Daily Tedium

COBOLed Together

An essential part of the computer era’s birth, the programming language COBOL still hangs on—which is good for would-be retirees who know the language.

By Ernie Smith

If you’re a regular reader of Y Combinator’s excellent mini-Reddit aggregator Hacker News (as I am), you start to see some trends arise. Programming languages and frameworks become incredibly popular (Ruby on Rails! Django! Node! Go!), but then start to lose their luster over time as programmers inevitably move onto the next coding innovation.

But the thing is, programming frameworks didn’t used to be this trendy, and some of the really old ones are becoming highly-sought-after in certain sectors because they’re becoming very uncommon. One great example of this is COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), a language that was born before former president Barack Obama was.

Nearly 60 years old and lacking some of the versatility of more modern languages, it holds on largely because its use cases—in banks, the federal government, and airlines, among others—represent the underpinnings of our basic infrastructure. These industries were first movers on computing because of how necessary it was, which means they got the oldest languages. (This was also, partly, the reason for the Y2K bug and the subsequent hoarding.)

Love it or hate it, COBOL still has its place, and there’s money to be made if you know the language. (Hence why some vendors are still adding COBOL support to Microsoft Visual Studio.)

Problem is, according to Reuters, the expert COBOL programmers are starting to, um, age out of the industry. But even the ones ready for retirement have stuck around thanks to the lucrative need for their services. The article highlights a company, technically a startup, called COBOL Cowboys, that connects large companies with expert COBOL programmers.

The firm is made up programmers whose skills have remained necessary in part because knowledge of how COBOL works hasn’t transferred among generations the way that, say, knowledge of The Beatles has.

"Some of the software I wrote for banks in the 1970s is still being used," notes COBOL Cowboys founder Bill Hinshaw, age 75, in his Reuters comments.

It’s a tough problem to wrangle, but fortunately someone’s still up to the job.

(image by russell davies/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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