Why even hipster developers should consider learning COBOL

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Understanding multiple clouds can pay big career dividends for developers. But so can COBOL, and here’s why.

Image: Chaosamran_Studio/Adobe Stock

Though most developers are proficient in just one cloud, if any, there are smart reasons to become adept in at least two, as Google’s Forrest Brazeal has argued. As the thinking goes, no enterprise is able to resist the gravitational pull of running services from more than one cloud, making management of diverse environments a valuable skill.

If this is true of multicloud environments, wouldn’t something similar be true of hybrid cloud environments? More specifically, shouldn’t it be true of COBOL programmers with cloud expertise?

The modernization imperative

COBOL was created by researchers at IBM back in the 1960s. Decades later, COBOL is no longer cracking anyone’s top-25 list anytime soon, yet it is still omnipresent. By some estimatesthere are still more than 220 billion lines of COBOL code running in production. Eighty percent of in-person transactions depend on COBOL. So does your money, with 43% of banking systems running COBOL.

SEE: Research: Managing multicloud in the enterprise; benefits, barriers, and most popular cloud platforms (TechRepublic Premium)

Despite this prevalence of COBOL, relatively few developers know it, and those that do tend to be older: 41.7% of COBOL developers are 45–50 years old, and just 11.5% are under 35.

If you’re one of those younger developers, this is an opportunity.

When pressed to determine which IT budget categories would be last to get cut if a recession hit, digital transformation comes in second only to security, according to Morgan Stanley Research. When companies talk about digital transformation, they’re talking about modernizing old systems, among other things. Those systems include mainframes running COBOL.

Enterprises will tend to put off the difficult task of modernizing mainframe applications, but as TCS (the global system integrator) has written“By modernizing mainframes, enterprises can significantly reduce their technical debt. In an integrated mainframe-cloud environment, enterprises can leverage the flexibility of cloud to run business applications and optimize cost and bulk on the mainframe for its transactional and computational power.”

At a certain point, the cost of modernizing COBOL-powered mainframes is overcome by the benefits of doing so. What’s missing is the expertise to do so.

Speaking COBOL and cloud

Scroll through Indeed.com’s COBOL job listingsand you’ll see most of them are focused on maintaining legacy mainframe applications. That’s a good use of COBOL expertise, but it’s not the best use.

Brazeal argues that “expanding your scope of professional fluency to at least two of the three major U.S. cloud providers (Google Cloud, AWS, Microsoft Azure) opens up some unique, future-optimized career options. As companies’ cloud posture becomes more complex, they need technical leaders and decision-makers who comprehend their full cloud footprint,” which will typically involve more than one cloud and plenty of non-cloud.

SEE: AWS Lambda, a serverless computing framework: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In other words, though companies will often turn to SIs (system integrators) like TCS or Accenture to help them modernize applications, they also rely on their own employees to help navigate such change. Just as it’s helpful for an employee to understand multiple clouds to provide an “organization-wide understanding of your technology landscape,” so, too, would it be helpful for employees to understand legacy COBOL applications to more cogently consider how best to move them to the cloud.

As explosive as cloud growth has been, it remains less than 10% of global IT spending. That means there’s an incredible amount of on-premises code, including COBOL, just waiting for modernization. Sure, you could, and arguably should, learn the cool kid languages, like Python and Rust, but if you want to make yourself indispensable to your company as it seeks to modernize, then maybe you should learn COBOL.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB but the views expressed herein are mine.





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