Confessions of a Cobol programmer

Don't laugh. Intrepid young programmers are using dusty old Cobol to boost their careers. Some of them even like it.

The other career path is the more traditional programming job -- maintaining and fixing old code as well as writing new Cobol code. While some companies are now offshoring this type of Cobol work to places like India -- especially the maintenance of old code -- plenty of organizations want to keep a certain number of programmers in the U.S., especially if their jobs are key to keeping critical business systems up and running.

That's the position that Stacy Watts, a 28-year-old senior developer at Nationwide Insurance in the US, is in. She's been writing Cobol code for about seven years, and last year the company offered her a chance to remotely oversee a team of programmers in India. Watts designs the program and then parcels out the coding work to the India-based programmers in addition to doing some of it herself.

Watts says she's not worried that her job might be outsourced. Even with the offshore programmers, "We still don't have enough people to get all the work done," Watts says. What's more, she views the opportunity to lead the India team as a step toward a management role.

Although Watts studied several programming languages at school, including Visual Basic, C and Java, she naturally gravitated to Cobol. "It was the mainframe that came easier to me," she says. "It made more sense to me."

Cobol programmers frequently cite job security as one of the attractions of their career choice. Brian Vance, a 30-year-old mainframe programmer at Grange Insurance, started at the company five years ago, maintaining and updating old Cobol code. Today, he's developing new Cobol code as the insurance provider branches out.

The youngest of about 20 Cobol programmers at the company, Vance foresees a stable and secure career. "I know it's an old man's game. I like the position of being the younger individual in the market," he says. "You're going to have people retiring and nobody to fill their shoes. So I think my job stability is about as good as it can get."

John Walczak, a 31-year-old Cobol programmer at Sallie Mae also says he's satisfied and secure in his work. When he graduated from university, Walczak wanted to work on Web-related projects. But Sallie Mae hired him to work on Cobol, promising that he'd be able to move around the company and do other things.

After a couple of years, he did indeed have an opportunity to move to a team that was developing a Web site. But to Walczak's surprise, he didn't like it. "I thought I'd be building Web pages and doing graphics. But that stuff is already prebuilt," he says. Instead, he was building code "behind the scenes -- doing a lot of Visual Basic and some .Net code." He decided to go back to Cobol programming.

Now the company is trying to persuade Walczak to move into more of a liaison role. After working at Sallie Mae for more than eight years, Walczak understands how its systems work. "So they want me to use that knowledge to help with project development and with project design," he says.

Problem is, Walczak's not so sure he wants to make the move. "I love programming. I love to code," he says. "I'm hanging on with two hands to my keyboard, and they are trying to pry me away. I don't want to go."

Cobol: Going, but when?

Most industry observers agree that a dose of Cobol training can help your career in the short term. But will Cobol be around long enough to get you to retirement age?

Companies involved in the Cobol market like to point to the statistics -- such as that 75% of the world's business data is still in Cobol -- to prove that Cobol, and therefore Cobol jobs, will be around for years to come.

Dale Vecchio, a Gartner analyst, isn't so sure.

"I'm seeing an increasing interest in organizations extricating themselves from IBM mainframes and Cobol," says Vecchio. "It's becoming increasingly accepted that they can get off the mainframe and move to Windows or Unix or Linux. I expect that to continue over the next five to seven years."

In addition, large companies are increasingly replacing custom mainframe applications such as human resources or supply chain management -- often written in Cobol -- with packaged software from companies like Oracle, he notes.

Employment opps abound

Nevertheless, Cobol programming is still a useful skill for IT professionals to have. "The world doesn't need 100,000 new Cobol programmers, but it does need several thousand new Cobol programmers," says Drake Coker, chief technology officer for Cobol at Micro Focus International.

"There is a lot of work out there for people who know how to take a new system with new technology and marry it to an existing system," he adds.

How to get Cobol into your toolbox is another matter. Fewer and fewer U.S. colleges and universities now offer Cobol training. In the past couple of years, both IBM and Micro Focus have launched initiatives to encourage universities to train more mainframe programmers. Through these programs, the companies provide schools with free technology and courseware.

Although these efforts might keep some Cobol courses going, Vecchio doesn't think they will do much to prevent the dramatic decline of Cobol. The efforts, he says, "are too little, too late."

Tam Harbert is a Washington-based freelance journalist

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