Language school: getting COBOL back in the classroom

This blog deconstructs the misconceptions around COBOL and addresses the ‘University Challenge’ of getting COBOL on the curriculum. The Micro Focus Academic Program is on a mission to create enough COBOL-savvy developers and programmers to serve the big businesses that still use COBOL to drive 70% of all business data processing.

Mali principii malus finis. This Latin proverb translates as ‘bad beginnings lead to bad results’ and students looking for careers in development or programming will already be thinking along these lines. Because choosing the wrong language will put them on a road to nowhere. And unfortunately for COBOL, many students regard it as irrelevant as Classical Latin.

Indeed, some people seem surprised that COBOL is still being written at all. COBOL’s longevity is both its biggest asset and its worst enemy. ‘Why’ the student will doubtless be thinking, ‘should I invest my time learning a language from the late 1950’s when I could be studying newer, more popular languages like Java, C# or .NET?’

As our infographic illustrates, 65% of students at UK colleges and universities currently have this opinion and with only 5% of our academic institutions producing more than 30 COBOL developers every year, clearly the concern about ‘bad beginnings’ goes further up the chain. But where does this misconception about COBOL come from?

COBOL Infographic

COBOL Infographic

Introduction: The Forgotten Technology?

Even if the majority of students – at least 65% – think COBOL is dead and outdated, this is simply not true. COBOL is the lifeblood of big business and supports the majority of major business transactions globally. COBOL is everywhere, every day – it’s just that people don’t realise it. People reading the IT press, or research technology, are being bombarded by news of all manner of innovative technology. Much of it new, exciting and set to change the way we use technology forever. Meanwhile, the tried and trusted tech that already provides valuable business services is all but hidden from view.


And the result? Little or no perception of COBOL’s importance. Indifference, apathy even. COBOL? Oh yeah… um… is that still going? See here how students at UCL saw it.

A possible reason for this misconception could be the current lack of COBOL adoption in the classroom. Because while 58% of universities believe COBOL should be on their curriculum, only one in four institutions actually teach it. And this matters. Because COBOL makes up 240 billion of the estimated 310 billion lines of code in place globally and with five billion new lines of COBOL being developed annually, how will the current graduate output support the applications we rely on every day? With COBOL not being taught at sustainable levels, this may be why students and aspiring developers are focusing their attention elsewhere. What can be done to change this?

The perception challenge

The problem goes beyond the academic environment. There’s an industry perception that COBOL is tied into the days of ZX81, green screen terminals and clunky keystrokes. In a world obsessed with what is coming next, the move to mobile, must-have gadgets and the like, anything associated with the noughties – let alone the 1950’s, when COBOL first came to prominence – is going to suffer by association. The perception of the COBOL programmer is linked with the systems they help to maintain. It’s not the career that any would-be programmer wants for themselves. So, what can be done to close the gap between the perception and reality?

Step forward the Micro Focus Academic Program

Micro Focus has invested in an Academic Program to get COBOL back in the classroom and support our universities, businesses and students.  We have partnered with more than 300 universities in more than 20 countries, including the University of Maryland, Texas A&M, Iowa State and HEC Paris. We have given them the tools and technologies they need to help create the next generation of COBOL developers. Students and aspiring developers have been offered the Micro Focus Visual COBOL Personal Edition to help them fine-tune their skills and gain experience. Working with their preferred IDE, they can take full advantage of the new capabilities available within this innovative development environment and make the best of their studies. But why should they learn COBOL?

Because COBOL is still relevant and that isn’t going to change. COBOL still drives 70% of all business transaction processing systems. It has a huge impact on our day-to-day lives. For example, most Americans will interact with a COBOL program 13 times a day. Driving to work, doing the shopping, getting cash from an ATM, using your smartphone, all involve interacting with COBOL. It works both on a domestic level and in the marketplace, supporting 90% of Fortune 500 companies. Yet young people don’t know that it’s there. Is this why students are not embracing COBOL in their studies?

Visual COBOL is COBOL for the future generation. It bridges the gap between long-established applications and future innovation by re-energizing enterprise COBOL applications. It also addresses a number of key business challenges, including the perceived shortfall in programming talent, while improving productivity, lowering costs and taking core applications into the future. Recent initiatives, including the COBOL Code Contest Challenge, have helped to introduce COBOL to a younger audience and position it as a contemporary language worth learning.

Conclusion – resetting perceptions

A belief system born of ignorance is unfortunate but it is easily fixed by knowledge. Students, academia and the wider industry can benefit from the academic programs and technology investment being made by Micro Focus to support the creation of the next generation of COBOL developers.

We are doing all this because we believe that COBOL is time-proven technology with one foot in the future. To maintain the momentum we’ll need to get the next generation of developers and programmers on board – and give them the means to forge an exciting career in COBOL. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Or Aut viam inveniam aut faciam, to quote a language that hasn’t evolved nearly as well…!

To learn more about the Micro Focus Academic Program and get the latest news and updates on the Micro Focus Academic Program follow this link

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