading a development team, now is not too soon to start developing those assets.

Draw me your COBOL road map.

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