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Last summer, Michael Vu, a 40-year-old independent IT consultant, found himself in a wholly unexpected place midway through his career.
He'd signed a three-week contract to help a major U.S. retailer with an enterprise reporting project. The initial work was so successful that the project was extended. As a consequence, Vu was suddenly deep in the world of Cobol.
Yes, Cobol, the programming dinosaur that was last hot in the '80s. Cobol, notorious for its over-rich syntax and overlong code. That Cobol.
Although he'd never worked in Cobol before, Vu actually had wanted to learn for a while. In the midst of predictions of a massive retirement by baby boomers, Vu saw an opportunity. "I said to myself, even if only 0.1% of those baby boomers are Cobol developers, that would open up a huge market."
As Vu's work on the project proceeded, he realized that the retailer had 10 years of code living in Cobol. And the next phase of the project depended on that code.
So Vu, whose training and experience are in C and C++, jumped in and learned quickly. And he wound up with a skill that enhanced his strategic value to the organization. "I ended up moving from just being a regular coder with no idea of how the business runs to being someone they're relying on to extract business knowledge from their code base," he says. He now spends 30% of his time working in Cobol, and he expects that to stay the same or even increase.
For Vu, working in Cobol feels a bit like discovering a lost art. "The shocker for me was that Cobol is still heavily in use, even when my client is using the latest in enterprise Java, C+ and Visual Basic technologies," Vu says.
What's going on here? To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of Cobol's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Some 75% of the world's businesses data is still processed in Cobol, and about 90% of all financial transactions are in Cobol, according to Arunn Ramadoss, head of the academic connections program at Micro Focus International PLC, which provides software to help modernize Cobol applications.
Because of the massive installed base, it would be too expensive to try to replace all that code, he says. Instead, many companies are looking for ways to integrate Cobol with newer applications.
The experienced Cobol programmers who can best do that job, however, are dying, or at least retiring. In a 2007 Micro Focus survey of its customers, more than 75% of CIOs said they would need more Cobol programmers over the next five years, and 73% were already having a hard time finding trained Cobol professionals.
"Without a doubt, it is a challenge to find a developer in Cobol who is not nearing retirement age," says Dale Vecchio, research vice president of application development at Gartner Inc. In 2004, the last time Gartner tried to count Cobol programmers, the consultancy estimated that there were about 2 million of them worldwide and that the number was declining at 5% annually.
"Cobol will head downhill quickly over the next 10 years ... as baby boomers retire and there is insufficient recharging of the population," notes Vecchio.
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