What is so special about COBOL and why COBOL programmers are still in demand?

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    What is so Special About COBOL and Why COBOL Programmers are Still in Demand?

    Just before we dive into the details, breaking the nut for those who think that COBOL is outdated; 70-80% of all business transactions worldwide are written in COBOL.

    According to a study conducted in 2017, there are more than 220 billion lines of COBOL in use today, which includes the code that powers 80% of in-person financial transactions.

    Matter of fact is, as long as there are companies who believe in the legacy system and choose to rely on the robustness these systems bring to business, COBOL programmers will still be in demand.

    What is so special about COBOL & COBOL Programmers?

    COBOL (Common Business-oriented Language) is a computer programming language designed specifically for business purposes. And, since 2002, the language is object-oriented, imperative, and procedural.

    COBOL programming language is mainly used in private and government institutions for administrative functions. Also, the language is used in legacy applications like IBM iSeries, for large-scale batch and transaction processing.

    But with time, the popularity of COBOL has decreased, and experienced COBOL developers have also retired. Furthermore, the COBOL programmers started to migrate to new platforms, and codes were re-written in modern languages.

    However, most of the COBOL programmers are still there to maintain existing applications. This clearly supports the fact that if you are looking for COBOL programmers, you have a ray of hope.

    COBOL was introduced in the year 1959 by CODASYL. COBOL was developed for the US Department of Defense (DoD) in an effort to develop a portable programming language for data processing. COBOL programmers referred to it as a stopgap, but DoD forced the COBOL developers to provide it.

    This resulted in widespread adoption of the language. It was standardized in 1968, and since then, it has been revised four times. The expansion was in favor of IBM iSeries services and OOP. The current version of this language is ISO/IEC 1989:2014.

    Although many other programming languages are available for the business environment, being fifty-year-old doesn’t mean that COBOL is outdated. COBOL programmers are still accountable for more than 70% of business transactions worldwide.

    How is COBOL Different from Any Other Language?

    If you’re a rational developer for iSeries and enjoy working on any common language like C, C++, Java, and many others, then COBOL is a totally different breed. It is not like your general-purpose language and is not a great fit for the tasks performed by high-level jobs that other languages can perform.

    Assuming that COBOL was introduced before UNIX and C saw the daylight, there won’t be any surprise that its heritage is different. As the name describes, COBOL (Common Business-oriented Language), as the name says, was invented as a business application. Have a look at the list, which highlights the primary difference between COBOL programmers and modern-day languages:

    • All data items of variables are global, as COBOL calls them.
    • Language codes are divided into different divisions (Data, Identification, Environment, and Procedure)
    • Like COBOL, there is no parametrized functioning.
    • OOP was introduced in COBOL in the year 2002 only.
    • Datatypes (int, float, double) are absent in COBOL.
    • COBOL programmers don’t provide splitting code across various channels.
    • In a single file, COBOL codes can be very long.
    • Data items are defined with a picture statement.

    Industries using COBOL

    COBOL is used in various industries. Have a look at some significant industries:

    • Transportation System
    • Insurance Companies
    • Banks & Financial Institutions

    Apart from these industries, COBOL programmers are required in the Department of Justice, Social Security Administration, The Department of Veterans Affairs, Treasury Department, Department of Homeland Security, and many more.

    What do the COBOL Developers Do?

    In many used cases, COBOL programmers take input from XML, JSON, and CSV, compute the data and store it in a database like DB2. It would also do computing for the reporting purpose using data from DB2 and send the output in the form of a document file.

    The COBOL inputs stay as an application in databases, just like JAVA applications on its server.

    Like any other developer, the COBOL developers sit happily in front of their Visual Studio and deploy codes on the IBM iSeries AS400 mainframes.

    As a COBOL programmer, if their codebase contains ten, hundred, or thousand codes, you will think of re-writing the whole code. But not to forget that digging documentation from a couple of decades is not an easy task.

    Why is COBOL Still Leading?

    COBOL has been a foundation for business and transaction applications for over a decade now.

    Are you thinking why hasn’t anything better-replaced COBOL yet?

    To unwind this, we need to understand how COBOL was brought into operations and how it paddled the era of computing for various industries.

    Created in 1959, COBOL was born in the era of custom-tailored programming languages; the computing era where programming languages were written for a specific purpose.

    For banks, insurance companies, and government institutions it was a deal of high costs consumption to join the computing age.

    biggest systems that run on COBOL

    You can imagine the amount required to create a programming language to suit their personalized systems, huge right?

    This created a demand for a Universal Business Language to run business operations smoother and faster.

    Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL pioneered the universal business programming language that could function across business systems.

    Until 1997, there hasn’t been a successor that could carry the massive batch processing as sturdily as COBOL.

    Despite that, replacing billions of lines of COBOL and the cost involved is unimaginable.

    Today, businesses worldwide run over 220 billion lines of code written in COBOL, today. It seems practically exhaustive to replace each of the business programs with a modern language without disturbing the core structure.

    In comparison to today’s modern programming languages – COBOL is different in various ways –

    • You can’t do vibrant memory allocation
    • Can’t easily access low-level features of the OS
    • The most common forms of the language can’t use recursion.
    • No one wants to write a compiler code in COBOL.

    In modern business terms, COBOL is a domain-specific language and is limited to business domains and programming.

    COBOL: The Language of Longevity

    Even though modern languages appear to be young developers’ choices, the world needs more languages to work on. We are saying this because different language is better at handling different tasks.

    For example – COBOL is good at processing financial data & number crunching, while Java and C are effective for front-end UX. Languages must fit the purpose, and according to the nature of the problem, there should be language to use.

    So, why are organizations are looking for COBOL programmers instead of writing applications using modern languages?

    Well, there is no harm in keeping current with the modern-day business languages but when it comes to the security & robustness of applications, COBOL is the safest bet that businesses prefer to take.

    Also, giving a thought for COBOL replacement isn’t harmful though but dreadful enough to execute due to certain factors such as ROI triggers, amount of overall resources taken into consideration, and on top of all the training costs to get the things right. These select few factors add enough to lose the replacement appeal.

    With the increasing number of retired COBOL programmers besides the ones who are on their way to retire, at times it gets difficult to souce COBOL talent for your development project.

    Existing Challenges with COBOL

    Among the various challenges around COBOL, here are a select few that are becoming a pain in the neck on a serious note.

    One and the most important challenge that COBOL programmers face today is maintaining billions of lines of code. About 220 billion lines of COBOL are in use, today and you know how voluminous and complex it becomes when it’s about maintaining the code without disturbing the business functions.

    Skill Gap

    The next challenge is from the business perspective. Wherein it’s a challenge for businesses that are operating on a system built upon COBOL, it’s an added advantage for the limited edition COBOL programmers of new and old times to increase their worth.

    To build a business software upon COBOL or maintain the current one, in itself has become a challenge with the increasing number of retired COBOL programmers and the ones who are about to retire.

    55 is the average age of a COBOL programmer.

    And, let me make it clear, the number of new programmers who are willing to learn and adapt COBOL is very negligible.

    A survey conducted says, about 70% of universities do not include COBOL in their curriculum.

    To sum it up, with the recent scenario, it’s a tough nut to crack to find talented IBM COBOL programmers which in turn putting an unnecessary load on the existing systems and the people who are trying their best to manage the systems.

    Final Thoughts about COBOL

    As a programmer, if we would have the IBM largest mainframe (IBM z13), we would prefer IBM COBOL programmers for it. IBM iSeries is a wonderful machine, and along with a modern programming environment, building application on COBOL is not a waste of time and resources.

    COBOL is really helpful as a programming language and building some applications will surely help you understand this. You can also read COBOL examples online, and you can still learn to write COBOL codes.


    In a world where IT continues to power the business environment, the longevity of IBM iSeries services and the need for COBOL programmers in today’s business environment are increasing.

    COBOL programmers and IBM iSeries services are here to stay for long. As demand will grow for non-agile and innovative systems, it will be challenging to bring any other technology onboard that can merge with the existing setup. That’s why COBOL is the best choice. And when dissenters continue to challenge the existence of IBM iSeries services, the COBOL programmers will keep proving their worth.

    If you have any queries regarding the iSeries services or need COBOL programmers for your project, feel free to connect with Integrative Systems at [email protected]. Integrative Systems is the US-based IBM iSeries consulting services provider and has more than twenty years of experience in this field.

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