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August 4, 2014 7:07 PM   Subscribe

Looking for a great technical skill to develop to make you all the more marketable in today’s increasingly fast-paced industry? Have you considered COBOL?
posted by SpacemanStix (56 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hard to argue with, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:14 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


That linked post has so much handwaving, the author's arms have gone relativistic. The Navy 200bn lines of code claim is from a DoD blog estimating worldwide (ie, non-Navy and Navy) COBOL use at that size. With no cite.
posted by zippy at 7:18 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


The figures don't match, if supposedly 1.5 million lines of new code are written every day, that's only 547.5 million lines per year, assuming working holidays & weekends - not the 5 billion lines per year stated. (Okay, it does say 'developed' but I'm assuming that another word for written.)
posted by mikeburg at 7:32 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


I'd rather take Calculus II again than take another COBOL class. Such a horrible, finicky language.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:34 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


oooOOoooOOO, The salary for top talent can reach six figures,

I really hope that is underselling the salaries available. The salary for entry level talent in a modern language can reach six figures, top talent (especially senior top talent with any clue about architecture, test frameworks, etc) can reach multiple six figures. Who the hell are they expecting to attract to work in a dead language with horrifically outdated tools for low-to-average salaries in a higher-than-average cost of living area (assuming the government demand is centered on DC)? I'd learn COBOL if I thought I could double my salary. This article makes me think I'd be more likely to lose money chasing that work.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 7:35 PM on August 4 [11 favorites]


Up to six figures a year? I'd be taking a pay cut. To work in COBOL. Now, if the first figure were... oh... 3, then I'd consider it (yes, I know, 1%er problems. Whatever. I've had two beer and don't care).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 7:37 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


IDENTIFICATION DIVISION.
PROGRAM-ID. WANT-JOB.
PROCEDURE DIVISION.
   DISPLAY 'please, please give me a cobol job I'd rather hang out with cranky old people than with tech industry asshole children'.
   STOP RUN.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:39 PM on August 4 [37 favorites]


Right on, I got an A+ in Logic and COBOL. At End, Watcom Compiiler, and an A+ for documentation. I am a COBOL programmer and documenter extraordinaire.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:41 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


Perl will be (already is?) the new COBOL. Better keep those Perl skills sharp for all the upcoming Y2K38 work.
posted by mhum at 7:48 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


People have been saying this for years. There are some very large vested interests, like IBM, who want it to be true. I do not think it's true.
posted by miyabo at 7:52 PM on August 4


I don't care how much it pays, would you really want to work in a COBOL shop?
posted by octothorpe at 7:53 PM on August 4


Perl will be (already is?) the new COBOL

I thought Java was
posted by thelonius at 7:54 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Bah, COBOL. Have you considered a career in FORTH?
posted by phooky at 8:01 PM on August 4 [6 favorites]


thelonius: "I thought Java was"

I think Java is still too much alive. Isn't almost all Android software in Java?
posted by mhum at 8:01 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


All I know is the guys I know that are COBOL guys can't find decent work anymore. It's all either short term contracts or working at a discount at a school system or something like that. Vast swaths of HR and Financials across all industries still run on COBOL, but actually getting a job punching deck doing it isn't as easy at the article seems to think.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:03 PM on August 4 [9 favorites]


Great joke from the article:
A COBOL programmer made so much money doing Y2K remediation that he was able to have himself cryogenically frozen when he died. One day in the future, he was unexpectedly resurrected.

When he asked why he was unfrozen, he was told:

"It's the year 9999—and you know COBOL."
posted by isthmus at 8:05 PM on August 4 [20 favorites]


Huh, well prior company used COBOL (contract software) and had 4 or so full-time programmers with another few part-timers, all closer to 60-years-old than 50. The part-time guys I guess showing that it's possible to have a decent retirement income. And I will be passing along the above joke to the head COBOL guy who I know will appreciate it.
posted by dawg-proud at 8:06 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


If you are in the enterprise software biz, you pretty much know COBOL is still a thing in some sectors. If you do business with a financial entity, and wait long enough, you'll get the COBOL query at some point.

My COBOL integration app using my high school COBOL training is still in daily continuous use at [REDACTED] for example. I'm still pretty proud of that app. Developed on Win32, deployed on OS/390. Yeah, I made conditional compilation and endian issues my bitch.
posted by clvrmnky at 8:07 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Wait... is this supposed to be news? I thought everyone knew there was plenty of COBOL still around.
posted by hoyland at 8:09 PM on August 4


Ask me about Herbalife!
posted by Pudhoho at 8:09 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


All I know is COBOL was my way out of being a secretary, which my sister had told me to do, and I was this close, I was this close to getting out of it, when my husband's cousin came down with a brain tumor, and he refused to visit her in the hospital so I skipped my class to visit her in the hospital and I don't regret that, as I was the last person to see her alive. But it ditched my education.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:12 PM on August 4 [5 favorites]


Crazy thought here.

Maybe the companies could train their own COBOL programmers, instead of waiting for them to show up from the ether.

Or actually build the core systems again, and pay off all that technical debt.

... or they could wait for their critical infrastructure to fail, then point the finger and ask for a government bailout.
posted by underflow at 8:14 PM on August 4 [14 favorites]


I wonder which one of those will come to pass.
posted by indubitable at 8:26 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


And yet one of the most popular social networking sites, Facebook, is written in PHP. Have we learned nothing? Except that it really doesn't matter?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:26 PM on August 4


Facebook isn't exactly the Social Security or banking system.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:57 PM on August 4 [2 favorites]


Hard to argue with, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Especially when fixing an unbroke thing will sometime break it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:57 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Why learn COBOL when you could learn MUMPS and make some real money?
posted by outlaw of averages at 8:58 PM on August 4 [7 favorites]


Maybe the companies could train their own COBOL programmers

Pssh. Training is for non-competitive business that don't know how to properly externalize costs.
posted by weston at 9:00 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]


...plastics.
posted by clockzero at 9:24 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


These numbers are 15+ years out of date.
posted by stp123 at 9:30 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Pshaw. RPG is where it's at.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:42 PM on August 4


Bah, COBOL. Have you considered a career in FORTH?

At least FORTH is kind of interesting intellectually. I've been playing with it lately; it's the sort of thing (like learning Haskell) that will make you a better programmer even if you never write a line of it in production.

That cover image is a work of art.
posted by Itaxpica at 9:46 PM on August 4 [3 favorites]


... or they could wait for their critical infrastructure to fail, then point the finger and ask for a government bailout.

Government bailouts generally come in the form of big checks, not large chunks of working COBOL code.
posted by el io at 10:08 PM on August 4


oooOOoooOOO, The salary for top talent can reach six figures,

>I really hope that is underselling the salaries available.


The salary for really top talent can be up to 99 figures.
posted by rongorongo at 11:06 PM on August 4 [1 favorite]


Does the COBOL installer come with an Ask.com toolbar, like modern programming languages?
posted by benzenedream at 11:09 PM on August 4 [4 favorites]


DISPLAY 'please, please give me a cobol job I'd rather hang out with cranky old people than with tech industry asshole children'.
I'm stressed out because the literal is supposed to be in double quotes, not singe quotes, and there is no way that the instruction is going to fit on a punch card.
posted by Lame_username at 11:14 PM on August 4 [8 favorites]


We still have processes that are written in COBOL where I work, but we don't actually employ anyone who touches it despite having a lot of developers. It's all maintained by programmers in India.
posted by a dangerous ruin at 11:17 PM on August 4


There's a lot of truth to the 'trendy scripting language due jour tech industry asshole children' concept.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:11 AM on August 5


I'm a 36-year-old with 10+ years experience in the COBOL market, and the company I work for makes COBOL compilers, AMA.

I see a lot of misconceptions floating around; COBOL does pay a lot in the right position. Value as a COBOL developer lies not in being fluent in the language itself, but in the architectures that are typically associated with it, particulary mainframe stuff: CICS, IMS, DB2, JCL.
COBOL runs the core business logic of most of the financial, insurance and utilities companies, so it's not just that there is a lot of code out there, it's that it's critical code.
As a language it fills its own little niche: it's easy to read, it can only do so many tricks (which can be a good thing), it won't break your machine (generally speaking). It's very manageable from a portfolio point of view (try running static code analysis on perl).
The typical development tools are indeed lacking, but IBM and Micro Focus both provide modern IDEs for COBOL.

I might not be your thing, but it's a respectable thing, and I'm very fond of it.
posted by valdesm at 1:35 AM on August 5 [36 favorites]


When I was in college, I learned some COBOL and FORTRAN and how to use the punch cards. That's why I'm not a programmer today.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:17 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


> All I know is the guys I know that are COBOL guys can't find decent work anymore. It's all either short term contracts or working at a discount at a school system or something like that.

The demand is probably highly regional: The DC area (DOD, IRS, State Dept, Dept of Commerce, etc); random locations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and North Carolina (banking, research, IBM stronghold); Texas, Alabama, and Florida (NASA); etc.

Contracts for federal services usually prohibit outsourcing, so that government work isn't going to India or China.

I've toyed with the idea myself since some I'm becoming The Old Guy among peers in my current field, which is another part of the appeal; if you're a developer who'd never matriculated into managerial culture, it's a way to stay employed and among fellow middle agers. The pay won't be awesome (especially with zilcho mainframe expertise) but at "low six digits" the salary will be on par or slightly better than web dev salaries outside startups and other boiler-room-type technical employers.
posted by at by at 4:20 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]


Back when I worked for a small tech startup, we had a COBOL guy on staff. Our one and only product was a web-based application. Its function was to automate the claim submission and adjudication process between doctors and insurers. Apparently, if you're talking to insurance DBs, you're going to need a COBOL guy.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:22 AM on August 5


The new COBOL is: Cold Fusion.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:44 AM on August 5 [6 favorites]


This article takes the time to explain what the Y2K bug was for people who have never heard of it, and that makes me feel so, so old.
posted by jbickers at 5:46 AM on August 5 [11 favorites]


It seems to be a perennial topic amongst tech journalists to write the article "This will blow your mind: Not everything in the world has been rewritten in node.js! Crazy!" every year or so. As if anything that doesn't appear in the tech press every day just doesn't exist until someone rediscovers it. It's pretty tiring at this point.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:15 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


COBOL still has legs, and rightfully so. The real heartbreak in mode "Let's make fun of
old tech" is PL/I. Vastly superior in its general-purposeness, majesterial in its breadth (you could bare-metal like C and HL the hell out of SAS and COBOL). You didn't even need a Godzilla machine like IBM's mighty 4381 to run it; Gary Kildall wrote an astonishing PC
compiler for it that covered about 95 percent of the language.

It just ... went away, though. Business wanted COBOL, science wanted Fortran, academia
wanted Pascal (yeah, yeah, then Modula), nasty little PC's went to C, government swallowed
the ADA koolaid, etc.
posted by Chitownfats at 7:39 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]


Perl will be (already is?) the new COBOL.

No, Perl was the new COBOL. Now it's Python.

The only guy I knew making a living doing COBOL lost his insurance company job when they outsourced it to India. Last I heard the outsourcing saved so much money, they were paying about double to get the work done.
posted by Nelson at 8:04 AM on August 5 [7 favorites]


"Apparently, if you're talking to insurance DBs, you're going to need a COBOL guy."

Yeah, that's what my dad did. He went from a university mainframe computing department in the 70s to directing a development division of a company specializing in risk management analysis for the big insurance companies. Computing was always a shared interest that deeply divided us.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:19 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]


METAFILTER: Computing was always a shared interest that deeply divided us.
posted by symbioid at 8:22 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]


Maybe the companies could train their own COBOL programmers, instead of waiting for them to show up from the ether Bronze Age Of Computing.

OK, that was cheap. We run our small-ish university on a popular student information system that's years old. And if you penetrate deep into its three pulsing squid-hearts, you will see narrow columns of capital letters where a lot of The Real Work Gets Done. *shrug* We laugh at it (and then wince when we pay support for the COBOL compiler suite) but we can't keep our business running without it.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:59 AM on August 5


In the past few years I've worked at [Pretty Big PHP Site] and [Big Perl Site]. During a previous ice age, I worked at [Big Site with Their Own Hacked-Together Solution Because The Web Was Barely A Thing When They Started].

As a programmer, I see that all of these systems are about the same. You learn a syntax, you figure out debugging, and the rest of the time is site logic glue (learning and writing).

It's actually not a big deal that these sites are written in non-trendy languages. What is a big deal is recruiting new talent who would be willing to forgo learning [Trendy Resume-Worthy Language]. You get gray coders because they either already know the language, or have enough smarts to know that one language is pretty much the same as another (most of the time), or have enough status or privilege to not care.
posted by zippy at 10:08 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


No but seriously I would love to have "COBOL programmer" as my plan D, in case life plans A through C all fail, because there's something that just feels tremendously ethical, or just right, about dealing with The Old Stuff that Gets Real Work Done instead of writing ephemeral iOS apps.1

All of my actual knowledge here comes from reading about the history of computing rather than actually getting my hands on the code itself (as witnessed by my butchered COBOL upthread), but I would honest to god love to learn how to work on a mainframe. If COBOL programming is actually a valid career path still, and if there's any oldschool COBOL programmers here looking for an apprentice...

1: Literally the only thing I like about the tech industry is that under all the stupid, stupid, stupid business school froth, actual programmers are forced, whether they like it or not, to have some marginal respect for history, just because of how (as Neal Stephenson put it in In The Beginning was the Command Line) UNIX is the hacker community's Gilgamesh epic.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:22 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]


This article takes the time to explain what the Y2K bug was for people who have never heard of it, and that makes me feel so, so old.
The article takes some time to explain what COBOL is. That might make you feel older.
posted by MtDewd at 12:10 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]


My dad is a COBOL programmer. He's in his 60's now. I'm glad he still has the ability to make six figures. His 2nd marriage sucked and cost him dearly. He just moved to Seattle, got a job with Boeing. He's living in the same city as his best friend from childhood. I'm really happy for him. I remember him taking those classes in the 80s when I was a kid. If he'd had his druthers I think he might have been a writer or a professional golfer, but computers seemed like a good alternative to a job on the line at Ford. COBOL has served him well.
posted by apis mellifera at 7:01 PM on August 5 [6 favorites]


Just like a lot of ATMs still run on Windows 95, a lot of the backend systems (particularly in the financial market), still run on COBOL. In my experience, the majority of that backend "calculate interest" processing on your bank accounts, mortgages, loans and investments is happening on IBM mainframes, and is primarily written in COBOL.

I've seen a few banks try to modernise and replace their whole infrastructure backend with more modern techonology, but it is expensive, takes a long time, and usually (in my experience) fails to work.

COBOL and mainframes are still very prevalent. I give it another [licks finger and holds it in the air] .... 10 years.
posted by Diag at 5:10 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


I had to take not one, but two COBOL classes for my AAS degree (in 2003!). I loved it. Everyone was laughing at me then. Who's laughing now?
posted by getawaysticks at 6:15 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]


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