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Is the IT industry short on Cobolers? This could be your lucky day

Sometimes a CV needs a few fossils

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A good way to present fossil skills is with a “Migration and Upgrade” section that lists them in comma separated form so that the buzzword scanners spot you and pass it to a human (or at least a recruiter) who will check them out. A decent recruiter will contact you before firing your CV at his client and you should seize the chance to expand and explain the fossil skill because otherwise you’ll be claiming CICS skills but without it being referenced in a specific job and of course you can delete the non-relevant fossils to make space. This is more work for you and I’ve had pushback from candidates who seemed to think the whole sales pitch is my problem. It’s not. You want the best job you can get. I want the cash. Play that game or lose.

A lot of migration work is reading and reformatting data, extracting business logic from old code and often generating something that’s functionally pretty much identical, but in the new framework. Ideally that should be automated, which means scripting in Python or Perl plus Regex can make you a better candidate and since you produce lots out output there is good visible productivity which makes you look better once you get the job. There’s also MS SQL Server’s Data Transformation Services which although obviously designed for importing to MS SQL is good as a staging post. One very large client was hugely impressed by me using DTS to deal with a sick old Oracle database, it’s also pathetically easy to learn and tack on to your fossil skill set.

As you saw in my piece on expert witnessing, there is a useful stream of billable hours looking at what people have done to important systems and working out where the code came from. To get that you do need both depth and the ability to explain to lawyers (and occasional outraged management) without resorting to explaining the guts of a needlessly complex derivatives order matching system as “like your car”.

COBOL, forgotten but not gone

Recently those nice people at Micro Focus wrote to me with research about a skills shortage in Cobol. Perhaps they hadn’t read my article where I spat scorn on the idea that there could ever be a skill shortage, rather than a shortage of employers willing to pay the market rate which is high considering how the age of the skill, but pretty average if you’re using it to pay your bills.

But there is a lot of Cobol out there and although I don’t believe their ambitious claim that 65 per cent of currently working code is in Cobol, brutal Darwinism means that the large blocks that have survived are deeply resistant to being replaced. Part of that is the surprisingly short tenure of CIOs who realise that the payback time for replacing the bottom of their house of IT cards is longer than they expect to stay in the job and there’s no sexy visible output to impress golf playing execs. They don’t want or expect you to make major changes. In fact the work is mostly to prevent bad things. Talking about re-architecting is a high risk strategy but if you pull it off then you have a job for your life and that of your children.

I hear that a couple of UK universities teach Cobol, which I suspect is the right number for the graduates, though maybe not for the employers since it keeps the supply/demand favouring developers. Still, I do worry about what they’ll do as the shadow of Cobol recedes from our machines, but the impression I get from Micro Focus is that ¼ of US universities teach it, which makes the UK schools use of Pascal look almost rational.

COBOL still runs a scary percentage of the world’s financial infrastructure and - along with CICS, JCL and other mainframe generation tech - is to be found buried under several generations of 80s then 90s then 2000’s tech. There is a small subset of you reading this for whom getting better Cobol skills is rational. You’re the ones in your 50s. MicroFocus reckon Cobol has upwards of 10 years of undeath left and that fits what I see, combined with the fact that so many Cobolers wlil have retired over that period, pay may even go up, for a while.

A lot of people laud Admiral Grace Hopper for being the first important woman in computing, but they are strangely quiet about her leading role in the creation of Cobol, which IBM at first tried to kill for good reason. Strictly speaking Cobol’s longtime buddy DB2 is not a legacy skill since there are still new installations up so it is probably the oldest non-fossil skill and will remain. Moving from CICS or DB2 is like an organ transplant, such is the risk and pain involved. Indeed you can expect most core databases to outlive the company that build them.

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