The good news about open source, Cobol, and mobile jobs

In a bleak year, open source employment stayed relatively strong, as did the demand for Cobol skills

Journalists are often the bearers of bad news; it simply comes with the territory. And with the economy in the tank, there's no shortage of ugly stories to cover. So I'm always pleased when there's a legitimate bit of good news to write about. And counterintuitively enough, three of my columns this year contained good news about employment for techies, despite the downturn.

Open source jobs remain in good shape

In July, I looked at a report that showed that as many as 15 percent of the available IT jobs call for open source skills. Although the report was written before the financial meltdown gathered steam, it still turned out to be a good indicator of the job market.

I know that because several months later, a careful look at the layoffs cascading though Silicon Valley showed that few of the job losses -- and there were many -- took place at companies primarily focused on open source.

Here's the gist of the jobs report:

Looking for a good job in IT? Sharpen your knowledge of open-source development frameworks, languages, and programming. A just-published study of available IT jobs found that 5 to 15 percent of the positions now on the market call for open source software skills.

The fastest-growing segments of the open source job market include Alfresco, Django, and Drupal, although those represent only a small percentage of the total. Other segments that grew by more than 100 percent in the first four months of this year from the same period last year include LAMP, Ruby on Rails, and VMware.

Demand for Linux server skills grew by only 18 percent -- but as you'd expect, that segment has far more postings than any other. Similarly, JavaScript and Perl, which have been popular for some time, grew slowly but from a large base.

The story on the surprising strength of open source employment was sparked by reports of a brutally negative meeting held by Sequoia Capital with its stable of startups.

I asked Matt Asay, a vice president of Alfresco and a veteran open source exec, for his take: "On average, I don't think many open source companies are affected by Sequoia's counsel precisely because we didn't overbuild in the first place. This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with superior management at open source companies, but rather a built-in throttle that scales hiring to downloads and other indicators of incoming interest in one's open source product. As such, we tend to hire more cautiously and only when the market has demonstrated that it can support those hires."

Similarly, open source author and consultant Bernard Golden says that segments like virtualization, cloud computing, and open source have a critical advantage: "These are pain pills, not pep pills. Companies look to these technologies to save money." Is he whistling past the graveyard? Maybe so, but Golden has put his money where his mouth is, recently founding HyperStratus, a company focused on those very technologies.

Demand for Cobol remains strong

As it turns out, there's another programming skill in demand: Cobol, a language often given up for dead. I found this out when a ploy to drastically, albeit temporarily, cut state employee salaries in the midst of a budget crisis was foiled by the inability to quickly reprogram the state's payroll computers.

Because the system runs on Cobol, some in the media mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that the snafu was caused by a lack of programmers skilled in Cobol. Indeed a reporter at the New York Times quoted some bozo at Carnegie Mellon University who likened Cobol to "a television with vacuum tubes," and then said, "There are no Cobol programmers around anymore. They retired centuries ago." Wrong, wrong, wrong.

In 2003, Gartner estimated that there are 180 billion lines of Cobol code in use around the world and that there are still 90,000 programmers who use it. In a funny column a couple of years ago, a writer at Computerworld, our sister publication, did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and figured that if you printed out all that code "you'd get 50 lines per page in landscape mode. Copy paper comes in two-inch reams with 500 sheets per ream. That figures out to a 227-mile-tall printout."

Mobile jobs should be good, too

I've also been thinking about the issue of the mobile Web and how badly it works for true mobile users. I wrote about that in more detail in my feature "The top underreported technology stories of 2008."

But for now, I'll say that developers who start thinking seriously about creating a good user experience for mobile users will stay employed for some time. They've already got the tools and the skill set to make happen. Now all we need is a serious dose of pagination.

Happy holidays!

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.