August 5th, 2008

Forget becoming a Pythonista or learning how to exploit the Semantic Web in social networking applications. Learn Cobol.

From today’s New York Times (In California, Retro-Tech Complicates Budget Woes), comes this note on how to avoid being an obsolete geek: be a Cobol hacker. The context is an emergency plan that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to deploy to address a $15 billion budget deficit.

“Last week, with no budget agreement in sight, the governor issued an executive order terminating thousands of part-time and temporary state employees and slashing the wages of about 170,000 of the state’s full-time workers to the federal minimum wage.

But the California controller, John Chiang, says the state’s payroll system — which uses a programming throwback known as Cobol, or Common Business-Oriented Language — is so antiquated it would take months to make the changes to workers’ checks.

“In 2003, my office tried to see if we could reconfigure our system to do such a task,” Mr. Chiang told a State Senate committee on Monday. “And after 12 months, we stopped without a feasible solution.”

David J. Farber, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said using Cobol was roughly equivalent to having “a television with vacuum tubes.”

“There are no Cobol programmers around anymore,” Mr. Farber said. “They retired centuries ago.”

Try this Google search for Cobol programming assignments and see how many results are returned.