COBOL Crunch Puts Bite on California Budget Plan

Ann All

Last August, I wrote about the dread harbored by the IT industry over a possible Big Problem related to Big Iron.


Lots of aging programmers versed in the legacy languages of mainframes, such as COBOL, are expected to retire soon. Younger programmers have shunned these languages in favor of newer ones like Java and .NET. And, gulp, 62 percent of IT managers surveyed by Computerworld last year were still actively using COBOL.


While Forrester Research assured organizations that the impending skills shortage likely wouldn't be as severe as many feared, it nonetheless encouraged them to prepare formal contingency plans to maintain their legacy systems. Outsourcing was one possibility mentioned by Forrester, which advised companies to try Eastern Europe or Russia, which were likely to have a more abundant supply of COBOL programmers than India or China.


Apparently no one shared this information with the state of California. The Register reports thatCOBOL is at the center of a controversy over a budget stalemate there. When ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to cut the salaries of the state's 200,000 employees, state controller John Chiang informed Schwarzenegger that it would take six months to reconfigure the state's COBOL-based payroll system and make the change.


Cue the irony: part-time COBOL programmers were among 10,000 employees recently laid off by the state in an effort to solve its budget crisis. The expertise can be found, but organizations will likely pay a premium for it as the pool of COBOL programmers shrinks. The Register mentions that IBM offered to rewrite another legacy system in California for $30 million.

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Aug 25, 2008 11:58 AM Larry G. Smith Larry G. Smith  says:
Looks like I should brush on my Cobol skills and find some part-time work in the mainframe business that I spent 30 years in before getting into newer technologies. Reply
Aug 25, 2008 12:27 PM Richard Ottley Richard Ottley  says:
Maybe it's a good thing I'm a 24 year old in the MAINFRAME field. I mean I look at all the other people I went to school with in OOP roles, some like it , some hate it but COBOL ain't that bad. Maybe I should apply to the GOVT of California for a job ....................... Reply
Aug 27, 2008 11:34 AM Peter Peter  says:
I love these misconceptions about COBOL. COBOL was a great language and still is but...I am a fairly recent graduate, and guess what I got my first job as a COBOLdeveloper. I have been a COBOL developer for three years since graduating.I can truly say I wish I stayed away from COBOL and so should all you recentgraduates.It really doesnt matter whether or not there are 70 billion lines of COBOLand all that other stuff; if you cant get a job in this area (trust me Ivebeen looking). All you have to do is type COBOL in a job search (and therewe have it the last time I got 100 hits) COBOL IS DEAD if you want toget a job. When you narrow down your search to say London and you only getabout 12 hits so if you want to work as a software developer stay awayfrom COBOL.It really doesnt matter if some developer says COBOL is not dead, Iverecently got a job in COBOL. These people probably been programming inCOBOL for a life time (thats like 25 years) so you are competing with theseguys for those handful of jobs.It really doesnt matter if one says there will be plenty of jobs whenthese old people retire and a company will give you loads of money if youhave COBOL experience. They may give people with COBOL skills loads ofmoney to fix a bug but how often do these bugs cause faults (remember if itsworking dont touch it). So you maybe sitting unemployed for years beforeanything goes wrong, waiting for your one off big contract payment (soundslike too much of a risky investment).Anyway Ive been looking for work out their and finding it very hard (almostimpossible) to find a job. I am a First Class graduate and have a Mastersand even with these academics three years of doing COBOL has crippled mychances. I wish I had not done COBOL and stayed with the skills (what youshould be learning at university) that have jobs. I have got 3 years COBOLand someone has 3 years of Java or C or C# etc.. so I am out of thecompetition when looking for jobs. Dont listen to those that say it dontmatter what the language is (because it does), all you have to do is look atthe job specs (they generally mention the programming language because itreally does matter).I am now hoping to build on those skills at university and then will keeptrying to apply for jobs. I am also hoping to do some courses to refresh myknowledge in areas I have neglected over the last three years (which from myexperience you dont get from COBOL and my opinion is this language shouldnot be taught at university). Certainly its IT and you have too keep upwith recently skills set (thats RECENT!! skills set), but why get into theposition I am in and many (I hope not too many) recent graduates may be in.I know this is very negative and may not read well, but COBOL has made itvery difficult for me to forward my career and I really dont want this tohappen to any other graduate.Basically COBOL is truly dead if you look at it from the perspective ofyour career. Go out there, do the research and see the truth for yourself !! Reply
Aug 27, 2008 11:35 AM Peter Peter  says: to this post - COBOL skills went down in demand and went down in salary in the second half of 2007.Sorry to hear that a recent graduate (Peter) chose the wrong technology (COBOL) to get into software development in his first years after graduating.Peter although you lost touch with the skills that are in demand in the software industry, I do feel for you that you are now forced to do a job (tester) you really don't want to do.My advice would be to get some certifications and maybe try to get involved in open source projects. This will allow you to get back as a software developer faster.Also thanks for your post this has really open my eyes that "COBOL is dead" and companies (which are really big) which sell COBOL services are simply pushing misconceptions about it. Reply
Aug 28, 2008 11:30 AM Richard Ottley Richard Ottley  says:
Sorry to hear Peter is having a hard time gaining employment in the COBOL maret, however and it may sound naive, COBOL is just a language. Any fool can learn how to program in any language but it the concepts that you need to take and use in those new technologies. If you cannot see how to bring those concepts accross, there's a lot of reference material out there.That's how I was able to move from Help desk to QA to development and hopefully further in the near future. Reply
Sep 2, 2008 11:21 AM Peter Peter  says:
Am.If the language is not so important - then why do most (if not all) companies list the languages which are essential to do the job?The fact is big companies, corporations and even the small companies know what they want. And hence list the programming languages, technologies required to do the job.'Just a language' :-)COBOL programming skills are less transferable. Write a for loop in C and you can write one in Java, C++, C# etc... This is just one such example. Reply
Sep 11, 2008 10:13 AM Scott Scott  says:
I'm in my 14+ year of COBOL development, working in Midwest state govt. Generally speaking, each time we change a program it's too add more logic - that by nature causes more complexity, more to research to find issues or just to understand how it was intended to operate. Reflecting complicated Medicaid/Food Stamp/General Assistance policy that is hard to interpret in a written document, can easily become complicated, hard to follow code. As mentioned in comments elsewhere, accurate documentation and data elements that are labeled reflectively of their purpose is worth it's weight in gold. Long-live COBOL! Reply
Feb 12, 2010 4:40 AM PTBitte PTBitte  says: in response to Peter

About 10 years ago, I was taking classes at a university.  They did not teach (or use) any language that was used by businesses.  They preferred to use a "teaching language" that they were familiar with instead of any of the languages frequently seen in Help Wanted advertisements.  The head of the Computer Science department and two of his senior professors discussed my concerns in a meeting with me, but no changes were made.  PS - I was NOT recommending that they use COBOL.  COBOL has many virtues, but creating quick programs to teach programming concepts is not one of them.

Feb 12, 2010 4:50 AM PTBitte PTBitte  says:

About 10 years ago, I was taking graduate classes at a university.  I had 25 years experience in the industry at that time.  The Head of the Computer Science department and 2 of his senior professors met with me to discuss my concern that the University should be teaching (and using) one or more of the languages (not COBOL) frequently seen in Help Wanted advertisements.  That way, graduates could immediately be productive in industry (and have better qualifications to compete for jobs).  They decided to continue using a "teaching language" that they were familiar with, but was never seen in Help Wanted advertisements.


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