The coming coder wars: Part one

In the late 1980s, I spent some time as a mainframe programmer at IBM. Conversations around the water cooler often had to do with some of the cryptic code written 20 to 30 years earlier, buried deep within the system, that was incomprehensible.

Now, 25 years later, the problem has grown exponentially worse. With a programming universe comprised of over 2,500 different languages, dated languages like Fortran, Jovial, and Cobol that lie buried inside corporate IT departments are coming back to haunt their host companies.

As an example, the day-to-day operations at the Mellon Bank of New York are based on 112,500 Cobol programs – 343 million lines of code – that run core-banking functions. Mellon Bank is not alone. Thousands of other companies have similar issues.

The ticking time bomb behind this problem is that the people familiar with this code are nearing retirement age. For companies that wait until that the institutional knowledge is gone, the costs for converting over may be as much as 10 times higher than it would have been beforehand.

In an industry where speed is king, few college students want to learn the equivalent of programming Egyptian sundials when atomic clocks are driving the web. With a massive programmer shortage looming, it will come as no surprise that our newest venture at DaVinci Institute will be one to train next-generation programmers in a program we call DaVinci Coders.

History of Cobol

Cobol is one of the oldest programming languages, first appearing in 1959. Its name was derived from an acronym for COmmon Business-Oriented Language.

The COBOL specification was created by a committee of researchers from private industry, universities, and government during the second half of 1959. The specifications were to a great extent inspired by the FLOW-MATIC language invented by Grace Hopper, an inspirational visionary often referred to as “the mother of the COBOL language.”

Largely because of Grace Hopper’s influence, the percentage of female COBOL programmers is over 30 percent which is far more than most languages in this heavily dominated male arena. By contrast, only 6 percent of Ruby on Rails programmers are female.

More than 50 years after Cobol came on the scene, the language is alive and well in the world’s largest corporations, where it excels at executing large-scale batch and transaction processing operations on mainframes. The language is still popular because of its scalability, performance and mathematical accuracy.

Finding New Talent

A recent article in ComputerWorld does a good job of laying out the challenges ahead. New people entering the programming field couldn’t be bothered by the slow, tedious nature of programming in COBOL.

“College graduates with training in Cobol are in short supply. In Michigan, for example, state schools that offer Cobol programming have cancelled classes due to a lack of interest. “They can’t get anyone to enroll,” says Jonathan Miller, director of Saginaw County Information Systems and Services.

“But some colleges are still providing Cobol training — with help from IBM. The mainframe vendor has developed curricula in association with more than 80 colleges and universities ranging from Brigham Young to Texas A&M. “We donate hardware and software, help with the curriculum, and they graduate hundreds of people every year,” says Kevin Stoodley, IBM fellow and chief technology officer.”

Having a gradating pool of “hundreds” hardly seems adequate for a language with a 50-year legacy and a massive bulge of talent ready to retire.

Salary Comparison

A recent survey by reveals some of the problem with recruiting new COBOL programmers. They simply don’t make as much money.

A senior software engineer in COBOL earns less than $80,000, while an experienced Ruby on Rails Developer, with equivalent experience, can earn over $120,000 per year.

Currently the Ruby on Rails field is predominantly a male working environment comprised of 94 percent men and 6 percent women.
Even though there are an estimated 235,000 websites using Ruby on Rails, this is a young field. Only 3 percent have less than one year’s experience; 42 percent have 1-4 years experience, 30 percent have 5-9 years experience and 25 percent have 10 or more years coding.

Many of the largest employers are using Ruby on Rails, including, Groupon, IBM, NASA, John Deere, Google, Living Social, Cisco, NASA, Oracle, JP Morgan, Twitter, Electronic Arts, New York Times, NBC, and many more.