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Why it’s time to learn COBOL

Paul Rubens | April 4, 2016
COBOL offers the promise of job security and above-average pay. Even some of the cool kids are doing it.

But the idea that your job will just consist of maintenance duties to keeping existing code running is very far from the truth, he says. There will also be plenty of opportunities for new development.

"Companies that have existing COBOL applications are extending them. Why wouldn't they?" Webb says. "There is a need to offer new things and deepen the engagement with customers, and some of that will involve development to extend existing COBOL applications.  Companies can't throw these applications away and start again, so they have to build on them."

The boring factor

One thing that may put you off the idea of working with COBOL is that it is often used by unglamorous and rather staid organizations. It lacks the allure of the sexy new languages used in the exciting startup world of Web 2.0 and mobile apps. To put it bluntly, a life of COBOL programming for a large financial institution may sound quite boring.

But that's not necessarily the case, says Alina Ungureanu, a developer in her 20s who learned COBOL last year. "I chose COBOL as it is interesting and very different compared to other languages,” she says.  "I don't think a language bores you – it’s the activities you do with it. If you want to work with COBOL you have to be able to do out-of-the-box thinking."

So would she recommend other developers learn COBOL? "That depends," she says. "I don't like to code websites. But if you are someone who doesn't want to create applications for the financial sector then I can't recommend COBOL. But if you love to create transactional code then COBOL is interesting."

She adds that COBOL developers do tend to earn more than many other developers, but in part that's due to the nature of the employers. "If you work with COBOL it will be in a large company that is employee-oriented, so they can't underpay you," she says. "Other languages are more popular in small companies or startups where people may not be satisfied with their salary."

Of course it's more likely that developers working in a startup may end up with equity in the company, and if the company is successful then there's the possibility of making millions of dollars overnight. That opportunity doesn't exist for most COBOL developers.

There is another possibility if you want to work with COBOL, but don't want to cut yourself off from the cutting edge of software development, Webb says. There is a trend towards integrating old COBOL applications with newer mobile and Web applications built in next-generation languages.

"This move to take COBOL apps and build them in to the cool stuff – that is much more interesting for a career," says Webb. "To do that you don't need to be a COBOL programmer, but more a programmer who knows COBOL. You also get to use multiple environments, tools and knowledge."


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