The Latin of software code is booming
Caitlin Mooney is 24 years old and has a passion for technology dating back to the Sputnik era.
Mooney, a recent computer science graduate from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is a fan of the technologies that were in vogue half a century ago, including mainframe computers and the software called COBOL that powers them. This stuff won’t earn any sweet spots in Silicon Valley, but it’s essential technology in major banks, insurance companies, government agencies and other large institutions.
During Mooney’s job search, potential employers saw her expertise and wanted to talk about positions bigger than what she was looking for. “They would be really excited,” Mooney told me. She is now trying to decide between several job offers.
The resilience of decades-old computing technologies and the people who have specialized in them shows that new technologies often rely on many old technologies.
When you deposit money using your bank’s iPhone app, it likely involves computers behind the scenes that are the offspring of those used in the Apollo moon missions. (In addition, half-century-old computer code is built into the iPhone software.)
It is often considered a problem or a punchline that so much moldy technology is still around. But that’s not necessarily a problem.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” joked Ellora Praharaj, director of reliability engineering at Stack Overflow, an online forum popular with tech workers. “Students out of school these days don’t necessarily want to work in uncool ancient languages. But the reality of the world is that this is what powers many of our existing systems.
Praharaj said she learned COBOL in college in the mid-2000s and “hated it.” But until about five years ago, she regularly used a 1950s computer programming technology called Fortran in a former job in the financial services industry. Old stuff is everywhere.
Latin is dead, but old computer programming languages like COBOL are still alive.
The typical salary for a COBOL programmer has jumped 44% in the past year to almost $76,000, according to a investigation from StackOverflow. Self-reported earnings are lower than people using trendy software languages like Rust at $87,000, but this was the largest dollar increase in the survey.
(For the data geeks among us: Stack Overflow said the survey had a large sample size but wasn’t necessarily representative.)
All of this also goes to show that computer nerds are subject to basic supply and demand dynamics. There aren’t many people like Mooney who want to work on mainframes and COBOL; the continued need for their skills empowers them. A job seeker looking for “real world” COBOL experience wrote recently on the Hacker News tech bulletin board, “COBOL developers are a specialized niche these days and they get paid accordingly.”
Of course, it would be hard to find anyone who thinks Boomer technologies are the next big thing. Most college computer science programs don’t focus on mainframes, COBOL, or Fortran.
Year Up, an organization that trains young adults for jobs in technology fields, told me that it has discontinued COBOL training. Potential employers have asked Year Up to focus its curriculum on newer and more widely used software programming languages, such as Java and Python.
Some people with years of experience in older technologies say they fear they’ve been left jobless with more potential.
But computer scientists told me that while they wouldn’t recommend young people to devote themselves entirely to old technologies, they can be a useful base. Inevitably, today’s fashionable coding modes will be replaced by something new. The important skill is learning to keep learning, said Jukay Hsu, managing director of Pursuit, a technology workforce training company.
Mooney became interested in computer programming while taking business classes at a community college. She said she started doing her accounting homework in Python “for fun.” When she took a course taught by a teacher who specialized in COBOL, Mooney found that she liked it. She also felt welcomed by a community of mainframe enthusiasts eager to help a young novice.
“It was really, really great for building my confidence and skills,” Mooney said.
The irony is that the designers of COBOL did not expect the software to last this long. As my colleague Steve Lohr wrote in an obituary for Jean Sammet, a designer of COBOL, the software pioneers expected it to be a useful stopgap until something better happened.
It was about 40 years before Mooney was born. The old stuff will probably be there after the next 40 years.
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