COBOL Today and Tomorrow, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I talked a bit about how COBOL is everywhere. From telephones to credit cards to supermarket checkouts to ATMs — sometime during the day, just about everyone touches COBOL. They don’t see it directly, but drivers don’t see under the hood while they’re driving either.

COBOL will stay with us for the foreseeable future because it’s clear, easy to maintain and manages huge numbers of transactions better than anything before or since. Also, it’s there, debugged and stable. Almost everything in COBOL involves a transaction, making its fitness for business computing hardly a surprise.

We’ve heard alarms about COBOL developers retiring, but there’s often another agenda, such as promoting migration of systems into other languages. While that’s an option companies may select, especially if their current systems fall badly out of date, most companies will want to keep systems that work. They will find other ways to gain the advantages of new approaches.

Integration of existing processes into service-oriented architectures (SOA) is gaining currency because it involves redesigning mostly just the front end, the part of the system that users see. Such minimal redesigns avoid unnecessary risk and expense, but they still require coding.

Opportunity Knocks

For working developers, there is no good reason not to have COBOL skills on their resumes, since COBOL is quite easy to learn. Some complain about its wordiness — the trade-off for its English-language clarity and ease of maintenance — but adept coders in any language use editing macros for a reason. Why should COBOL be different?

While the imminent retirement of baby-boomer COBOL coders won’t happen as fast as some vendors would have you believe (Forrester says it will stretch all the way from 2010 to 2030, leaving lots of time to fill any resulting holes in IT teams), retirement is starting to beckon the current crop of COBOL adepts.

That translates into opportunity for developers seeking leverage in today’s job market. There’s a demand for people who can maintain and develop new COBOL code. Part of the current premium may track to public hand-wringing about a supposed shortage, but the fact is, adding skills to perform tasks needed by business will always confer benefits.

If you’re already good at another language — C++ or Java, perhaps — picking up COBOL only takes four to six weeks. As the coursework ads like to say, you can do it in your spare time.

Learning COBOL

You can find support for learning COBOL from many sources. Vendors including IBM and my own company, Micro Focus, fund academic programs to support teaching the language, for example. Courses are offered at universities, local colleges and trade schools. As industry makes its need known, the availability of COBOL courses should increase rapidly. You only have to look around.

The wailing over disappearing COBOL programmers is misleading, like the misperception that COBOL is dying. Then there are people who hear “COBOL” and think of digital priests in white coats, rushing about in chrome-plated sci-fi sets, flipping physical switches to get a digital answer to 2+2=X. It’s a cute stereotype, but it’s false.

Nowadays, companies — and increasingly schools — are coming to understand that COBOL is with us for the long haul. However, by all means, let the hand-wringing continue — it’ll add value to your new coding skills.

COBOL on the Academic Scene

Let’s start with academic coursework. By that, I mean not only universities but also community colleges and trade schools — any place a qualified COBOL teacher organizes students in order to pass along his or her knowledge.

By early 2001, few universities offered coursework in COBOL, but that is changing as people wake up to the need for COBOL developers. Current students should have no problem acquiring the basics of COBOL.

If you find no course offered at your institution, try asking a professor to sponsor you for credited individual study, or gather a few students together into a small study group and find a professor to guide you. COBOL is an excellent way to teach the art of programming, so credits should not be hard to gain once your computer science department knows there’s an interest, especially if you have a professor willing to teach it.

COBOL courses are not available everywhere yet, of course. However, they’re not as rare as they were five years ago. A Google search for “college COBOL course” recently returned more than half a million hits. So go exploring — the courses are out there.

Incidentally, Micro Focus (my company) funds an Academic Grant Program (AGP) to provide annual licensing for any qualified educational organization. Licensing can cover Micro Focus tools from compilers to integration ware for tying COBOL processes to SOA systems. Any qualified educational or research organization is welcome to participate in the Micro Focus AGP. More information is at www.microfocus.com/Resources/Communities/Academic. Other companies have similar programs.

The Do-It-Yourself Student

If you’re not into formal classwork — maybe you’re already an IT professional, you have a family to pay attention to, or you want to leverage what you already know in another language like C++ or Java — it’s not hard to go it on your own. Programmers are traditionally a self-directed lot anyway.

A search at O’Reilly Media’s Safari online books brand returned 1500 sections in more than 600 books, many recommended for programmers working in COBOL. Sams Publishing offers a programmed learning book. Murach publishes a continually updated mainframe COBOL text for programmers working on big iron. Amazon lists close to 50 books on or involving COBOL.

A Google search for “online COBOL course” returned more than 700,000 hits. Another good place to start is the news group comp.lang.cobol. You’ll find a wealth of information and tips there, from people who work in the field.

For everything from news and general information about COBOL issues to links to books, courses, tutorials and code samples, one of the best starting points is COBOL User Groups, or COBUG. COBUG has at least a little of everything a working COBOL developer or student needs. Membership is free.

For Linux regulars, there’s a normal full raft of available e-courses with a Linux slant. Google’s Linux section returns almost 10,000 hits on “COBOL training course.” Many of the top listings point to web centers where the variety of e-course offerings may surprise the “COBOL is dying” crowd.

Help From the Industry

I can’t speak directly for other companies, but Micro Focus has helped train people in COBOL for years. We currently offer training in both COBOL itself and the use of our COBOL products. Public courses are available from Micro Focus in the UK, Benelux, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.

Other companies active with COBOL also provide academic licenses and support learning programs. IBM, for example, offers courses involving COBOL in mainframe environments. If a specific vendor is active with COBOL systems at your company, they may also offer training.

For those seeking to learn COBOL, avenues are available. You simply have to look around a little.

COBOL Today and Tomorrow, Part 1


Irving Abraham is a Unix and Linux product director forMicro Focus.


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