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Looking for a Few Good (or Bad, or Ugly) COBOL Programmers

Here's an unexpected side effect of the pandemic: increased demand for COBOL programmers. The need seems to be particularly acute among states whose unemployment systems were originally written in the decades-old language -- systems suddenly tasked with processing a record number of unemployment claims. Estimates vary, but it's safe to say that there are a couple hundred billion lines of COBOL code currently in use. And it seems to be gumming up the works.

This news should provoke a bit of déjà vu in more than a few IT industry watchers. Remember Y2K? People were calling it the COBOL Programmers' Re-employment Act, as companies worldwide begged and bribed a virtually retired community to help them make changes to this language nobody seemed to understand anymore.

Meredith Stowell, VP of the IBM Z Ecosystem, wrote about the sudden demand for scarce COBOL expertise in a blog post, in which she also outlined three new initiatives members of the Linux Foundation's Open Mainframe Project have devised to address the immediate need.  

The Open Mainframe Project is a collaborative effort managed by the Linux Foundation to encourage the use of Linux-based operating systems and open source software on mainframe computers. The five-year-old project's members, including IBM, Broadcom, Phoenix Software, Rocket Software, SUSE, Vicom Infinity, and Zoss, developed the initiatives "in response to this urgent need from our public sector officials." They include:

Calling all COBOL Programmers Forum: a new talent portal where employers can connect with available and experienced COBOL programmers. This new initiative provides an immediate way to help connect professionals where needs arise – with skilled talent ready to get to work. This is open to those looking for employment, retired skilled veterans, students who have successfully completed COBOL courses, or professionals wanting to volunteer.

COBOL Technical Forum - a new temporary resource being actively monitored by experienced COBOL programmers providing free advice and expertise during the crisis. This tool will allow all levels of programmers to manage issues, learn new techniques and expedite solutions needed as programmers alter this critical code.

Open Source COBOL Training – a brand new open source course designed to teach COBOL to beginners and refresh experienced professionals. IBM worked with clients and an institute of higher education to develop an in-depth COBOL Programming with VSCode course that will be available next week on the public domain at no charge to anyone.  This curriculum will be made into a self-service video course with hands-on labs and tutorials available via Coursera and other learning platforms next month. The course will be available on IBM's own training platform free of charge.

Hundreds of engineers had made themselves available through the new COBOL talent platform, the Project reported, both for hire and as volunteers. They'll have their hands full: The federal labor department reported 16.8 million unemployment claims were filed between March 15 and April 4.

"This call for skills is a great example of how communities, and in particular open source communities, pulling together can quickly and efficiently address critical needs in times of crisis," said Alan Clark, Open Mainframe Governing Board Member and SUSE CTO.

IBM should get some extra credit for maintaining its own programs to help fill the shallow pool of COBOL coders. "IBM has a long history of investing in mainframe skills," Stowell wrote. "In addition to contributing to the Open Mainframe Project Community Forum and providing expanded open-source training, there are a number of initiatives that IBM has been participating in to address the continuous need for COBOL skills by our community."

Those programs include:

  • IBM Z Academic Initiative: Through the IBM Z Academic Initiative program, IBM actively partners with over 120 schools across the United States located in the vicinity of our clients to integrate critical Enterprise Computing content into curriculum. These courses often include an introduction to COBOL. Over 45 of these schools have specific courses dedicated to COBOL programming and more are added each year.  For example, Bergen Community College in New Jersey includes mainframe content in their curriculum in addition to having a vibrant, active mainframe student club.
  • Master the Mainframe: COBOL is also introduced through our Master the Mainframe program which reached 4,286 students from over 600 schools across the US last year. No charge, COBOL e-learning courses are also available to academic students globally, year-round.
  • Mainframe Application Developer Standard: To help broaden the skill base, IBM has recently developed a Mainframe Application Developer standard in cooperation with a number of clients.  This standard is registered as an apprenticeship with the Department of Labor and COBOL training is incorporated into that standard to meet the demands of the marketplace.
  • A robust ecosystem of partners: COBOL training is offered globally through our ecosystem of partners.  For example, Inter-skill offers a significant number of e-learning courses and approximately 1,000 digital badges have been issued for COBOL.

Posted by John K. Waters on April 16, 2020