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Why You Should Learn COBOL

Arunn Ramadoss thinks you should learn COBOL. Admittedly, he’s biased. He’s the program manager of Micro Focus, a company that sells modernization tools for COBOL (see our previous coverage here).

Young programmers may be wondering whether they need to learn Java, or whether knowing JavaScript and either Python or Ruby is enough. And with computer science graduates reportedly receiving multiple job offers straight out of college, why look even further into the past at something like COBOL?

According to Gartner, 85% of the world’s businesses data was still being processed in COBOL as recently as 2001 (only when discussing something like COBOL could we consider 2001 “recent”). At the time, Gartner said that the amount of COBOL code in the world was actually increasing. Micro Focus claims that COBOL is in use at about 70% of the world’s businesses.

And while many of these applications will be re-written, Ramadoss thinks much of this code will still be around. These applications have been written running for years. They’re secure and stable, and businesses aren’t going to give them up easily. “No other language is capable of representing business data as accurately as COBOL,” he says.

And even in these days of delayed retirement, many COBOL engineers are leaving the job market. Some are retiring, others are moving into non-development roles like management.

Ramadoss thinks businesses will want programmers with an understanding of COBOL as well as newer technologies like .NET and HTML5. He thinks COBOL is one of the biggest opportunities for students and recent graduates, because there are going to be shoes to fill and it’s an easy language to learn.

It’s not an unreasonable idea. We’ve mentioned before that COBOL programmers are in demand.

“The days where you can be ‘just a Java programmer’ or ‘just a C programmer’ are gone,” Ramadoss says. “You need to know multiple languages and technologies, and how they can be integrated.”

And integration is what will be important for today’s students of COBOL. The nature of the language and the nature of the systems using the language is that COBOL is tied to business processes. So the challenge for developers isn’t learning the language, it’s how to bring this legacy system into the modern enterprise.

For example, Ramadoss says the business processes of transferring money from one bank account to another hasn’t changed. But how people expect to interact with their bank accounts and transactions has changed. They want access from the Web and from their phones.

The biggest challenge for companies with COBOL applications will be transferring knowledge about existing business processes to new developers. Employees who already understand COBOL and how it integrates with modern technology will standout, he says, even though COBOL is easy to learn.

So where do you start if you want to learn COBOL? Ramadoss says several universities are port of Micro Focus’ ACTION program. As for books, he recommends the The 21st Century COBOL Programmer by Nancy Stern, Robert A. Stern and James P. Ley. But he says that the Web may be a better place to start. He mentions cobol.com, a site sponsored by Micro Focus.

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