Exactly what is COBOL and why is COBOL still a widely used language in IT?

COBOLOne late night I was talking to a friend in Boston across many subjects and then the conversation reverted to COBOL. Not being a highly educated IT geek, I asked the question so what exactly is COBOL, fits of laughter was upon me in no time, and I was promptly told, ‘so you mean to tell me you do not know COBOL’ I admitted, no not exactly, so I thought I would do some research to exactly find out what the fuss was all about with the aged COBOL.

So let’s start with what exactly is COBOL? COBOL (/ˈkoʊbɒl/, an acronym for common business-oriented language) is a compiled English-like computer programming language designed for business use. It is imperative, procedural and, since 2002, object-oriented. COBOL is primarily used in business, finance, and administrative systems for companies and governments. COBOL is still widely used in legacy applications deployed on mainframe computers, such as large-scale batch and transaction processing jobs. But due to its declining popularity and the retirement of experienced COBOL programmers, programs are being migrated to new platforms, rewritten in modern languages or replaced with software packages. Most programming in COBOL is now purely to maintain existing applications.
COBOL was designed in 1959, by CODASYL and was partly based on previous programming language design work by Grace Hopper, commonly referred to as “the (grand)mother of COBOL”. It was created as part of a US Department of Defense effort to create a portable programming language for data processing. Intended as a stopgap, the Department of Defense promptly forced computer manufacturers to provide it, resulting in its widespread adoption. It was standardised in 1968 and has since been revised four times. Expansions include support for structured and object-oriented programming. The current standard is ISO/IEC 1989:2014.

Even though the language is fifty years old and there are many other popular and sleek programming options out there, COBOL is still an important part of our tech-driven world. COBOL still accounts for more than 70 percent of the business transactions that take place in the world today.

To put that into further context, Lero, a software engineering research center, recently announced that even in today’s fast-evolving and innovative society COBOL is still being used more than Google.
How much more?
Researchers at Lero claim that there are more than 200 times more COBOL transactions than Google searches worldwide.
The reason that COBOL has not only stayed around with fellow legacy tech but remained a juggernaut is that a large number of companies use systems that incorporate COBOL, and those systems are crucial to operations.

“The reality is that there is a lot of old software out there which is still at the heart of many critical applications, particularly in the area of financial transactions,” Lero’s chief scientist Brian Fitzgerald told Silicon Republic.
This is actually good news for COBOL programmers because they will continue to be in high demand even if companies start upgrading their legacy software and systems overnight.
A survey of more than 350 IT professionals found that nearly half of respondents have already noticed a shortage of COBOL programmers. This shortage can be attributed to COBOL programmers aging out of the industry. Fifty percent of respondents to the same Computerworld-survey claimed that their COBOL staff were forty-five years of age or older, and half of those respondents cited their COBOL staff as older than fifty-five.
Today COBOL is everywhere, yet is largely unheard of among the millions of people who interact with it on a daily basis. Its reach is so pervasive that it is almost unthinkable that the average person could go a day without it. Whether using an ATM, stopping at traffic lights or purchasing a product online, the vast majority of us will use COBOL in one form or another as part of our daily existence.

The statistics that surround COBOL attest to its huge influence upon the business world. There are over 220 billion lines of COBOL in existence, a figure which equates to around 80% of the world’s actively used code. There are estimated to be over a million COBOL programmers in the world today. Most impressive perhaps, is that 200 times as many COBOL transactions take place each day than Google searches – a figure which puts the influence of Web 2.0 into stark perspective.

Every year, COBOL systems are responsible for transporting up to 72,000 shipping containers, caring for 60 million patients, processing 80% of point-of-sales transactions and connecting 500 million mobile phone users. COBOL manages our train timetables, air traffic control systems, holiday bookings and supermarket stock controls. And the list could go on.

COBOL makes the world go round
Grace Hopper brought COBOL into the world in 1959. Over fifty years later, it powers 70 percent of all business transactions. COBOL is everywhere – from ATMs, to point of sales systems and healthcare prescriptions. “The language is present within 85 percent of the world’s business applications” and its place in behind-the-scenes business-software is as prominent as ever. COBOL is woven far too deeply into the business-world to simply tear out and throw away.  The world would be a very different place.  Without it in many situations, communications around the world would collapse.

COBOL: the language of longevity
Despite these facts, newer languages appear to be the popular choice as they frequently catch the eye of the younger generation developer.  The world’s applications do need different languages.  But certain languages are better at certain tasks than others. For instance, COBOL’s strengths lie in processing financial-style data and number crunching. Java and C# are used more effectively in the front-end user experience. Languages must be for fit for purpose: “The problem to solve should determine the language to use.”

So why do organisations choose to keep COBOL instead of rewriting applications using the latest language?
After all, keeping up-to-date with the latest technology is important in IT. But when other factors are taken into account – the length of downtime during transition from old to new, the fall in return on investment it triggers, the amount of resources it uses, the training involved – the thought of a ‘rip and replace’ loses its appeal.

As many as 75% of all rewrite projects have resulted in failure. Businesses which already have COBOL established in their systems are unlikely to wake up one day and replace it with Java. Newer languages have not had the chance to stand the test of time, so no-one knows how robust they will be several years down the line. That risk could cost an organisation, the business.  So for many, COBOL is here to stay.

The pending problem
The significant concern is that those skilled COBOL programmers are disappearing without being replaced, forming a widening skills gap. Development teams also often work in silo-ed environments, broken down by programming language or the tools they use, which can inhibit application development. But there are many positive reasons to learn COBOL. The next generation of developers must pick up COBOL skills and carry them forward into the future.

COBOL is robust
It’s been adapting to business change for decades, so it really knows the ropes when it comes to keeping things running. Throughout its life so far, it has come across many different obstacles – such as new platforms and devices – and has met each of these challenges. It even integrates with the next generation of modern languages, such as C#, Java, and VB.NET.

COBOL is intuitive. It’s easy to learn because of its English-like structural components and it has been ported to virtually every hardware platform. It runs within modern IDEs – Visual Studio and Eclipse – so there’s no need to worry about learning a new toolset. COBOL is the perfect language to broaden the coding experience – and it’s a language skills desired by employers.

Why wouldn’t you learn it?
It could make you much more marketable in the jobs market: “the more languages learned by developers the better, as a range of abilities will increase their chances of employment.”

It is only a matter of time until the Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) will regain its spotlight as one of the most in-demand skills of future generations of software engineers. We can just see it now: programmers of the future will hop out of their driver-less cars, walk into their offices and sit down to start coding in 1959’s COBOL.

It sounds crazy, considering COBOL is the furthest thing from most engineers’ minds today. It ranks fairly low in the Tiobe Index, a measurement of today’s most popular programming languages. Many newer, speedier languages give today’s coders little reason not to scoff at the antiquated COBOL. The most telling evidence of COBOL’s irrelevancy is that about 70% of universities said they don’t even include COBOL in their computer science curriculum anymore, according to a recent survey. It’s logical. Why waste curriculum space for a skill that employers don’t even look for these days? A quick search for “COBOL programmer” on any job site, for instance, yields a few hundred job postings while the more popular “Java programmer” yields thousands.

In summary, I guess it is deemed to not fix something until its broke, irrespective of how old the mainframe maybe, In a world where IT continues to power forward, the longevity of the mainframe and its place in today’s computing environment is increasingly being questioned. With ‘change’ often confused with ‘progress’, a mainframe’s durability can work against it. As demand grows for more agile and innovative systems, it is difficult to reconcile a technology in its sixth decade with the technology we carry around in our pockets or use at home. But while dissenters continue to challenge the validity of the mainframe, the technology keeps on proving its worth.

Guest blogger Mark Herbert discusses Building Relationships

handshake isolated on business background
This weeks blog is a guest blog:

I would like to introduce my business partner in the US, Mark Herbert (LinkedIn). Mark has over 30 years of combined corporate management and consulting experience in industries, ranging from high technology and financial services to healthcare and eco-tourism. His most recent corporate role was as Chief Operating/Relationship Officer for one of Oregon’s largest credit unions.

Mark is a Principal for New Paradigms LLC (www.newparadigmsllc.com), a management consultancy specializing in helping organisations effectively and successfully embrace change and engages their workforces.

Mark and I often discuss many subjects around leadership, trust and this week, Mark discusses building relationships.

I don’t know about you, but I have found that one of the longest journeys I have ever taken is that journey of introspection when I have faced significant milestones in my career and life and had to determine which path to take as I approached the crossroad.
As a child who was often ill I got the opportunity to spend a lot of time in my own company, much of it in hospitals and a good deal of the time away from pediatric wards. For much of my adolescence the effects of my health conditions followed me. I didn’t get the opportunity to enjoy some of the normal activities that kids do like little league, pee wee football, etc until much later. Even then I wasn’t terribly athletically gifted or inclined.
I did become very good at observing people. When you are a child late at night in a hospital you become part of the surrounding infrastructure. People carry on conversations and interactions as if you weren’t there. They aren’t being rude; they just kind of forget you are there.
I loved the Mary Stewart trilogy about Merlin and Arthur as child as well. I could especially relate to Merlin. As the bastard son of an unknown father Merlin became an observer. He was not destined to be a warrior like his cousins and though later it was determined that he had a legitimate claim on the throne he recognized that it was his destiny to advise kings rather than occupy the throne personally.
That is a persona that I have co-opted for myself. I advise kings and princes, but I have little interest in occupying the throne myself.

Mark Herbert - Paradigm LLC

The dark side of that observational ability is you see people hurt and flinch where others miss it.
This week I got to see that play out several times. I don’t manage to see it purely as an observer; unfortunately for me I feel their hurt as well.
In one case it played in my own family. We are an interesting group. To a large extent my father had an enormous gift of self confidence. He never seemed to doubt himself or his opinions. In an interesting paradox he was very sensitive to his own feelings, but almost oblivious to the feelings of others. He wasn’t intentionally cold or unkind, he just didn’t relate to being wounded by a word or action.
That kind of set the tone in my family. In many ways we are quite gifted. We have all enjoyed great success professionally. We also find ourselves enormously competitive and to an extent guarded. In my family you rarely if ever reveal your feelings, especially if you feel slighted or hurt – that reveals weakness.
My choice of profession and how I practice it still remains an enigma to my immediate family. To create space for myself, I moved away for several decades, so to my nieces and nephews I think I represent a bit of a stranger. My family is proud of my professional accomplishments; they just don’t entirely get me.
Even though I am kind of an outsider when one of them hurts the other, I feel it vicariously, as if I was the recipient.

In another situation I have a colleague who is a true philanthropist, not by profession, but by vocation. He works in an organization where his role as chief philanthropical officer is taking on increased importance to the sponsoring organization. He and I have spent the last many months trying to create a new philanthropic vision for the organization, defining philanthropy not as a transaction or simply a charitable contribution, but rather an investment in critical societal infrastructure.
It is a bold vision and creating a model where there is room for the grateful donor, the philanthropist, and the philanthropical investor is an interesting challenge.
As a gifted development professional he also lives in the world of relationships rather than transactions. This can be difficult when the sponsoring organization feels the tyranny of the urgent. They want dollars, cash dollars and optimally the sooner the better. Building the bridge between donor and recipient can be a time consuming process. Sometimes your initiatives don’t resonate with the donor base. Sometimes the focus of the donor doesn’t fit into the strategy of the organization. Trying to bring the parties together is not easy or simple.

In the third situation I have a dear friend who is on her own journey. She is a wife and a mother, but she also has goals and dreams about creating her own business that she has put on hold for a number of years. She is at the point now where she would like to be able to balance the investment of her passion and energy into her goals as well as her commitments.

Like in most relationships this changes the status quo. The other parties in our lives often don’t see anything as broken. They assume that those ideas and notions we had when we are young will just go away, especially if they were not the ones who had to subordinate their goals.

The common thread to me in all this is the importance and power of relationships.
I believe that the ability to build and sustain relationships is the key attribute that ultimately defines individual and organizational success and is the most important dimension of effective leadership.

As a former human resources professional and now a management consultant I speak and write on this topic frequently, maybe even obsessively.
This week I watched the stock market plunge because Congress and the President could forge a meaningful compromise without a deadline looming down on them.

Employee dissatisfaction with their jobs is at historical highs, and nine out of ten Americans in a recent survey expressed distrust for the senior management of the organization they work for – nine out of ten!

If you ask: does that matter, I would submit it does.

• Studies show that 40% of new or newly assigned managers and executives fail within the first 18 months of their assignment with the key reason not being ‘technical competency’, but rather the ‘inability to build effective relationships’.
• The Department of Labor estimates that employee turnover costs the U.S. economy close to $3 trillion annually.
• Presenteeism, the phenomenon where people show up to work, but fail to engage represents another $200 billion of leakage.
• U.S. organizations spend an estimated $100 billion on training annually. Studies indicate that the knowledge transfer after 24 months is less than 10%.
• Health care delivery costs us 12% of our GDP in 2010 with a substantial portion (approaching 20%) directly or indirectly related to depression, stress, substance abuse, accidents and injuries and other factors that deal with environmental factors like job dissatisfaction and anxiety about economic and emotional security.
• In 2010 the average compensation of the C suite went up 32% while the average compensation for regular workers went up 2%. Unemployment remains over 9%.

Outsourcing, lean systems, and trickle-down economics are not going to solve this problem.
There is no such thing as human capital: there are only people and relationships. Perhaps the sooner we recognize that and start our journey to build relationships based on mutual trust, respect and personal competency, the sooner we can arrive at a much better place….

What success in technology….


I saw a recent article posted by a friend of mine which caused lot’s of coffee and much thought provoking with friends, oh-and research!

Its title was ‘Remember when email was fun?’ It is hard to think back that far. Email was silly then, a trifle. A scary statistic shows as human beings, our only real method of connection is through authentic communication. Studies show that only 7% of communication is based on the written or verbal word. A whopping 93% is based on nonverbal body language. Indeed, it’s only when we can hear a tone of voice or look into someone’s eyes that we’re able to know when “I’m fine” doesn’t mean they’re fine at all.

Studies from the Radicati Group show that 192.2 billion emails are sent every single day. Now that’s a lot of emails being passed back and forth! It doesn’t stop here, though, there are approximately 3.4 billion email accounts worldwide, with three-quarters of those owned by individual consumers.

Email is a pot constantly boiling over, we read, respond, delete, delete, delete, only to find that even more messages have arrived whilst we were having coffee. A whole time management industry has erupted around email, urging us to check only once or twice a day, to avoid checking email first thing in the morning, and so forth. Even if such techniques work, the idea that managing the communication for a job now requires its own self-help literature reeks of a foul new anguish.

If you’re like many people, you’ve started using your smartphone as an alarm clock. Now it’s the first thing you see and hear in the morning. And touch, before your spouse or your crusty eyes. Then the ritual begins. Overnight, twenty or forty new emails: spam, solicitations, invitations or requests from those whose days pass during your nights, mailing list reminders, bill pay notices. A quick triage, only to be undone while you shower and breakfast.

Email and online services have provided a way for employees to outsource work to one another. Whether you’re planning a meeting with an online poll, requesting an expense report submission to an ERP system, asking that a colleague contribute to a shared Google Doc, or just forwarding on a notice that ‘might be of interest,’ jobs that previously would have been handled by specialised roles have now been distributed to everyone in an organisation.

No matter what job you have, you probably have countless other jobs as well. Marketing and public communications were once centralised, now every division needs a social media presence, and maybe even a website to develop and manage. Thanks to Oracle and SAP, everyone is a part-time accountant and procurement specialist. Thanks to Oracle and Google Analytics, everyone is a part-time analyst.

In 2002, Allison Pearson wrote “I Don’t Know How She Does It” – she exposed, for the first time, the mayhem and exhaustion of a modern working mother. Yelps of recognition came from all over the globe. It was an international bestseller.

But in the short time between then and now, there seems to have been yet another seismic shift. Everybody is exhausted, not just working women with children. We’re all run ragged by what social commentators refer to as ‘the breakneck pace of life’, or the 24/7 society that never sleeps.

What research points to is our inability to switch off and relax, either because of internal anxieties or those placed upon us by a boss, by society or by all of these things. The new technological age that was supposed to bring us freedom by allowing us greater flexibility is, in fact, slowly working to destroy us. It is as if we have made a pact with the devil. We’ll work at home but we’ll do so until 1.30am. We can leave the office at 7pm on a Friday – although we’re too tired for a movie – but it means we’ll be looking at and responding to emails on Sunday. Once at home, we are often too tired for guests or for dinner out (restaurants now mean seeing people texting and tapping BlackBerries, a nauseating sight when you are trying to have a rare work-free supper yourself). When we do climb the stairs to bed, our heads fuzzy with wine and crap Friday-night television, we have trouble sleeping. Sex is off the agenda, because, yes, we’re too tired for that, too.

So what’s the answer?

It is a fact, never have we had greater access to knowledge than we do right now, limitless information just a few clicks away, the line between man and machine increasingly blurred. Is all of this connectivity helping us to evolve into a more intelligent species, as some futurists speculate, or is this actually hurting us?

An even bigger question: As we surrender our cognitive independence to our devices in an effort to make our lives easier, what is happening to our humanity? Is it a trade-off between greater intelligence and loss of humanity?

We have this amazing and wondrous thing called a brain, and yet as we make increasingly greater strides in technological innovation, we are tempted to use this masterful tool less and less. If you use technology at every opportunity as a replacement for critical thinking or problem solving, in time, those skills will begin to lose their edge.

There is a reason why computers haven’t yet reached human level intelligence, and it has nothing to do with how fast they can compute, or how much power we can load them with. It’s because humans have something that computers do not, something that is a pretty significant component of intelligence that many people are all too quick to disregard. This critical element? Creativity.

When we over-rely on technology to do our thinking for us, not only are our cognitive skills losing their edge, but our creativity can suffer as well. Why do we care about creativity? For one thing, creativity is at the root of our ability to problem-solve novel situations. Creativity is what we use when we’re presented with a new problem and need to figure out the best course of action. When we let our devices make all of these decisions for us, we stop utilizing those problem-solving skills.

Do I see the rise of technology as the Intellectual Apocalypse? Not necessarily. The best way to make technology work for you instead of against you is to be smart about it: I think there needs to be a balance of email, social media and collaboration tools. What ever happened to picking up the phone? Or talking to someone face-to-face? Or do we not have time because of technology?
George Gissing once said:

It is the mind which creates the world around us, and even though we stand side by side in the same meadow, my eyes will never see what is beheld by yours, my heart will never stir to the emotions with which yours is touched.

HSi – Why delivery matters


There are always businesses competing against you for your customer’s attention. It really is not enough to have a website, blogs and content on social media and wait for customers to come to you. You have to distribute your customers with information they care and which you are proud of, in today’s economy you need to make a difference and consistently add value.

This is why case studies are a great marketing example of your integrity and work. Businesses can use them to show how their product or service has been implemented successfully by their own customers instead of simply talking about their products.

Below you find a case study on one of our previous customers, without our support and on-going transformation of their business, the company would not have realised its full potential through objectives and financial goals.

The Client
Our client is a company that supplies travel safety service and incident management across the whole planet via the two global satellite systems, was seeking funding to enable the rapid growth opportunity identified within their 5 year plan, to be realised. This service enables business travellers, sportspeople and remote inhabitants in all parts of the World to summon assistance when in danger, hurt or just lost. It even enables concerned parents to track their student offspring in their travels after graduation not to mention military applications.

This unique offering requires funding and a sound management team to realise its full potential. HSi brought considerable experience, a network of key resources and management coaching to enable the potential investors not only realise the opportunity for capital growth but also to be inspired by an enthusiastic, purposeful management team. Support in building the company and a global network of Response Centres to ensure effective growth, meet demanding shareholder expectations, and fulfil its customer service response expectations, the company after our SWOT analysis required a complete redesign and build.

An Organisation designed for Growth
Confidence in the management team to achieve the business plan was an essential pre-requisite for securing the funding.
Following a detailed examination of the essential business processes required to drive the business, the key positions were identified and job descriptions defined as well as the nature of recruit to best fulfil the role. This also included the various Joint Ventures. The other core process is cash management as it is essential that the funds were re-distributed to the appropriate components of the manufacturing process, and synchronised the production flow and mix to satisfy the demand from the sales groups, in a way that catered for high-demand and rapid growth.

Helping their clients enhance services to their own customers
Most of the larger clients provided the Company’s products to their members as a client service or added security for their property.
HSi helped them define the most appropriate marketing approach to address the large volume prospects thereby enhancing sales productivity and direct registrations on the network.

To support the new management process, HSi have supported and delivered to the management team to a new organisational structure with defined resource levels, clear roles and responsibilities and training as well as new methods of performance management. In addition, focused training and coaching will help the whole team develop an integrated service ethic to deliver the most effective and sensitive service to their clients when ‘that call’ comes in wherever around the World.

Meeting the Business Need
Continuing support from HSi has enabled the Management team not only to achieve the required fund raising but also design, build and manage an effective organisation to deliver their own aggressive plan and eventually lead to stock market placement.


hockey stick effect