All The Rich Kids Are Into COBOL—But Why?

Author

Matt Asay

September 19, 2014

All the cool kids write Node.js. But the rich kids? They’re into COBOL. 

According to an ITWorld report, college students that take COBOL classes earn as much as $10,000 more in their first jobs than their Go-slumming hipster friends. Even though COBOL is a programming relic of enterprise systems gone by.

See also: Google’s Go Programming Language: Taking Cloud Development By Storm

True, that report is based on a personal anecdote from Leon Kappelman, a business information-systems professor at the University of North Texas, not a survey or anything else you might consider, well, actual data. Still, let’s assume for a moment that Prof. Kappelman is onto something.

What gives?

No COBOL Renaissance

First of all, let’s be clear: COBOL isn’t cool. By any metric, it’s just as “out-of-date, not attractive, complex, and expensive” as critics have opined

If you look at the total volume of jobs for COBOL, it has been steadily declining even as relative newcomers like Node.js and Objective-C blossom and boom, according to Indeed jobs data:

Even if we focus solely on programming languages focused on enterprise computing, and specifically on employer interest in hiring people with programming language expertise, COBOL is an also-ran, as IEEE’s language popularity index shows:

Source: IEEE Spectrum

COBOL’s ranking plummets if we add in things like relevance on Twitter, interest expressed through online forums like Stack Exchange, and other measures. COBOL is, as Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood writes, “so very, very dead.” 

In sum, COBOL won’t get you a date. And it probably won’t get you a job, either.

COBOL Is Dead. Long Live COBOL

Except, of course, when it does. The easiest way to decipher the “COBOL grads make $10,000 more” is simply to look at supply and demand. While the demand for COBOL isn’t high, the supply of people who understand it is even lower. This makes COBOL code jockeys a valuable commodity … if they can find an employer that needs someone to update their green screen applications.

See also: Why You Should Learn COBOL

In other words, there’s really no need to learn COBOL, but there’s probably some company, somewhere that desperately needs younger programmers to learn it, as a Computerworld article from 2006 expresses well:

The persistence of Cobol—welcome or not—presents a dilemma for many companies. Their legacy code will require significant resources for years to come, yet younger software developers often don’t want to work with Cobol, and in most cases, they’re no longer learning it in school. And while there are thousands of Cobol coders still in the workplace, a large percentage of them are nearing retirement age.

Maybe this is one reason academics think COBOL should remain on their curricula, according to a survey conducted by Micro Focus, a COBOL vendor, and discovered by SD Times’ Alan Zeichick:

A poll of academic leaders from 119 universities across the world saw more than half (58%) say they believed COBOL programming should be on their curriculum, with 54% estimating the demand for COBOL programming skills would increase or stay the same over the next 10 years. That’s a far cry from today’s reality. Of the 27% confirming COBOL programming was part of their curriculum, only 18% had it as a core part of the course, while the remaining 9% made it an elective component.

Betting On COBOL?

All of this leads some to suggest that young developers should pick up COBOL as a core competence. I disagree. In some ways it’s like learning Latin or Greek: possibly useful—I mean, who doesn’t want to read Homer in the original Greek?—but unlikely to lead to employment.

Yes, there are COBOL jobs out there. And yes, learning COBOL might put young programmers in a position to upgrade outdated systems to more modern alternatives.

But is this really how you want to spend your time? It pays well, OK. But take a look at these two code snippets that Atwood highlights and decide which you’d rather code. C#?

Source: Jeff Atwood

Or COBOL?

Source: Jeff Atwood

There’s really no reason to make work any more unpleasant than it must be. Far better to build the future with Go or other young Web languages. 

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Great ! Thanks for your subscription !

You will soon receive the first Content Loop Newsletter