COBOL 60 – an interview with Wim Ebbinkhuijsen

COBOL’s 60th anniversary has seen an unprecedented level of conversation about the world’s most long-standing business language. This exclusive blog sees Dutch COBOL legend, Wim Ebbinkhuijsen, share his story about the language, in an interview with our own Derek Britton.

At a recent COBOL community event in the Netherlands, the assembled group of nearly 100 experts celebrated COBOL’s 60th anniversary. Headline presenter was a leading light in the history of COBOL in the region, Wim Ebbinkhuijsen. Derek Britton, who also presented at the event, caught up with Wim afterwards to discuss COBOL’s enduring global appeal. In the first of a two-part blog series, hear from Wim about the early days of COBOL technology and training

Derek: ‘Wim, before we start please tell me a little about yourself?’

“I’m lucky enough to have enjoyed a career that has intertwined with COBOL over all these years. I am 80 years old now, but I was only 23 when I started as a COBOL programmer. Over time, I got a more guiding role in the promotion and development of COBOL. I have only written a limited number of programs myself; I became more and more interested in COBOL’s role and usability.

The support of my employers enabled me to promote COBOL in The Netherlands, by writing textbooks and chairing COBOL-related committees. The same support has enabled me to influence the shifting of the responsibility for COBOL’s development from the original USA-platform to the international platform. Fast forward to 2020, I presented at the COBOL60 celebratory event in the Netherlands in January.”

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Derek: ‘Tell me a little about your presentation – it covered your COBOL career in the Netherlands?’

” Yes. In the spring of 1962, I followed my first COBOL course. This was given in The Netherlands by two American ladies, one of them being Grace Hopper. It was the first COBOL course ever given in Europe. Most of the participants came from other countries, learning the language to become COBOL teachers.

I started writing COBOL programs for my employer’s UNIVAC III computer, which at that time had not yet been delivered and installed. Waiting for this, we had access to a similar system in Köln (Cologne), but only between midnight and 6.00 am. So, each night from Monday to Friday we went there by car, carrying custom-declarations, magnetic tapes, listings and bunches of punched cards.

In 1966, I joined Philips Computer Industry in Apeldoorn. I was seen as “the one-eyed man as king in the land of the blind” because knowledge of COBOL was then rather rare over there. So, leadership made me responsible for the specs of Philips’ COBOL compiler. Following CODASYL’s guidelines was sufficient with one exception: Philips wanted me to translate the COBOL terms into Dutch equivalents. The company had forgotten to realize the importance of COBOL’s international portability. Fortunately, I convinced the board to abandon this potentially disastrous idea.

In 1970, the first Dutch ICT training institute was established, of which I was a staff member. Before that, I had participated in writing (a small part of) the first Dutch textbook on COBOL. However, the book was not quite suitable for a COBOL course. My director asked me to improve it, but instead I choose to rewrite it completely. Since then, I updated the textbook every time a new standard came out.

My books have never contained a reference to any manufacturer or compiler whatsoever. I have always strictly followed the official ANSI (later: ISO) standard. Sometimes this has led to a change in a compiler when programmers reported a difference between my text and the manufacturer’s handbook. My textbooks subsequently became the basis for many COBOL courses.

In 1979, I became a member of the Dutch COBOL Examination Committee. Two years later, I became its chair, and held that role for more than 18 years.

The government-recognized COBOL diplomas were widely appreciated by Dutch business, because we followed strict requirements. Many companies required new employees to either possess the diploma or pass the exam. There have been days when more than 1,500 students took the exam in a single round!”

Derek: ‘please tell us more about your international COBOL career?’

“Let me start in 1963, when the Dutch COBOL Committee (DCC) was established, which was a group of around 15 COBOL users. The DCC has existed 40 years until it disbanded in 2003. In the seventies and eighties, the DCC had more than 25 members, being the largest COBOL group in the world.

I became a member in 1966, and six years later its chair until 2003. As the chair, I represented the DCC in the Dutch Programming Languages Committee, which in turn was a member of ISO TC97 SC5  Programming Languages Committee.

At an SC5 meeting in 1979, I proposed to install an informal stage where COBOL experts from the USA could cooperate with experts from other countries. The reason behind this was a growing feeling of under-valuation, because all official COBOL publications were created and published in the US.

The proposal was adopted unanimously. An international “COBOL Experts Group” was formed that worked under the auspices of ISO. The interchange of ideas, experience and knowledge surely has helped in the further development and promotion of COBOL. Three years later, the group formalized into the ISO “Working Group COBOL”. From that moment on, votes were per country.

The group took primary ownership and development of the COBOL standard, where ANSI did most of the proposals and prepared new publications. This division of responsibilities still exists today. I have been a member of both the COBOL Experts Group and the COBOL Working Group from 1979 until my retirement in 2003.”

Derek: ‘So with such a varied career across technology, training and language specification and support, what do you remember with the greatest fondness?’

“It is hard to pick one moment when I have had so many opportunities to promote the COBOL language, both in my home of the Netherlands, and then on a more international platform. However, one impressive period does spring to mind. In 1999, I was accepted as member of ANSI X3J4 COBOL, which I stayed for almost 4 years.

It was a unique opportunity to participate in what I called at the time “COBOL’s factory”. I was able not only to follow but also to participate in the birth of new COBOL items, as well as in the upgrade of existing items.

Sometimes, I chaired the meeting, which to this day I consider a great honor.

I have seen several times how the personal opinions of members clashed with those of their employers. For example, if a small change in the language would involve a major adaptation of a compiler. It also happened that a supplier had already come up with something new and tried to get it entered in the language, so that they had a head start. It was fascinating to observe all this.

Indeed, I loved the work we accomplished, no matter how complicated and/or detailed it appeared to be. Once, I had to completely update and rewrite the definition of the COBOL PICTURE clause, which took about 4 months’ work. It was one of the most inspiring jobs I have done for COBOL.”

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Derek: ‘Tell me a little about what took you to Utrecht in January for the COBOL event?’

“To an extent, my name remains synonymous with COBOL in the Netherlands, mainly because mine was the textbook so many people studied when they learned the language. The Dutch COBOL community, spearheaded by a number of employers in the Netherlands, kindly invited me to speak at the COBOL 60 Celebratory event they were organizing at the Ordina facility in Utrecht. I spoke alongside Ordina, the host, and Micro Focus.  It was as an honor to be able to talk about COBOL’s past, about my role in its international development and about my own experiences in such a turbulent era of data processing.

It was a terrific event to see what looked like over 100 COBOL enthusiasts, users, and technicians from across the country come together to celebrate the anniversary.”

Derek: ‘As someone who has a long and illustrious career with the language, what are your views as to why it has been so successful?’

“To be honest, I find it difficult to answer your question. So many people have already discussed this subject – readability, adaptability, portability, and so on. So many people have already tried to explain COBOL’s success. What meaningful addition can I give? Is it necessary to explain something so obvious? How about the success of trains? Of planes? Of cars? Of the internet?

May be this one will do. Our beautiful acronym ends with the letter L of Language. It was a unique novelty that we could address a computer in our own language. We were no longer forced to express our commands in formulas or incomprehensible codes. We could use our own words like ADD and IF and GO TO.

The mathematical perfection of the computer became accessible through our own imperfect daily language. Our imperfection was reflected in COBOL. I think this aspect has contributed a lot to its acceptance. No longer the computer was in charge, but we as users were. We had conquered the computer.

I see it this way – we should refuse to defend COBOL’s existence. It needs no justification or explanation. It is there, it is part of our everyday life, and we cannot live without it. It does what it needs to do supremely well. Let us accept it and benefit from it.”

Derek: ‘Looking ahead, where do you think COBOL fits in to the ever-changing technical world of the future?’

“Again … let’s be realistic. It is not a matter of where COBOL does fit in. The future will show us how long COBOL will stay to be a robust and important part of back-office and commercial IT. This is certainly true as long as we have mainframes (or other enterprise server machines) and their business-critical applications. Not to mention the fact that it requires big investments in time, money and personal to rewrite COBOL programs in another language and for another platform.

I understand that companies like IBM, Micro Focus and Ordina have commercial operations, support the use and development of COBOL related software. For me, the most important thing is the value of the language, and how it supports the world of IT and commerce. 

If COBOL fades away, so be it. Of course, companies that still depend upon COBOL-driven complex systems need professional support. But not at all costs. In each case, using COBOL has to be a business and IT decision. In many circumstances, it remains the right decision.

I do not think that we really can influence COBOL’s future. It’s role will partially depend upon factors beyond our control. For example, I believe that the development of quantum computing will require complete new programming skills, including advanced new programming languages.

One day, we will talk about COBOL and conclude, “it was one of the greatest ever, but now it’s time to celebrate its end”. Will you and I be there? Maybe yes, maybe no. At the age of 60, COBOL has already outlasted most predictions, and even many of its early creators and users. And given its continued success, I am not about to predict when it will disappear, if ever ……”

Derek: ‘Thanks for speaking to us, Wim. Any final words?’

‘As I mentioned before I feel very lucky that I have received the opportunities to promote COBOL, especially in The Netherlands. That I was able to succeed in realizing the international cooperation of COBOL’s development. I feel fortunate to have had the unique chance of working inside COBOL’s factory, at a key point in its history.

For all that I have been involved in, none of that is the same as creating the language itself. So we must pay tribute to the pioneers of CODASYL and X3J4 for the creation of COBOL Whatever COBOL’s future is, they are the real heroes.’

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If you want to join in with the current community of fellow COBOL fans don’t hesitate to Follow me and/or Micro Focus AMC on Twitter. Also join the thriving COBOL Programmers Facebook Group.

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