COBOL Comeback: What You Need to Know About This Old Language

COBOL (“Common Business-Oriented Language”) has been around for more than 60 years, but it has recently been in demand due to some government agency needs. In the most prominent example, software programmers are using COBOL in state government systems to handle jobless benefits amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Most of those systems, particularly state-run systems, are written in COBOL, and they’re dependent on that type of skill set to maintain, support and in many ways modernize those systems,” said Ed Airey, product director for COBOL solutions at Micro Focus. 

Brian A. Dalio, associate professor of instruction in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), also sees the increased demand among government agencies. 

“Those applications have run fine for years, maybe decades, but recent pressures on agencies because of COVID have revealed deficiencies in data processing systems that need attention,” Dalio said. 

COBOL is also a useful language for lining up data in reports because it handles formatting automatically, unlike Java, said Neal Rogers, a computer science professor at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. Hence its presence in large databases.

In addition to government usage, COBOL has been utilized for business applications in finance and insurance. Software developers use COBOL to design systems for everything from airlines to ATMs. But mainframe systems based on COBOL have not been updated in years, in some cases. 

Companies have difficulty finding people with skills in COBOL. Indeed, Airey said, companies are looking to bridge their applications from the old to the new using COBOL, rather than rewriting them altogether to save costs. Businesses are also moving COBOL applications to the cloud

“It’s a differentiating skill in the marketplace, particularly when you look at enterprise computing as a whole,” Airey added. “And in many ways it will command, over the long term as you develop that skill, a much higher salary.”

Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, places the current median salary for jobs involving COBOL skills at $90,000, which is a tad below the technology-industry average of $94,000 (according to the 2020 edition of the Dice Salary Report). But in desperate times, with companies scrambling to find anyone with solid COBOL skills, salaries could drift higher.

Training in COBOL

Some tech companies offer programs to learn COBOL. Micro Focus has a COBOL Academic Program, and IBM offers courses on its site.

Airey suggests you could learn COBOL within a day; developing knowledge of the language is the “straightforward” part. The more challenging step is understanding the business function for real-world applications within government and finance. An internship at a financial institution or government agency, for example, can offer an effective way to gain experience in COBOL.

A Resurgence?

C, C++, Java and Python are the “mainstream languages” taught at academic institutions like UTA, but COBOL made an appearance in Dalio’s “Design and Construction of Compilers” class this year. Dalio is teaching a “mini-version” of the language because of its recent popularity.

Demand in COBOL is increasing because of the retirement of a generation of programmers, according to Dalio: “Over the past few years, more and more of these programmers are leaving the workforce, and replacing them has been tricky since the areas they come from are not seen as ‘sexy’ by younger programmers.” 

It all comes down to maintaining legacy code, even if new applications aren’t being written. “Depending on whose estimates one wants to believe, there are billions of lines of COBOL code that need to be maintained,” Dalio said. “That backlog is not going to go away anytime soon.” 

11 Responses to “COBOL Comeback: What You Need to Know About This Old Language”

  1. Nick Spanos

    COBOL is not making a comeback. It never went away. People have been talking about the replacement of COBOL since the 1970’s and it is still very common in large companies and corporations (especially where large transaction volumes must be processed). The problems they were describing with the unemployment system are the result of design flaws and not the choice of language. COBOL has been processing high transaction volumes since it was initially released.

    • Bill Hinshaw

      Actually the Unemployment Claims issue was due to websites crashing, and not COBOL running on mainframes in the backend. It has been reported websites in 27 States crashed processing Unemployed Claims.

      New York Times was scheduled to release an interview with Cobol Cowboys, but notified us that our interview on Unemployment Claims would not be published. They said the State of New Jersey backtracked on COBOL being the problem.

      I later testified to the New Jersey Senate on the failure to process Unemployment Claims was not a COBOL issue. During testimony, I gave suggestions for improving their website and backend processing capabilities.

  2. Dave Armstrong

    I agree with Nick. COBOL never went away. And there is good reason for that: COBOL is really good for business applications. And COBOL programs have been maintained and expanded for decades. Try doing that with Java. There are some things COBOL still does better than any other language: embedded sql, reports for example.

  3. California_Programmer

    COBOL never went away. It’s proven itself that it can get the work done. As the first letter “C”….it’s common. It’s not a designer language but has proven itself to be a reliable compiler and is supported by the IT community

  4. Steve Brothers

    True that COBOL never went away, and that fact keyed to the most important reason that is raised in the article “The more challenging step is understanding the business function for real-world applications”. This is a problem that is pervasive regardless of programming language — COBOL is just a really good example because of the dwindling workforce that has the knowledge of the business functions, which hampers maintenance. The same problem exists in legacy Java, C++, etc. The solution is to fix the knowledge problem.

    • Exactly, most companies low ball you or either have short term contracts for cobol developers. Younger developers like myself will definitely choose the higher paying stable full time position. Sorry COBOL..No thanks!

  5. Michael R.

    Two words I never expected to see in one sentence : COBOL and Cloud.

    The three biggest reasons COBOL is still crunching financial and insurance data have been stated above.
    1. Lack of business function and data knowledge. Both were required to have a useful COBOL app with meaningful longevity. Most COBOL developers performed their own business analysis.
    2. Structured data. Impossible to have loose data definitions in the Data Division of COBOL, except maybe blob data
    3. Easy remote procedure calls. Match up the outbound and inbound data, and then run standard routines in Assembler, Fortran, PL/1, SQL, whatever.
    4. And maybe the biggest: Developer discipline. COBOL was anal about specification rigour and code structure. Get lax on the first and you would get a high cost CPU beast. For the second one, get a single item out of place and the entire program would not compile, meaning you could not begin testing.

  6. Steve Beaver

    Its not the companies, it the contract companies wanting there 150% markup.

    Everyone forgets that it takes time to go through the code to figure out what the code is doing. The largest COBOL program I have EVER seen was 30,000 lines. And everyone under that section manager was afraid to touch the thing. And to rewrite it would take over a year to do and therefore it was NEVER touched

  7. Program size (lines of code) does not necessarily mean complex, just need to break it down, there is probably a ton of duplicate logic that is slightly tweaked across the different paragraphs in that code. I have taken on many a legacy program that people were afraid to touch and they turned out to be relatively simple, unnecessarily lengthy, or pretty darn clever but simply misinterpreted.