COBOL Developers Want to Stick with the Aging Language

COBOL (“Common Business-Oriented Language”) is 61 years old. It has outlasted the Cold War, innumerable bad fashion trends, and dozens of technology-industry trends. Not only is the language still used, but a variety of organizations continue to see it as vital to their operations, according to new data.

A just-released poll by Micro Focus suggests that 70 percent of businesses that utilize COBOL and mainframe technology plan on “modernizing” their stack rather than replacing the language and its associated code entirely.  

“As we see the attitudes around COBOL modernization with changes to where and how it needs to be delivered and how its usage continues to grow, COBOL’s credentials as a strong digital technology appear to be set for another decade,” said Chris Livesey, Micro Focus’s senior vice president for application modernization and connectivity, wrote in a statement accompanying the data. “With 60 years of experience supporting mission-critical applications and business systems, COBOL continues to evolve as a flexible and resilient computer language that will remain relevant and important for businesses around the world.”

Moreover, these sysadmins and system architects are trying to align COBOL and mainframe initiatives with more modern ones, such as their cloud setups. Some 42 percent saw cloud as a “core and viable platform to support the business agenda,” while also working with COBOL. Some 63 percent of respondents also said that they were modernizing their COBOL system/applications “with a focus on functionality and process.”

COBOL is still in use (along with mainframes) at a number of federal agencies, including (as of 2016) the Department of Justice, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Financial institutions have also refused to abandon legacy systems running COBOL; for instance, in 2018, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, and Citi had at least two-dozen job openings that listed COBOL, according to eFinancialCareers

Although we’ve pronounced COBOL a language constantly threatened with obsolescence, it seems like it’ll continue to live so long as companies and government agencies refuse to abandon their legacy systems in favor of something more modern. That’s very good news for those developers and other technologists who have mastered COBOL and the delicate art of mainframe maintenance.

4 Responses to “COBOL Developers Want to Stick with the Aging Language”

  1. Gary Crook

    Heavily invested users of the COBOL ecosystem are indeed seeking to modernize their applications, but that does NOT mean that COBOL is their target end-state. Many are seeking to refactor those applications to modern agile targets like Java. This survey is commissioned by a company that seeks to promote COBOL as viable for what’s next (to ensure their products remain entrenched), so perhaps not hugely surprising that the conclusions drawn are misleading.

  2. Todd Erickson

    COBOL-based systems still run the great majority of banking and financial transaction applications; a number of government systems including parts of the IRS, VA, and defense department; and probably batch your health insurance provider’s patient interactions every night. I lot of batch processing in all industries still runs on legacy applications.

    But the programmers that have maintained these applications for the past 60 years are retiring and fewer educational institutions are offering COBOL courses. COBOL programming skills offer more money and job security.

    “Recruiters say that COBOL programmers are hard to come by and can, therefore, earn 25% more than people who code in Java.”

    That’s why.

    *Disclaimer: My company creates software that makes COBOL-based applications easier to use.