Return of the Guru

Want IT Job Security? Learn COBOL

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, December 7, 2011

For some time now, I have been writing about the growth and staying power of the mainframe computing market within insurance as well as other industries, including financial services. Now, according to InfoWorld, analyst reports indicate that COBOL salaries are on the upswing.

COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) is among the most common computer languages utilized by mainframes. It was the first widely-used high-level programming language for business applications, says TechTarget.com. Many payroll, accounting and other business application programs that have been written in COBOL over the past 35 years are still in use. “It is possible,” the source notes, “that there are more existing lines of programming code in COBOL than in any other programming language. While the language has been updated over the years, however, it is generally perceived as out-of-date, and COBOL programs are generally viewed as a legacy technology—thus undesirable.”

But hold on. Software vendor Micro Focus claims that, with 50 years under its belt, “COBOL is set to remain the dominant language for business applications for the next 50 years. Having consistently seen off the young pretenders, COBOL has continued to evolve to meet every new demand thrown at it, from both business and technology.”

According to that site, business applications written in COBOL are faster, more precise and more powerful than ever. When we consider the undeniable fact that large volumes of data have been written in COBOL within the insurance industry since it began using mainframes some 40 years ago, that is good news, indeed. This is especially true because even though pundits like yours truly have been on the “dump the legacy systems” bandwagon, many insurers are stubbornly holding onto their legacy applications. Now it appears that trend will benefit those who can handle the programming challenge.

As noted in the InfoWorld report, “The language is easy to learn, there's a healthy demand for the skills, and offshore COBOL programmers are in short supply—plus, the language itself holds the promise of longevity. All that loose talk about mainframes going away has subsided, and companies committed to big iron need COBOL pros to give them love.”

The biggest drawback to the two trends—growth in mainframe sales and the staying power of COBOL—is that those who already know the language are either nearing retirement age or beyond it. In this lackluster economy with high unemployment levels, however, it is likely that such individuals could be persuaded to postpone retirement or to come out of it.

Certainly, COBOL is not being widely taught in computer science programs these days, but that makes it even more essential that someone pick up the ball on the education front. If, indeed, COBOL is easy to learn, insurers would be wise to recruit those who already know it to bolster and maintain their currently useful legacy applications and, most importantly, pass on their knowledge to a new generation of “big iron” workers.

It’s not the coolest thing in the world of computing, but the economic case, especially in insurance, is compelling.

Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at ara@aratremblytechnology.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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