COBOL: The original language for business – and a continued chart success!

This month’s TIOBE.COM index ranks COBOL – the pioneering and continually pacesetting programming language – at number 20 in terms of global computing language activity. But why is a 50-year-old language climbing the charts? Derek Britton investigates.

It’s official: COBOL is a new chart success. The new ratings prove it. The TIOBE index shows COBOL up 6 places year to year number 20 in the charts in December 2015. The TIOBE Programming Community index is an indicator of the popularity of programming languages. It bases these ratings on a number of key criteria, including the number of skilled software engineers using each language world-wide. It uses all the popular search engines to calculate the ratings with a newly improved algorithm.

We have mentioned before – as far back as 2012 and as recently as February of this year – that COBOL’s durability, prevalence and reliability are finally being reflected in the right places. This graph indicates just how well COBOL has done in the last few years. This represents a continued growth in the popularity of COBOL, having climbed from a steady decline towards obscurity a few years back to cementing a place in the top 20.

But this is a language conceived in 1959. It has a reputation in some quarters as being a little outdated. So how is this possible revival possible? TIOBE itself cites the growing popularity of Visual Studio 2015– Microsoft’s development framework and IDE – as a prime mover. But what else might be affecting this continued improvement?

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Visual Studio – the ratings booster

First things first, let’s look at what TIOBE said. Perhaps an adjustment in ratings, based on an increase in Visual Studio activity, may be in order. It has certainly boosted the fortunes of other Visual Studio and .NET-friendly languages that seen improved chart placings this month, including Visual Basic .NET and C#.

As an equal citizen in the .NET framework and a major player in the field of managed code, this would improve ratings for COBOL, as would an uptick in Eclipse usage – COBOL equally supports this IDE as well as the JVM managed code environment. COBOL’s portability across all major platforms ensures it will benefit from a surge in popularity of any such environment.

A new blue

Of course, managed code environments aren’t the whole story. The overwhelming majority of COBOL systems are mainframe-based, particularly the IBM mainframe – another unfairly maligned and reliable piece of tech. The continued relevance of Big Iron is no surprise to the Micro Focus team and we’ve long been singing the praises of big blue, not least the new z13 environment. Our attendance at SHARE and continued partnership with IBM means are enabling organizations to continue to extract value from the mainframe and their COBOL applications to support innovative IT projects.

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Skills – the new challenge?

Core systems based on COBOL have – in many cases – over-delivered and outlived any original prediction of their proposed value. Unsurprisingly, IT leaders need to examine resource plans to support those systems in the future. However, much of the current narrative is around ‘skills gaps’ and looming crises. Assessing IT skills and determining strategy based on available talent could easily be the result of pragmatic IT leaders recognising that COBOL’s reliability makes it worth planning around, rather than dispensing with. This would explain why COBOL continues to improve climb the charts, and echoes our view, shared recently with IBM Systems Magazine, that the skills question is a relatively straightforward future activity for IT leadership.

Interestingly, despite our explanation, much of the press remains ostensibly negative towards skills issues. However, many clients, academic partners and vendors are helping to support our academic program, which represents very smart thinking and a new way to support the next batch of COBOL developers with modern tools. So perhaps Micro Focus’s answer to these skills questions is another factor here. (Check back soon for more observations on COBOL skills).

Go to work with COBOL

And a related issue is quite a simple one – jobs. If demand for staff continues, the jobs are out there. If the supply wanes, more organizations and more recruiters need to be more visible to get the remaining talent. It certainly represents a win-win for COBOL developers who find their skills in such demand. On the flipside, would-be joiners must differentiate themselves.

COBOL saw the highest growth in available jobs in one survey, and is often cited as a differentiating skill in landing a well-paid job. A buoyant COBOL jobs market with renewed interest from applications could easily have helped tip the scales.

So, we can conclude that many contributory factors could all be supporting the ongoing popularity of COBOL. And Micro Focus are confident that we’re backing a winner – our ongoing R&D investments will help to ensure key attributes such as portability, future-proofing and innovation help ensure COBOL can support the business needs of 2016 and beyond.

What’s your view?

Of course, these are just a personal view. And, after five decades, who can say why COBOL is soaring up the TIOBE charts right now? Why not share a comment here or tweet to @microfocus on why #COBOLrocks? Better still, find out for yourselves at an upcoming #DevDay event near you.

4 thoughts on “COBOL: The original language for business – and a continued chart success!”

  1. Hi Derek,

    A nice writeup; I agree with all your points. It is shocking how the mainframe continues to maintain its benefits over distributed computing and with that the drive to have a single, powerful, language across both platforms. What is just as amazing to me is how ignorant even financial services developers are as to the features which COBOL has and other languages (Java and C++ being prime examples) are just missing.

    Just a few months ago I had someone trying to ‘explain’ to me how scaled integers are a good way of representing stock prices. With the ever repeated rolling of eyes I trying to explain back how COBOL has decimal calculation built into the language and as such using scaled integers is neither foreign to me nor is it all that clever!

    Now that Oracle as building decimal computation hardware into their new range of spark based machines and working very hard indeed on their new JVM product on that hardware we should see even more benefit from COBOL on the JVM as well.

    Best wishes and happy christmas – AJ

    1. The point we like to make is that COBOL never really went away. Your Dad might find himself a job more easily than you’d think these days. Check out @MicroFocusJobs on Twitter.

  2. I’ll change this scenario a little bit. Cobol will be teaching in each School or University here in Brazil! Thats is my personal goal! I’ll need your help and support as well
    Thanks for sharing!

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