If you’ve never heard of COBOL, you’re either under 40 or you’ve forgotten. But COBOL was everywhere.
This computer language, invented in 1959 by Grace Hopper – an American computer scientist who served in the navy during the Second World War, in short, not the standard cake granny – was originally intended to support administration while facilitating interoperability. Developing a vendor-independent language in a format close to what we’d call Open today was revolutionary.
Unsurprisingly, the language has conquered the corporate world. By 1997, 80% of companies were using COBOL software. Except that in 2000, with its famous bug, the age of the technology began to show, starting its decline. Or rather, its very slow agony, for even today, 42% of companies in the banking/insurance world are still using legacy systems based on COBOL!
A problematic transition
Problem: how do you make the transition from this technology (renowned for its syntactic difficulty) to more modern ones, when there are no longer any active professionals in the field? Indeed, from the 2010s onwards, the entire boomer generation has been retiring, and with them the skills in COBOL, a language shunned by schools and young professionals alike as having no future.
This lack of a succession plan is not unconnected with the more global issue of Strategic Workforce Planning (or GPEC). The demographics of the people with these skills could be perfectly modeled and anticipated, leaving a large number of companies sadly at a loss. And with good reason: on Linkedin, there are only 10,000 banking and insurance professionals with this skill.
Papys to the rescue
So, are we heading straight for the wall, will the banking systems collapse, and is it time to run around with our arms in the air in panic?
Pas si vite. L’alerte a déjà été lancée, et de plus en plus de jeunes développeurs malins s’établissent en freelance pour accompagner la migration des programmes, souvent vers du Java. Ce n’est pas sexy, mais ça paie bien (jusqu’à 50% de plus sur une plateforme comme Malt).
Ensuite, la pénurie de talents en COBOL ne se fait ressentir que parmi la population active. Si l’on élargit la recherche aux retraités, la “supply” est bien plus importante. C’est en observant cela que Bill et Eileen Hinshaw ont créé les COBOL Cowboys (oui, ils sont texans…), qui permettent à d’autres retraités comme eux d’arrondir leurs fins de mois en maintenant du code pour des entreprises.
Even if it’s fairly obvious that COBOL is not the technology of the future, it’s outsourcing that will ultimately be the saving grace for our banks and insurance companies. But we still need to know what proportion of the skills shortfall needs to be filled, and over what timescale. And that takes planning…