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COBOL, the immortal language

63 years young and ready for a new look; there is a reason why COBOL is getting a new compiler. Free and open source, the software keeps up with the times. Surprising? Yes and no… The language may be old, but not retired. Unlike many COBOL programmers, unfortunately. Which is why there are a lot of unique job opportunities.

COBOL is not exactly top of the list when it comes to trendy programming languages. Compared to Python or Rust, but also Java and even C#, the Common Business Oriented Language is an old-timer. The language is mainly used in a financial context and runs on mainframes. COBOL applications have been processing data since 1959. While age does not usually add value in the context IT applications, this long-standing language remains relevant.

1. Critical but unloved

Even today COBOL is not concerned with trivial tasks. COBOL apps run in environments where they have a mission-critical job. Paid with your credit card? There is a good chance that COBOL processed the transaction. In industries sensitive to change, like the financial world, no one is eager to tinker with a critical mainframe application. The applications still do what needs to be done, so why change?

Well, there is one very good reason: nobody speaks COBOL anymore. Experts who grew up with the language are all retiring, and new generations of programmers have specialized in other languages. Meanwhile, that critical app continues to run, with no suitable staff to make minor adjustments. Even a migration is difficult when no one can look under the bonnet to see what is happening.

2. Omnipresent

This is no niche situation. According to research, up to 850 billion lines of COBOL code are currently running in nearly 30,000 organizations, typically in critical production environments. 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies rely on it. Never has there been this much COBOL in circulation and the volume is only likely to increase for the foreseeable future.

As COBOL apps outlive the careers of their authors, the demand for qualified experts is rising. This is precisely why the gcobol compiler was launched earlier this year. It provides a visual interface to write COBOL code and compile it directly. The makers see their compiler as a modern tool for an old but no less important job.
As a programmer, what you need to remember above all is that COBOL is not dying and certainly not dead. Over the years, however, the number of lines of code has been inversely proportional to the number of programmers. Those who immerse themselves in COBOL therefore acquire a skillset that is very much in demand.

3. Language for the future

Beyond that, a COBOL developer maintains the foundation of our digital society. Much of our economy still runs on some kind of COBOL system every day. What’s more, the flexibility and reliability of the language are still unmatched.

In the future, mainframe applications will undoubtedly migrate to more modern variants in the cloud; but that transformation will take some time. Moreover, those major and expensive transformations also require experts who understand the applications that need to be replaced.

Fortunately, this is not that difficult as COBOL is a quite understandable language that bridges the gap between English and programming. Besides, you can get started in familiar development environments like Visual Studio. There are more than enough tutorials and even modern books you can work with to take your first steps in COBOL. That way, you will learn the secrets of the digital infrastructure today’s world unsuspectingly relies on; and you immediately add increasingly coveted knowledge and experience to your CV.

Is COBOL one of your superpowers? Or are there any other IT skills you want to share with the world? Then CHRLY Belgium has the perfect job for you. Check out our vacancies!

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