A 60-year-old computer language powers the global economy.
Estimates as high as 80% of financial transactions use common business-oriented language, or COBOL. Now as programmers retire and fewer are joining the workforce to replace them, the future for the language is uncertain. But rumors of COBOL’s demise are nothing new.
Its death has been predicted many times. In fact, if there is one constant in the history of COBOL it may be predictions of the programming language’s death.
COBOL was created in 1959 by industry and government programmers but even then its future was uncertain.
“In less than a year there were rumors all over the industry that COBOL was dying,” said Grace Hopper, rear admiral and programmer who helped design the language in a 1981 lecture.
Nicknamed Grandma Cobol, the code was based on some of her earlier work. She said — after hearing the rumors — one of her collaborators went out and bought a granite tombstone.
“He had the word COBOL cut in the front of it. Then he shipped it express collect to Mr. Phillips in the pentagon.”
The prank on Charles Phillips, a leader for the project at the defense department, got the attention of the powers that be and was a turning point she said. COBOL would go on to become the most widely used and longest lasting computer languages in history.
COBOL started running on big wardrobe-sized mainframe computers. It was embraced and is still used by many hospitals, insurance and retail businesses. In 2016, the General Accounting Office chided the U.S. Justice Department, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security and others for still using the language.
The reason it became so popular was that until then, there wasn’t really anything for businesses. COBOL departed from the math heavy ones and zeros of programming languages past.
“If you look at [older languages] now — it’s like learning a completely different language,” said Mike Russell, chief operating officer for Frost Bank. “But like Russian or Chinese where even the characters are different and it’s a mathematical formula in those characters”
Frost Bank has around 30 apps still relying on COBOL. As late as 2017, IBM reported 92 of the top 100 banks still used mainframes for their core businesses.
Financial service providers still use COBOL because it’s fast, efficient and resilient.
They can still embrace mobile banking, phone apps, and better websites. They just need those things to interface with the mainframe.
Russell compared it to owning an old car. Sure the body is banged up and the seats are worn, so take it to a shop.
“All the things that matter outwardly to me as the user, I can change for a large part,” he said. “But I can’t underneath very easily, like the engine or anything else. As long as that’s running, I may not need to change.”
In other words If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Some banks have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and several years migrating systems.
The return on that investment isn’t always clear, Russell said, but the changing nature of the business — mobile banking requiring real-time, up to date transactions, and the lack of replacement programmers for those retiring may change that equation.
As demand for programmers has risen, training groups and consultants have stepped in. The COBOL Cowboys is a North Texas consulting program that pairs experienced, sometimes retired, COBOL programmers with companies.
The demand isn’t high or sustained enough for coding bootcamps like San Antonio’s Codeup to step in. Codeup co-founder Jason Straughan said he had been hearing the hype about the rampant need and the six-figure COBOL programming jobs for years
“But as far as the demand meeting the urban legend, it hasn’t been my experience that those two align,” said Straughan.
People have been telling Robert Vinaja COBOL was dead for twenty years. The Texas A&M San Antonio professor teaches it when it is offered.
“People keep saying that COBOL is about to die, and — I mean — probably I am going to die before COBOL dies,” he said.
Even though it’s on the catalogue, the course wasn’t offered last year as the school shifts towards cyber security and more popular languages.
JAVA, PHP and others use graphical interfaces, that attract students.
“The looks of [COBOL] are dull, nothing fancy,” said Vinaja. “When I teach that class, I warn students that we aren’t going to create some fancy app or anything that they would be proud to show their friends.”
While COBOL has outlived dozens of other pretenders to the throne fewer students enter the field.
“I’m 26. Besides myself the youngest co-worker I have Is 40 years older than I am,” said Sergio Montejano, who works for a financial services firm. He learned COBOL at the University of North Texas, which offers multiple courses.
He said he wanted to capitalize on the need. He now has job security, a good wage and room to grow, even if he does endure the chuckles at his expense from others in the development community.
Montejano purchased a mainframe for his home. It’s in his garage. His work is on the backbone of the companies he works for. It’s “mission critical” he said.
“I think there is a misconception about it. A misunderstanding about it as far as it being old. Usually in technology we think because it is old it is irrelevant,” he said. “But it’s still the fastest processing language out there.”
The question is will a lack of programmers the changing needs of industry mean the end of COBOL anytime soon? Most say no. Russell and Montejano both see it leaving the scene in the next few decades.
So COBOL isn’t in hospice care—it’s more like it's in assisted living.