Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, 50 years of business processes encapsulated in the software they created may follow

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Generous government benefits used to attract candidates even when salaries were lower than in private business. Now, he says, "Our pay hasn't increased in eight years and benefits are diminished." To fill in the gap, the county has been forced to contract with retired employees and outsource Cobol maintenance and support to a third party -- something that just 18 percent of Computerworld readers say they are doing today.

The Cobol brain drain is starting to become critical for many government organizations, says Garza. "It's a high risk problem in many countries we are doing work in. The people have retired. Even the managers are gone. There's no one to talk to."

Saginaw County found itself hemmed in by the complexity of its Cobol infrastructure. It has four million lines of highly integrated Cobol programs that run everything from the prosecutor's office to payroll on a 46 MIPS Z9 series mainframe that is at end of life. With mainframe maintenance costs rising 10 percent to 20 percent each year, the county needs to get off the platform quickly.

But commercial software packages lack the level of integration users expect, and Miller's team doesn't have the time and resources to do a lot of integration work or reengineer all of the program code for another platform.

So the county is starting a multi-phase project to recompile the code with Micro Focus Visual Cobol and re-host it on Windows servers. An associated VSAM database will also be migrated to SQL Server. Miller hopes that the more modern graphical development suite will make the Cobol programming position, which has gone unfilled for two years, more attractive to prospective programmers. But he acknowledges that finding talent will still be an uphill battle.

A legacy continues

Is there a role for Cobol off the mainframe? "I don't believe there is. Cobol and the mainframe run well together, and that's where I want to keep it," BNY Mellon's Brown says. But the bank is still creating new Cobol components on the mainframe, and will continue to do so.

That's a common sentiment among Accenture's large corporate customers, says Burden. Cobol will continue its gradual decline as midrange systems are retired and businesses continue to modernize legacy Cobol code or move to packaged software. Today Cobol is no longer the strategic language on which the business builds new applications. But it still represents the "family jewels" of business, Burden says. "They're enhancing existing applications and adding functionality to them. I've seen no slowdown in those activities."

If companies can't find talent to keep that infrastructure going, outsourcing firms such as Accenture are ready, says Burden. The scale of Accenture's support operation is large enough to provide a career track for Cobol programmers, and he says it's easy to cross-train programmers on the language. "We can turn out new programmers quickly. So if clients can't support Cobol, we will."

"People make too much of that trend that we're not graduating enough Cobol programmers," says IBM's Stoodley. Preserving the institutional knowledge is what's critical. "You can make a problem for yourself if you don't keep your team vibrant," he says. But as long as there's a demand for it, "businesses will find people willing to work on Cobol."

"You have to respect the architecture of Cobol," Burden says. It may have been created for simpler times in application development, but it remains the bedrock of many IT infrastructures. "I don't see that changing for another 10 years, or even longer."

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

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This story, "Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here " was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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