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Have you ever thought about the successor to C or Java?

Once a programmer, always a programmer? COBOL gurus without further training may think otherwise. Languages evolve, and developers have to keep up. Multilingualism is an asset in the digital world as well.

Those who knew COBOL in the second half of the last century could work for the world’s largest and most modern organisations. Today, the language of the mainframe is hardly more relevant than Latin. A handful of COBOL experts keep the last critical systems running, but like the mainframe itself, the language is doomed.

If you speak fluent Java, Python or C today, you might not worry too much. And rightly so: there is no shortage of vacancies, and most positions are undoubtedly more exciting than maintaining a demented mainframe in the basement of a bank. But will it always be this way? Will your expertise in C# be as relevant in 30 years as it is today?

1. It can go fast

The TIOBE index (based on the frequency of searches related to programming languages) suggests two things: those with experience in a popular language can be relatively confident, and new languages can quickly rise to the top.

For example, Java and C had been in first and second place respectively since the start of the index in 2001. Python survived as a language in the margins and failed to really make a mark until the end of 2017. Spurred in part by the rise of analytics and machine learning, the snake began its rapid ascent. Barely four years later, the index indicates that Python is the most relevant language of the moment, followed by dethroned kings C and Java.

The latter two remain very popular but have lost a great deal of ubiquity in just two decades. Unlike COBOL, the languages are still relevant today, and that won’t change overnight. However, the evolution demonstrates that it’s a good idea for developers to keep an eye on trends. The Java specialist who retrained in Python in 2018 had a highly coveted skillset.

2. Gamble, but never lose

It’s very difficult to predict which languages will become relevant and which will fade away in the next ten years. But you can make some predictions. Rust, for example, is not yet a top performer but it does have some unique features: it allows developers to protect applications from memory leaks better than alternatives C or C++. For that reason, Google decided to embrace Rust for new low-level code in Android in April 2021. Are you considering a Rust workshop? We think it’s a good idea to hear what the language can do for you.

You can be sure of one thing: knowledge of languages is always useful. Let’s go back to our COBOL expert. The language may not offer the most exciting career prospects, but COBOL programmers are an endangered species today. You can be sure that there is an IT administrator out there, stressed out, looking for someone to keep business-critical applications on the mainframe online until the board of directors, every one of them a computer moron, finally approves the expensive but necessary five-year migration plan to the cloud. But admit it: being an early expert on a new language that’s growing in popularity is a lot nicer.

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