This just in: COBOL is not dead

On the most antique Saturday Night Live shows, Chevy Chase reads fake news. With each broadcast he’d repeat this joke: “Generalissimo Franciso Franco is still dead.” Same result, week after week, a situation like COBOL’s current fortunes. Except COBOL is not dead. Despite what people think they know about it, the Common Business Oriented Language still props up a vast swath of the business data across the world.

In NPR’s Planet Money show, the team blamed COBOL for the slow pace of money-changing in clearinghouse transfers. The mistaken report was like fingering English for the outcome of the Presidential election. Yes, the COBOL code used in banks turns the IT cranks. The result is not the fault of the tool, but how it has been used.

COBOL expert Bruce Hobbs points to an article on the HackerRank blog, examining COBOL’s not-dead-yet status once again. If you like numbers, the article included these above. It’s still a language that supports 80 percent of all point of sale transactions and routes health care to 60 million patients a day.

To be fair, one of the sources of that graphic is the company still selling COBOL, Microfocus. But Gartner is also cited, an impartial consulting giant. In the NPR show, the reporters interviewed an exec from Fiserv, a vendor who might have known better; they made some of their fortunes selling Spectrum/3000 for credit unions.

In the HackerRank piece, the author quotes an article from 20 years ago that surveyed why COBOL has held on so long.

COBOL does the 4 essential business tasks better than most modern languages today:

• heterogeneous “record-structure” data
• decimal arithmetic
• convenient report generation
• accessing and manipulating masses of data (typically made up of heterogeneous data structure).

The COBOL community’s average age is 55. An estimated 2 million IT pros who knew the language in 2004 have declined to 1 million since then. The technology that’s as old as any SNL joke will see a new spotlight soon. Even in replacement, old skills will be in demand. One technology reporter, Ritika Trikha, looked to the future in her article.

“As taboo as COBOL might be in the ping pong rooms of modern startup-driven culture today, its influence and irreplaceability will result in a spotlight on the dinosaur language again. Businesses must figure out who will maintain their mainframes when COBOL programmers retire in the near future.”

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