COBOL: The Ancient Programming Language Working Behind the Scenes

By Nataly Kehyayan

What is COBOL?

COBOL is everywhere but is rarely talked about. Common Business Oriented Language is a 50-year-old programming language that still runs a considerable chunk of business, financial, and administrative systems as we know them today. Invented by a group of people led by Grace Hopper, who coined the term “bug” to be associated with computer failures, COBOL was one of the first languages to be written in plain English to process data.

COBOL quickly became the default language in the world of business thanks to companies like IBM who adopted and promoted it. With more than 200 billion lines of code still in use today, replacing COBOL would cost more than $5 trillion, priced at $25 per line. Reasonably, companies prefer to take advantage of COBOL’s reliability and longevity by maintaining it rather than replacing it with newer alternatives.

Who uses COBOL?

The average person will use COBOL in one way or another 10 times throughout the day. Whether you just used your credit card to pay for something, stopped at a red light, or made an online purchase, it is everywhere! Companies use it for their payroll systems, pension funds, and other financial transactions in general.

COBOL’s main purpose is to process an optimal amount of transactions in short periods of time. It is also meant to be easy to understand and learn by non-programmers like business people. Any company that works with large amounts of data and records, including airlines, large hotel chains, and banks are familiar with COBOL. 

Shortage in COBOL Programmers 

COBOL has been steadily losing its employability for a long time. One language popularity index shows that COBOL ranks 43rd compared to other languages, with Python first on the list, followed by Java, C, and C++. Despite the low demand, supply is even lower. There is very little formal training provided by institutions and those who have the knowledge are counting down the days until retirement. 

Today, most of the day-to-day job for a COBOL programmer would consist of maintenance, which sounds a lot less exciting than other options. COBOL never really gained much popularity in universities. When it was first introduced, computer science was not a common degree that people pursued, so the majority of people who ended up working with the language learned it on the job.

Recent Issues 

Earlier this year, COBOL made headlines as government unemployment websites were experiencing unmanageable traffic due to COVID-19 layoffs and shutdowns. The application process for unemployment insurance was not a smooth one for many Americans.  New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced that they urgently needed COBOL programmers for maintenance reasons to fix their insurance systems.

However, it was later confirmed that the problem was a front-end issue related to Java while COBOL is mainly a back-office processing system. In reality, COBOL was doing what it does best; processing an enormous amount of transactions with no problem. 

COBOL is the programming language of money and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Though some institutions have taken action to modernize and update their COBOL to more modern languages, it is going to take a long time and huge amounts of capital to get there. 

Photo by Alex Motoc, Unsplash

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