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

Sometimes a CV needs a few fossils

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Don’t learn Delphi

There will never be any shortage of Delphi/Pascal programmers because of all the legacy technologies Pascal is the equivalent of inheriting your grandad’s black and white 60s girlie mags. This is because AQA, the largest exam board not only encourages this silliness, but won’t accept A level coursework in languages like C and actually dropped C#. They are cheered on by the British Computer Society with pseudo academic “papers” that attempt to justify pushing a language that stopped being a rational career choice before some IT teachers were even born. So, like everything else that’s worthless there will never be a shortage of Pascal programmers.

Fractional skills

So far I’ve covered languages which inevitably are mass market, but if you’ve been in the game long enough to have legacy skills then you’ve got APIs, OSes and frameworks like OS/2, CICS, Win32, ODBC and MFC. This is another reason to develop multiple CVs since you need to present a consistent story for each silo, don’t blur a clear CICS/Cobol picture with Pascal or Adabas/Natural or vice versa. Ironically this may mean you need to refresh or even build skills that turn you into a complete person to fit a requirement and those nice people at MicroFocus even have a freebie version to do that with.

Industry-standard lies

Be clear about the game I’m coaching you to play here. These are short to mid term tactics to keep you solvent, so unless you’re just looking for a few last paydays before you retire you need to lever yourself into more modern and portable skills.

Management may say that they’ll retrain you in the new system but there is a reason this section is called “Industry Standard Lies” and since you’re betting your career and they’re more interested in budgets and delivery times you have to manage your risks. Many managers genuinely believe you don’t notice that as one Cobol guy ex-Merill Lynch put it, “after 18 years they dumped me like a bag of sh*t”. I know 18 years sounds like forever to some of you, but starting mid 20s means this is mid-40s, not a good time to be dumped like a bag of anything. It’s pretty much impossible to spot this from the outside, BAML (as they like to call themselves) have pious HR statements about developing people which bear as much relation to reality as some of their pricing models for MBS did, conversely I was quite shocked when ITPros at the generally evil EDS told me that career development was actually rather good.

There is a persistent myth that ITPros aren’t interested in “the business”, yet 30 years of doing IT and bossing ITPros around tells me the complete opposite and the odds are that you’ve picked up a good understanding of how money is made in your business and the processes that support it. The reason for the myth is that most ITPros don’t articulate their understanding enough to decision makers and so when their specialist skill is no longer needed, they get dumped. That means the time you are buying using specialist legacy skills can be used to reposition yourself as a business analyst but one who can give a better impression of a real ITPro than most.

How to tell your career is doomed

If you meet me and I ask “how’s your VBA ?”, know now that I’m politely saying that your career is holed below the waterline. As a dialect of VB6 my learned colleague Verity Stob points out that it’s the worst language in the world, but our good friends at Microsoft threw us a lifeline a few years by releasing a version of Excel that’s wildly different from the one we’ve come to know and loathe.

As Vista was a dog and Win8 is not fit for any business purpose I can imagine, corporates are now grasping the nettle of migrating from the XP generations of Office and this will not only break many surprisingly critical worksheets but it needs testing. This project work is mildly well paid and you may be able to elbow your way into replacing some of it with C# or VB.Net solutions.

You’re next

I was the first person to write a VB app in the UK (I can tell you’re impressed), helping found the VB User group and writing about it. For me VB is the big tool I’ve seen through a life cycle from hot skill to legacy, often pushed out by Java. It served as a good escape route for PL/1, Fortran, and Cobol programmers in the 1990s before some got sucked back for the well paid Millennium Bug gig.

Your buzzwords will be different, but the pattern is likely to be the same especially if you’re in Java which is heading towards huge over-supply even if there’s still a lot of code being written, remember it is supply/demand that drives your pay, not the absolute number of jobs.

The Millennium bug was unique only in scale. Lots of code uses base dates that can wrap or crash through short sighted use of short data types and for a good number of the systems I’ve worked on if you told me that it would be running in 2013, we’d have laughed out loud and as you read this people are writing code that someone is going to be rewriting in 2050.

And finally, it's always worth remembering Citizen Robespierre's observation that "graveyards are full of men once called ‘indispensable’". ®

Dominic Connor is not just a City headhunter: he wrote some of the legacy VB, C, XLL, C++ and SQL code that’s paying your mortgage, so be grateful.

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