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COVID-19 unemployment claims up demand for COBOL programmers

There is an urgent need for COBOL programmers amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated the U.S. economy and overwhelmed unemployment insurance systems in some states.

The impact of COVID-19 has overwhelmed COBOL-based unemployment insurance systems and thus has led to a surge in demand for experts in the 60-year-old programming language.

Government officials like New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy have expressed the desperate need for COBOL programmers to shore up legacy systems amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts said there are plenty out there -- you just need to know where to find them.

"In my experience, organizations saying they can't find mainframe talent either aren't trying very hard or they're being too picky," said Darren Surch, COO at Interskill Learning, Americas, a mainframe training company in Alpharetta, Ga.

COBOL, a staple language for mainframe-hosted applications, still has more than 220 billion lines of active code running in systems around the world, despite its advanced age. It was developed as part of a joint effort by academics and computer programmers, including renowned computing pioneer Grace Hopper.

Today, there are fewer college curriculums that heavily emphasize COBOL, and many programmers have retired. But that doesn't constitute a lack of available COBOL talent, experts said. Rather, it's a question of how to effectively mobilize it.

"There is an army of COBOL programmers ready to go to work now," wrote Cameron Seay, Ph.D., a professor of COBOL and mainframe technology at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, N.C., in a note he posted on Governor Murphy's webpage. "They are seasoned vets ready to go, but you will have to arrange for them to work remotely."

Some retired mainframe and COBOL programmers are willing to sign on for projects -- under the right terms.

Chris Condo, ForresterChris Condo

"I looked into the New Jersey situation and had to pass. They were looking for volunteers, but if you want me to step out of retirement, I'd like to get paid," said Lee Taft, a retired COBOL programmer who worked at the Social Security Administration (SSA). SSA has 60 million lines of live COBOL code, but the agency is in the middle of an IT modernization effort that will move those systems off the z/OS mainframe and onto Linux-based systems.

The current crisis, which President Donald Trump has compared to a war, may require COBOL veterans more than raw recruits.

"Government agencies can't rely on newly minted COBOL engineers to solve these issues; instead I'd like to see skilled architects and engineers who understand COBOL, mainframe architecture, and most importantly, how to enable these systems to scale," said Chris Condo, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Mainframes and COBOL still run banks, insurers

Mainframes are at the heart of the IT infrastructure of many organizations. For instance, 92 of the world's top 100 banks, all of the top 10 insurers, 18 of the top 25 retailers, 70% of the Fortune 500 and much of the world's healthcare, finance, utilities and governments, rely on IBM mainframe systems as the core of their organization's information technology, according to the company.

Government agencies can't rely on newly minted COBOL engineers to solve these issues; instead I'd like to see skilled architects and engineers who understand COBOL, mainframe architecture, and most importantly, how to enable these systems to scale.
Chris CondoAnalyst, Forrester Research

"The mainframe is literally running the worldwide economy. It's the most reliable and secure system of record on the planet," said Sam Knutson, vice president of product management at Compuware, which sells development tools for mainframes. "To the premier, large-scale enterprise, COBOL is what drives that platform."

While some folks have placed the blame on COBOL for shortfalls in these unemployment systems, that's a wrongheaded point of view, said Thomas Klinect, an analyst at Gartner.

"It's actually not COBOL that's the problem," Klinect said. "It's the implementation of the [new unemployment insurance] rules, which are the problem."

As applications change over the years because of new rules and laws, that application becomes more complex no matter what language it's written in, he added. The fact that many retired COBOL developers have taken valuable knowledge about applications with them only exacerbates the problem. The good news is that most developers can pick up COBOL pretty easily, according to Klinect.

"COBOL is a procedural language, which means it's very much like JavaScript," he said. "It's not complex; it's relatively straightforward. It's not object-oriented, where you're trying to understand all of the polymorphisms and virtual functions and all those types of issues."

COBOL may be a 60-year-old langugage, but it and mainframes still loom large in enterprise IT.
Mainframes running COBOL applications remain a critical part of enterprise IT.

IBM, Linux Foundation corral COBOL programmers

Vendors with a strategic stake in COBOL have stepped up education efforts around the language in recent days.

IBM, in concert with the Linux Foundation's Open Mainframe Project, launched the COBOL Programmers Forum, a place where retired COBOL developers and programmers who want to volunteer and/or work full-time can post their resumes. The company also unveiled the COBOL Technical Forum, where longtime COBOL programmers will offer free advice. A third program, called Open Source COBOL Training, is an educational course that teaches COBOL primarily to novice programmers.

Big Blue also created the IBM System z Academic Initiative where it will work with 120 schools located close some of IBM's larger corporate accounts to help integrate enterprise computing content into their respective curriculums. About half the 120 schools have courses dedicated to COBOL programming.

Working with selected users, IBM also created the Mainframe Application Developer Standard, which is registered as an apprenticeship with the Department of Labor. COBOL training is incorporated into the standard to meet the current demands of the marketplace, according to the company.

*Disclosure: Lee Taft is the brother of this story's co-author, Darryl Taft.

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