Last summer, Michael Vu, a 40-year-old IT consultant, found himself in a wholly unexpected place.
He'd signed a three-week contract to help a major US 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 overrich 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 realised 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 organisation. "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, which provides software to help modernise 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.
Companies involved in the Cobol market like to point to the statistics — such as that 75% of the world's business data is still in Cobol — to prove that Cobol, and therefore Cobol jobs, will be around for years to come.
Dale Vecchio, a Gartner analyst, isn't so sure.
"I'm seeing an increasing interest in organisations extricating themselves from IBM mainframes and Cobol," says Vecchio. "It's becoming increasingly accepted that they can get off the mainframe and move to Windows or Unix or Linux. I expect that to continue over the next five to seven years."
In addition, large companies are increasingly replacing custom mainframe applications such as human resources or supply chain management — often written in Cobol — with packaged software from companies like Oracle, he says.
Nevertheless, Cobol programming is still a useful skill for IT professionals to have. "The world doesn't need 100,000 new Cobol programmers, but it does need several thousand new Cobol programmers," says Drake Coker, chief technology officer for Cobol at Micro Focus International.
"There is a lot of work out there for people who know how to take a new system with new technology and marry it to an existing system," he adds.
How to get Cobol into your toolbox is another matter. Fewer and fewer US colleges and universities now offer Cobol training. In the past couple of years, both IBM and Micro Focus have launched initiatives to encourage universities to train more mainframe programmers. Through these programmes, the companies provide schools with free technology and courseware.
Although these efforts might keep some Cobol courses going, Vecchio doesn't think they will do much to prevent the dramatic decline of Cobol. The efforts, he says, "are too little, too late".