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Ask HN: Is it worth becoming a COBOL engineer?
3 points by aktungmak 189 days ago | hide | past | web | 5 comments | favorite
Hi all,

I currently work in a large multinational company developing our cloud infrastructure product. It is written in a horrible mixture of java and go, and while I am very inspired by the aims of the project, I keep getting frustrated by what I see as poor decisions.

I recently read an article about COBOL and how it is still powering important systems around the world, but it is getting harder and harder to find people to maintain these systems since no-one is learning these skills.

I checked job listings for various banks in the city where I live, and they are all looking for COBOL engineers to maintain and develop their systems. I am really interested in understanding and taking care of such a monolith which has existed for so long, and working on a project where the technical debt is a key factor of the challenge rather than being a frustration caused by bad decisions 18 months ago.

So my question: is it worth my time/a wise move to take a step in this direction in my career? I am 27 and live in Sweden, if that makes any difference.

I've wanted to learn COBOL and so I jumped at the opportunity to learn it at my old job. I enjoyed it quite a bit because of the challenge of learning a 25+ year old code base with no documentation on a product that literally ran the entire company (it was settlement software for a clearing company). I enjoyed it but left for other opportunities. The problem with COBOL is I don't think you'll find just a COBOL job without having to know JCL or other mainframe languages/programs as those are important as well.

One question is: how far has COBOL been extended, if at all, with modern features? Other languages have evolved to add features from (or benefits of lessons learned in) other languages -- has COBOL? (I honestly don't know; I stopped working in COBOL in 1986, and that environment generally required writing code backward-compatible with the ANS 1974 standard).

Generally, there is a risk of being pigeonholed when working in an "old" technology, so be observant of that.

COBOL 2002 has object orientation. I'm not sure how much it is used, but it has it.

You can learn COBOL. It will be like swallowing a barbed cube shaped pill. That is not the hard part. Many of the bank systems are 20, 30, 40 years old and are swamped with technical debt. They have been modified, extended, updated, moved to new hardware over and over. Documentation, if any, is hopelessly out of date. The existing programmers are proud of what they have accomplished,the software system works!

I think it depends on how much you could subdue your anger at at the Cobol language itself. I have worked for a Cobol company (Micro Focus) and found that I didn't want to stay there (... although colleagues and even immediate management were fine). Just couldn't cope with the old way of doing things. Your mileage may vary :-)

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