From the Dustbin, Cobol Rises

Long-lived legacy apps keep creaky skills crucial.

Like John Travolta and bell-bottoms, COBOL is back. The 40-year-old programming language is being dusted off after years of being regarded as hopelessly out of fashion.

According to a report by Gartner Inc., applications managing about 85 percent of the worlds business data are written in COBOL. And despite the rush to object-oriented languages, 60 percent of the worlds code base is still written in COBOL—and that figure is expected to increase.

That all adds up to plenty of organizations that will have to work hard to find the skills to support legacy code—particularly since so many COBOL programmers are on the brink of retiring or dying. One such organization is the Public Schools Retirement Systems for the City of St. Louis, which recently needed to hire COBOL programmers for a two-year project involving moving the public schools retirement payroll system off an IBM mainframe and onto a Dell Computer Corp. 4300 server. The St. Louis government body went the way many enterprises are forced to go nowadays: with a contract programmer.

Other organizations are lucky enough to be staffed with the skilled workers they need, but they live under the shadow of impending attrition. Thats the story at C.A. Curtze Co. Inc., a wholesale food service distributor in Erie, Pa., that is so heavily invested in the language that it spun off a separate company, SalesPro Technologies Inc., to market its home-grown order entry and management tool—based in COBOL, of course—to other retailers.

Are there any other places besides retirement homes to find these increasingly rare programmers? Hiring offshore talent isnt the answer, experts say. Imported workers lack understanding of the ingredient that makes COBOL so invaluable—its incorporation of business procedures.

Of course, the retiree community still has an untapped vein of skills. Thats evident by looking at resources such as The Senior Staff Job Information Search Inc., a company in Campbell, Calif., that maintains a database of some 2,500 names of ex-COBOLers. President Bill Payson estimates there are probably another 8,000 to 10,000 employable retired programmers in the United States.

Hiring managers at the Public Schools Retirement Systems for the City of St. Louis have had to go both the retiree route and the contracting route when they noticed other pools of COBOL skills drying up. "Its getting harder to find good COBOL people," said Lonnie Caldwell, director of technology.

To complete an IBM mainframe-to-Dell 4300 server migration, Caldwell hired a COBOL veteran with 25 years of experience from a local IT contracting service. "If we had the budget, Id hire him outright in a minute," he said.

Caldwell is about seven years from retirement. When he goes, he said, he hopes to find his replacement among the younger set of programmers coming out of universities that still teach COBOL skills.

Unfortunately, many four-year colleges and universities have cut back or stopped giving classes in COBOL. "You cant get the new kids—the dot-commers—to take a second look at COBOL," Senior Staffs Payson said. "Its far easier to teach a COBOLer the dot-com stuff than vice versa. Knowing COBOL means you already know how the business runs."

Luckily, some institutions are keeping up with the need. Paul Halpern, director of traditional solutions marketing at Merant Co., maker of COBOL-to-Web enabling tools, advises enterprises to look to the two-year and community college programs. "They tend to be more practical and more responsive to the actual needs of the businesses around them," said Halpern, in Mountain View, Calif. And while the four-year colleges may have scrapped COBOL courses in their computer sciences departments, he said, some are still teaching it in their business schools and in-house IT departments.

Thats lucky for Tony Darden. As director of programming at C.A. Curtze, Darden has over the past few years watched other companies abandon COBOL in favor of languages such as Visual Basic. But with an estimated 700 COBOL-based programs and hundreds of thousands of lines of COBOL code already in use at Curtze, that approach struck him as foolhardy.

So in 1994, his IT group began examining tools that allow COBOL to work in a Windows environment. After settling on AcuCOBOL—software from Acucorp Inc., of San Diego—Darden never looked back. Indeed, it was the success of Curtzes eight programmers in marrying COBOL with newer environments such as Windows that led to the SalesPro spinoff. As sales grow, so will his need for COBOLers.

"Well have a need for COBOLers for as long as I can see," Darden said.

Thats good news for those COBOLers who havent mothballed themselves yet—and who dont plan on it any time soon.