Coding dreams, Cobol nightmares

Those of a certain age who were around computer programming are familiar with a few words that younger generations likely have never heard. APL, Fortran, and as it turns out, the currently important Cobol. Cobol was a language used 50+ years ago, often for financial backend systems. Over the years those mainframe based systems have been phased out, replaced (often at great expense), with more modern code bases and database systems. But legacy Cobol systems are still around, and as it turns out, in 29 state unemployment systems. With the recent surge in unemployment claims due to Covid-19, these dinosaurs are having trouble keeping up. And when things go wrong, the number of programmers who are fluent in Cobol is…well…a small number.

I remember back in my youth, some arguing the value (or not) of learning Latin. “Why learn a largely dead language?” The argument for was that many modern languages are based on Latin, so learning the past gave some insight into the current use. I suppose we’re seeing a similar dynamic – “dead languages” like Cobol that actually are still in use, but a new crop of programmers, many of whom have never heard of Cobol let alone use it. I suppose digital archaeology is a thing, and it probably needs more practitioners.

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