COBOL: You’re thinking about it wrong

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The workhorse computing language suffers from a “major image problem” rooted in fundamental misperceptions, researchers say.

If COBOL seems as antiquated as the manual typewriter, you’re thinking about it wrong, researchers say.

The workhorse coding language developed in 1959 was built to process massive numbers of transactions in banking, retail, transportation and government programs such tax processing, Social Security and unemployment insurance.

That last application garnered plenty of attention during the pandemic when state UI systems running COBOL were unable to handle the unprecedented flood of new applicants. States like Iowa, New Jersey and Connecticut issued calls for help, and IT veterans came out of retirement to speed application processing.

And while headlines might indicate the language had fallen into disfavor, the amount of COBOL in use continues to grow, with 800 billion lines running in production systems daily, according to a global survey conducted last year by enterprise software firm Micro Focus. COBOL is considered strategic by 92% of survey respondents, and over half said they expect their organizations to keep running their COBOL applications for at least another 10 years. 

Even though today’s touchless payment systems, real-time analytics and artificial intelligence applications communicate with institutional processes running COBOL, the language is taught in only a handful of U.S. universities, a trend that continues to thin the ranks of COBOL programmers.

COBOL suffers from a “major image problem” that stems from fundamental misperceptions. When a group of academic and industry researchers asked members of the COBOL Working Group of the Open Mainframe Project to rank the top five COBOL misperceptions, the top opinions were that the language is outdated, hard to learn and a bad career choice. 

None of that is true, the researchers wrote in the December 2022 paper, “What You Think You Know About COBOL is Probably Wrong: Making Tech Stack Decisions When the State of the Art is a Septuagenarian.”  

COBOL is an old idea, like the phone or cars, but it is not dead or outdated, they said. “Ongoing modernization means COBOL is interoperable with contemporary solutions like containers, VSCode, or cloud computing.” 

Unlike modern programming languages that require specific syntax, COBOL is relatively simple to learn. It was developed “to be easy to read, understand, and program for programmers in the 1960s who had few explicit training opportunities,” the paper said.  

COBOL programming is “a high-demand, niche skillset,” researchers found, citing a 2022 pay survey from question and answer website Stack Overflow that found average salaries for COBOL programmers jumped 44% between 2021 and 2022, the largest dollar increase of all surveyed languages.

Why those misperceptions exist is somewhat of a mystery, according to Derek Britton, director of communications and brand strategy at Micro Focus. In a TFiR webcast he speculated that COBOL’s declining reputation may be because IT leaders who were fans of the language are no longer making technology decisions.

To better understand COBOL deployment, the Open Mainframe Project plans to study how vendor investments in COBOL have enabled the language “to significantly increase its footprint in supporting modernization and other contemporary application requirements.” The organization, which is dedicated to supporting open mainframe environments, also plans to compile usage statistics and uncover future use-cases for COBOL applications.