Firms face Cobol crunch

Cobol, that mainstay of business programming throughout the 60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, is not going away anytime soon. In a Computerworld (U.S.) survey early this year of IT managers at 352 firms, 62 per cent of the respondents reported they actively use Cobol. Of those, three quarters said they use it “a lot” and 58 per cent said they’re using it to develop new applications.

Nevertheless, with a few exceptions, companies aren’t enthusiastically expanding their use of Cobol. In the survey, of those who use Cobol, 36 per cent said they are “gradually migrating away” from it, 16 per cent said they will replace it “every chance we get,” and 25 per cent said they’d like to replace Cobol but have found that too difficult or too expensive.

The persistence of Cobol — welcome or not — presents a dilemma for many companies. Their legacy code will require significant resources for years to come, yet younger software developers often don’t want to work with Cobol, and in most cases, they’re no longer learning it in school. And despite thousands of Cobol coders still in the workplace, many of them are nearing retirement age.

In the survey, 45 per cent of the respondents whose organizations use Cobol said their ability to hire Cobol programmers was either “worse” or “much worse” than their ability to hire programmers for modern languages such as Visual Basic, C++ and Java.

Companies are dealing with the squeeze between supply and demand in a variety of ways. Some outsource Cobol work, some bring in contract Cobol programmers, and others find clever ways to motivate their their Cobol coders. Some have found that the best way to keep Cobol programmers happy is to get them to focus on the applications and end users, not the technology.

Terry Walker, manager of application development at the Connecticut Judicial Branch, said she worries about running out of available Cobol people before she’s able to migrate systems to newer technology. Walker has a software development and maintenance budget of US$4.5 million a year and a development staff of 50, with 15 devoted exclusively to Cobol. The state agency’s payroll, human resources and other administrative systems are written in Cobol, as are the judicial applications for its civil and criminal courts and child protection department.

Despite these systems being “fairly sophisticated,” she said, “we’d like to migrate off Cobol, but whenever we’ve gone out to look at packages or at [writing custom software], it was cost-prohibitive.”

Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said companies that are having trouble finding experienced Cobol programmers should hire programmers with other skills — especially business skills and applications knowledge — and train them in Cobol internally.

Murphy said companies should ask their senior Cobol programmers to train the younger ones. Many of these older workers don’t want to learn new technology and aren’t suited for management positions. “So their career path is to mentor new programmers,” he said.

Rory Read, IT vice-president at Columbia Insurance Group Inc. in Columbia, Mo., said he has no problem finding Cobol programmers, many of whom have been laid off from other insurance companies. But he acknowledges that hiring them often involves relocating them from distant cities.

Read said Columbia Insurance’s policy management and claims processing software is 20 years old and has one million lines of Cobol code with some 3,000 modifications layered on over the years.

“Despite everyone pronouncing Cobol dead for a couple of decades, it’s still around,” he said. “We continue to enhance the base system. It’s still green-screen, if you can believe that.”

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