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The Uncommonly Common Sense of COBOL

By | December 15, 2021

Written by Reg Harbeck, a member of the COBOL Working Group

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

When CODASYL, the Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages, was formed in 1959, the common sense approach they took was implicit in the programming language they designed – and even its name: COmmon Business-Oriented Language – COBOL. In an era when innovation was of the essence of everything to do with digital computing, an era which has blossomed into the standard experience and expectation for all things computing even today, COBOL chose to stake its claim in that vast, mostly-ignored middle ground of “normal.” It worked like an invisibility cloak – if only to casual observers.

Although it has been continually enhanced since its inception, the old-fashioned, clunky even, look and feel of the original COBOL have persisted in its general reputation, while people who preferred shiny new alternatives missed an important opportunity. Meanwhile, COBOL has continued to establish itself as the language that powers the world economy.

Foundational Principals

So say those who dare speak its name in public. But to do so legitimately entails more than educated attitude. That’s what a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals decided when forming Open Mainframe Project’s COBOL Working Group (CWG) in 2020. The importance and relevance of this initiative was soon reflected by the involvement of interested parties and organizations from around the world, including practitioners, vendors, former CIOs, academics, trainers, authors, and others.

The aim of this group, is to:

  • Raise awareness for COBOL’s importance and change the perception of it
  • Increase COBOL’s visibility and course work in the college curriculum
  • Close the technology skills gap and the path to a lucrative career in mainframes

Our first act as a group was to create a survey that was designed to take the pulse of the global COBOL presence. Designed to be both complete and succinct, it polled respondents about the nature of their organization’s COBOL investment, the nature of their organization, their role in that organization, and their willingness to be contacted for further discussion.

Having designed this survey, committee members then shared it with COBOL ecosystem members from around the world, and in a wide range of roles and organizations. Various means were employed to reach appropriate individuals through user groups, social media, and personal contact networks. The responses began to flow in.

In the fullness of time, with a sufficiently large and representative sample of respondents, the time came to begin analyzing the survey results. Key members of the team, along with apprentices and support from academic and other organizations, carefully dug through the data, and came up with a satisfyingly large set of initial conclusions, on which to base next steps in generating, analyzing, and sharing the data with the world at large.

You can read the initial article in TechChannel here or watch the video of our kick off survey presentation from Open Mainframe Summit below.

Sharing Insights

And what is it that was discovered? Among the many compelling insights, three key findings stand out as immediately relevant and important:

  • There are about 250 Billion lines of COBOL code running the world economy. Not only is that a startlingly vast number, it becomes even more profound when you consider two things:
    1. Nearly all COBOL code is business logic, and not technology-focused infrastructure. Operating systems, video games, engineering: these are almost always served by more technically-oriented languages. COBOL is designed for business purposes (hey, that’s its middle name). You know: accounting, billing, inventory, stuff that involves dollars and cents and keeping track of inventory and other business requirements.
    2. That code has been developed, maintained, and enhanced for a very long time. Many COBOL programs and applications in use today have been tried-and-proven for decades already. Yes, there are new COBOL applications. And there are certainly constant new enhancements to the COBOL applications that keep the business world turning. In other words, this stuff not only has been proven to work, but it has very deep roots.
  • COBOL is here to stay. Organizations surveyed had long-term expectations to keep and grow their COBOL presence, and generally had very small numbers of COBOL applications that were being sunsetted or replaced (possibly by other COBOL applications).In other words, those in the know know COBOL is the definitive platform and advantage for meeting business-specific requirements.
  • The world needs lots of new COBOL programmers. It’s the ultimate IT career opportunity. With so much code to maintain, there is a frank acknowledgement that there aren’t enough new programmers to inherit it. While various schemes were given more or less shrift for building a new generation (including letting other people deal with it), they all come down to the need for many more people working with this important language. This, of course, gets back to the aim of the CWG: when the world wakes up to this quite giant of a language, there is hope that universities, colleges, and technical training organizations will all step up to help form the business technologists that the world has always needed.

Going Forward

Now for the good news: this is a great career, and one of the most stable ones IT has to offer, as it takes very little imagination to project the long-term prospects of the massive base of COBOL that “ain’t broke” and is not feasible to “fix” or replace. So use your imagination instead to think of the great prospects for new business technologists who would like a full career working with something that’s going to persist and continue to improve well beyond the foreseeable future.

So welcome on board to the growing cohort of those who “get it” and are sharing the word. And if you’re a decision maker or influencer, it’s time to change your planning gears to take this grand secret into account and start getting results.

Of course, this journey has just begun, and while ongoing study of the findings will combine with actions such as interviews to bring even greater depth and insight, other efforts in the direction of sharing these compelling discoveries will begin to pick up speed.

Check out our more in-depth article about our findings here.