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COBOL skills needed in the future

There is just too much of this code out there to ignore, and future programmers would do well to cash in on the coming COBOL knowledge pool shortage.

To paraphrase German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, COBOL is dead. Or at least that's what some people in the IT world believe. It's a legacy language with relatively little new development taking place.

But the growth of the mainframe of late, combined with the staggering amount of COBOL running currently, has some experts are questioning whether the 800-pound gorilla is really dead. So Rockville, Md.-based Micro Focus International Ltd. decided to poke it with a stick to find out.

According to preliminary results of Micro Focus' survey of 750 mainframers in the U.S. and Canada, 41% name COBOL as a principal programming language by an approximate 25% margin over Java, the next most popular language. Preliminary results also find 52% of mainframe applications are still written in COBOL.

The survey also found the median age of the COBOL programmer is 45-49, leading to the belief that there will be a growing knowledge shortage of COBOL programmers in the next decade.

Which raises the question: If your son or daughter were enrolled in a computer science program, would you encourage him or her to take classes in COBOL?

As it happens, Mark Lillycrop, CEO of U.K.-based Arcati Research and Publishing, has a nephew that is a first-year computer science student, and he has been encouraging him to pursue mainframe skills.

"COBOL is like an invisible giant. There's reported to be 180 billion-200 billion lines of code out there, processing 75% of commercial business. Few companies are keen to throw away the hundreds or thousands of man-years that have been invested in mature, high-performance COBOL code. Instead, they are integrating and building bridges between COBOL, .NET and J2EE [Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition], using service-oriented architectures to preserve the strengths of the legacy code while benefiting from Web-oriented development tools," Lillycrop said.

Ron Kizior, assistant professor Loyola University Chicago School of Business, ISOM area, worked on the Micro Focus survey. According to Kizior, the aspect that surprised him the most was the small number of mainframe shops that had gone to the Web. He'd expected up to 40%, but the numbers showed only 10%.

Despite that small number, Lillycrop and Kizior said the ability to integrate COBOL with Web-oriented development tools would be the skill to have in the future.

"It's not enough to know COBOL; the real winners are those who understand how to integrate with newer technologies. Some of the more enlightened universities are trying to get to grips with this emerging requirement, and are bringing the necessary mainframe components back onto the syllabus," Lillycrop said.

For more information:

Crash Course: COBOL

Will old COBOL program work with a 64-bit processor?

Loyola University Chicago is offering workshops on COBOL integration with .NET this summer, according to Kizior. He said it's harder to convince university administrators to consider COBOL than it is to persuade students.

"COBOL gives you a better understanding of what programming is. It's like taking the classics. It gives you a well-rounded background," Kizior said.

COBOL will be at the center of the enterprise for many years to come, with a huge ongoing support requirement. According to Lillycrop, when the current population of 50-something COBOL specialists finally retire, people with the right combination of skills will be able to name their price.

Micro Focus said full results of the survey will be available in June.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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