Latin Software Code Thrives

Caitlin Mooney is 24 years old and passionate about technology that dates back to the era of satellites.

Mooney, who recently graduated from New Jersey Institute of Technology in computer science, is a fan of technologies that were popular half a century ago, including computer mainframes and the software called COBOL that powers them. This stuff won’t score any cool points in Silicon Valley, but it is important technology in large banks, insurance companies, government agencies and other large institutions.

During Mooney’s job search, potential employers saw her experience and wanted to talk about higher positions than she was looking for. “They would be very excited,” Mooney told me. Now she is trying to choose between several job offers.

The resilience of decade-old computer technology and the people who specialize in it shows that new technologies are often built on top of many old technologies.

When you deposit money using your bank’s iPhone app, there are probably computers involved behind the scenes that are descendants of those used on the Apollo lunar missions. (Also, the iPhone software has half a century of computer code embedded in it.)

He is often regarded as problem or the culmination of so much stale technology still out there. But this is not necessarily a problem.

“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” joked Ellora Praharaj, director of reliability at Stack Overflow, an online forum popular with techies. “Out-of-school students these days don’t necessarily want to work in uncool old 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 about five years ago, she regularly used a 1950s computer programming technique called Fortran in her former job in financial services. Old things are everywhere.

Latin is dead, but old programming languages ​​like COBOL live on.

The typical salary for a COBOL programmer has jumped 44% over the past year to almost $76,000. interview from stack overflow. The self-reported compensation is lower than people who use trendy programming languages ​​like Rust at $87,000, but it was the biggest dollar increase in the survey.

(For the data lovers among us: Stack Overflow said the survey had a significant sample size, but was not necessarily representative.)

All this also shows that geeks are subject to basic supply and demand dynamics. There aren’t many people like Mooney who want to work with mainframes and COBOL; the constant need for their skills gives them strength. Job hunter looking for a “real” COBOL experience wrote recently on the tech bulletin board Hacker News: “COBOL developers are a specialized niche these days and are paid accordingly.”

Of course, it would be hard to find someone who thinks boomer technology is the next big thing. Most university computer science programs are not mainframe, COBOL, or Fortran oriented.

Year Up, an organization that trains young people to work in technology fields told me that he had stopped teaching COBOL. Potential employers have asked Year Up to focus their curriculum on newer and more widely used programming languages ​​such as Java and Python.

Some people with years of experience in older tech say they worry about firing themselves from jobs with great potential.

But computer scientists told me that while they don’t recommend that young people commit themselves fully to the old technologies, they can provide a useful foundation. Inevitably, today’s hot coding fads will be replaced by something new. “An important skill is learning to keep learning,” said Jukai Hsu, chief executive of Pursuit, technical training enterprise.

Mooney became interested in computer programming while attending business courses at a local college. She said she started doing her Python accounting homework “for fun”. When she took a course taught by a COBOL professor, Mooney found she liked it. She also felt welcomed by the mainframe computer community who were eager to help the young newcomer.

“It was very, very great for building my confidence and skill set,” Mooney said.

The irony is that the developers of COBOL never expected the software to last this long. As my colleague Steve Lohr said wrote in an obituary for Jean Sammet, a COBOL developer, the software pioneers expected it to be a useful temporary measure until something better came along.

This was about 40 years before Mooney was born. The old stuff will probably last for the next 40 years.

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