Whatever happened to …

… COBOL programmers?

For the uninitiated, COBOL is a programming language that has been around 1959. It stands for Common Business Oriented Programming Language. 1959 would generally be considered pre-historic times in terms of computers and programming but …

Most people know Java and C++, but good ol’ COBOL is still alive and kicking. In the US, around 80 percent of in-person transactions and 95 percent of ATM swipes are based on programs written in COBOL. The problem is there’s not enough people to maintain the current COBOL-based systems.

MÁR MÁSSON MAACK, “Ancient programming language COBOL can make you bank, literally”, Apr 10, 2017. https://thenextweb.com/finance/2017/04/10/ancient-programming-language-cobol-can-make-you-bank-literally/

The topic arose in my Zoom conversation with some Computer Science friends yesterday afternoon. We’d all programmed in COBOL in one form or another at university and perhaps beyond. For me, it was in the WATBOL dialect. But, there’s a real shortage of COBOL programmers. Those who are long in the tooth when it comes to programming are retiring. As you can see from the statistics above, there are many mission-critical applications that rely on it.

COBOL’s claim to fame is that programming is very much like writing in English unlike the cryptic forms that other languages take. Unlike other languages, data structures are addressed very early in COBOL courses because that’s what it does best.

The problem is that there have been so many new languages and new opportunities for programmers. Managing business systems, while so important, aren’t really glitzy sought-after careers. Are the opportunities to learn there for anyone interested? I did a search at ecampusontario and found only two offerings from Ontario universities and colleges. One is offered at the University of Guelph and the other at Algonquin College. As we know, just offering a course isn’t a guarantee that it will be run; that’s dictated by numbers.

How about in K-12? I would suggest that it’s a hard sell. We are currently offering courses designed to draw with turtle graphics, make robots move around, run games and simulations and more… It’s a tough crowd, trying to get that Computer Science registration from students. The thought was to start early and put efforts into getting girls into coding would get students interested. But has it?

COBOL also isn’t a recreational type of programming language. I know that when I get the urge to write something around here, I don’t think that it would be fun to write an inventory program.

While you might not be a Computer Science type, you really should pay attention because your banking and finances rely on it!

So, your thoughts?

  • Before this post, did you know that a beast like COBOL existed?
  • Have you ever programmed in COBOL?
  • Should programming of any sort be compulsory in Ontario schools?
  • Programming classes have long been the turf for male students. How should education address equity of opportunities for all students?
  • A long time ago, there were two separate Ontario curricula – Computer Science and Data Processing. It was Data Processing that dealt with business programming. Should it make a return?
  • Why hasn’t business moved their databases to something modern other than this “Legacy Language?”
  • Speaking of “Legacy Languages”, do you have any other languages that come to mind that would fit into that category?

I’d be interested in your thoughts on the topic. Please share them in the comments below.

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All of the Sunday “Whatever happened to” posts are archived here. This also includes a link to a Padlet where you can offer your own suggestions for a future post.


6 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …

    1. Good morning Doug!

      It’s interesting that you should have chosen this topic for today, as it was just this week that I watched an episode of the Belgian cybercrime police-procedural Unit 42 that dealt with this! In the episode (S1 E10) “Reboot,“ the protagonists are chasing after three old programmers who exploit the fact that many mission critical systems are still based in the old language. The antagonists appear to be trying to take down nation’s hospitals and power plants, but in reality that is just a diversion so that they can attack the banks and grab a bunch of cash. The episode was released in December, 2017.

      When I was at UofT in the 80s, we used PL/C and Turing. I recall some cursory work in which we had to differentiate between, and program in, Pascal, COBOL, and FORTRAN, but the takeaway was that they were older/niche languages, we would use them if we wound up in particular career paths, and there were more powerful languages on the horizon.

      We both know of the challenges facing the CS/programming industry in Ontario today. The province produces far fewer programmers each year than are required, and so there is a need to import workers or send work offshore in order to get things done. I recall attending a Ministry/Curriculum Forum session (perhaps in 2013?) and sitting with Peter Beens and Cyndie Jacobs as the Ministry of Education received a presentation from some industry experts who claimed an annual deficit of 26,000 programmers within Ontario.

      There has been a lot of effort put into introducing kids to computational thinking, robots, and gaming in recent years — but sadly the drive has come from outside the Ontario Ministry of Education, rather than from within. Provinces like New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia have introduced K-12 curriculum related to programming/computer science, but we are still waiting here in Ontario. Much of the initiative comes from major tech/education companies, as well as the Federal Can Code program. One can make the argument that the philosophy and practises related to programming need to be embedded across the curriculum, rather than added as yet another subject, but the result today remains the same — Ontario school boards and Ontario teachers are responding more based on their belief that this is important, rather than as a result of a concerted and integrated effort by the Ministry in reworking curriculum guidance.

      Having never taught Computer Science or Data Processing in an Ontario high school, I am probably not the best one to offer an opinion on whether data processing should make a return. Why was data processing done away with in the first place? Did it become obsolete? Was it a political move to integrate two disparate but related departments within Collegiates & Vocational Institutes? Did it go the way of typing classes? I know we’ve talked about typing here before on DOTR.

      In closing, in doing a bit of a read up this morning on the background of Turing, I discovered that Ric Holt passed away last year. He was at UofT while I was there (he wrote the textbook on Turing because he also wrote Turing), and I discovered this morning that he later operated Holt Software Associates. I’m sure you remember getting multi page educational software price lists from them years ago, and you may have even had some involvement with them when you were on the OSAPAC committee? It appears that Turing ceased development and was released as freeware in 2007. UWaterloo have a nice memorial on Ric’s later years.


  1. It’s been decades and decades since I did any programming in COBOL. I don’t remember a whole lot of it. It seems to me it was fairly easy to learn though. I don’t understand why an programmer experienced with a few other languages could not learn it fairly quickly. But no one wants to.


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