If COBOL Is Too ‘Un-Cool’ For School, What’s That Make RPG?
March 11, 2013 Alex Woodie
A recent survey by COBOL tool provider Micro Focus found a decided lack of enthusiasm for COBOL at colleges and universities, with a large percentage of students viewing COBOL as un-cool, and even dead. COBOL’s little brother, RPG, faces a similar fate, as young IT students favor modern languages, like Java and C++, over what they think of as ridiculously boring business technologies used to run ancient IBM machines.
Just because they think that doesn’t make it right. But unless IBM i leaders get real about the COBOL and RPG skills shortage, it could mean more businesses will migrate off its mainframe and IBM i platforms.
Micro Focus, which focuses predominantly on IBM z/OS mainframe languages and technologies like COBOL, JCL, and CICS, surveyed academic leaders at 119 colleges and universities in North America and Europe during the month of January. The results, while not surprising, are disheartening for business executives whose fortunes are tied to keeping real-world COBOL applications running after the current crop of IT pros leave, retire, or die. There are still shops that use COBOL on IBM i platforms, of course, and COBOL was popular in the insurance and finance industries and among customers who jumped from mainframes to AS/400, iSeries, and System i machinery.
The survey highlighted several disconnects between the current reality of COBOL education and where academic leaders would like it to be. For starters, while 58 percent of the academic leaders believed COBOL should be on the curriculum, it was actually part of the curriculum for just 27 percent of the universities, and only 18 percent of comp-sci programs required it to get a degree.
It is not surprising, then, that only 5 percent of the college and university programs graduated 30 or more students who could rightfully call themselves COBOL developers. By comparison, 32 percent of the programs graduated 30 or more Java programmers, and 16 percent graduated 30 or more C++ and C# programmers.
Mainframe Brain Drain
The perception of COBOL by students is not good. The survey found that 39 percent of students view COBOL as “un-cool and outdated,” 13 percent thought that COBOL was dead, and 15 percent said they wouldn’t know what a line of COBOL would look like if it smacked them over the head. (These numbers measure the belief of survey respondents–that is, those of the academic leaders–view of how students think about COBOL. It did not measure what the students believed about COBOL directly.)
These poor numbers are proof that COBOL education needs a reset in the West, according to Micro Focus, which has all sorts of great statistics about the relevance of COBOL in our daily lives, such as that 70 percent of all critical business logic and data is written in COBOL; that COBOL powers 85 percent of all daily business transactions; and that there are $2 trillion worth of COBOL-based mainframe applications in use by corporations.
“The answer to the growing skills gap starts with education. Business organizations and academic institutions need to work together to showcase COBOL as a relevant, in-demand business skill with a promising future,” says Kevin Brearley, senior director of product management at Micro Focus. “Young developers need to be encouraged and more industry relevant IT qualifications and further educational courses need to be introduced.”
IBM i: The No Kid Club?
COBOL is to mainframe as RPG is to the IBM i-based Power Systems server. And just as COBOL faces a looming skills gap, RPG faces a similar problem. In fact, it’s probably worse for RPG, since everybody who’s seen The Matrix–a very cool movie by the way–knows what a mainframe is, but perilously few have the patience to figure out what an IBM i-based Power Systems server is. Also, RPG means Role Playing Game to most coders under age 25.
Age may be a bigger factor than it might first appear, according Susan Gantner and Jon Paris, the co-founders of Partner400 and System i Developer, which hosts the RPG & DB2 Summit.
“The number of colleges carrying IBM i education has been dropping. Why? The biggest cause I have heard is that employers wouldn’t hire the graduates,” Paris tells IT Jungle via email. “Employers will take newbie Java, PHP, C++, etc. kids right out of college. IBM i shops want five years of RPG plus three years of JD Edwards, and then wonder why they don’t get applicants who are willing to accept the junior programmer rates they are offering. We see a lot of shops having to consider moving off the platform for this reason more than any other.”
IBM’s Academic Initiative was supposed to help boost the availability of IBM i curriculums in colleges and universities, and therefore the availability of graduates with IBM i skills. IBM maintains a list of universities around the world teaching IBM i skills, which ostensibly includes RPG. That list, which you can read here, shows 45 colleges in the United States with IBM i education, and a scant four in Canada. Mexico, where IBM is moving more Power Systems manufacturing, has three colleges or universities teaching IBM i.
Gantner says she is disappointed in IBM’s Academic Initiative, and that it has only been successful in sparse pockets like Wisconsin. Jim Buck has been very successful with its IBM i program at Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, but that is the exception that makes the rule. But something should be done, by IBM and others in the IBM i industry, she says.
“I think there’s an immediate need for some kind of fast-path program to teach people RPG and IBM i programming skills,” Ganter says via email. “Potential students for such a program may be business-oriented programmers who already know other platforms and languages or perhaps even some of those non-programmer business people out there looking for a different track for their career. As we said in our blog, we hear way too often of shops who are considering leaving the best platform for business applications for a decidedly inferior platform because of a lack of RPG and IBM i skilled people–especially those who are both capable and willing to develop modern, innovative applications.”
Nigel Fortlage, an IBM Power Systems Champion and CIO of GHY International, worked with the IBM Academic Initiative, but found the results less than stellar. “We participated with our local user group to develop a program with our regional community college, but the ecosystem could not support the student population and the institution did little in my opinion to find an expanded market. After less than five years the program folded,” he says via email.
In Fortlage’s view, IBM i shops themselves should do more to foster an educational environment to develop new IBM i talent. “It is the responsibility of those businesses who have the need to make the connections to educational institutions,” he says.
IBM i Talent Migrates
The lack of university-level IBM i programs isn’t such a bad thing for Bill Hansen, president of Manta Technologies and a former manager of the strategic education team at COMMON. “I believe Manta trains more new RPG students than everyone else combined,” he says via email. “COMMON has pretty much given up on entry-level topics. I think I taught the last ‘Intro to ILE’ course 10 years ago when it could only draw three students. IBM hasn’t taught entry-level stuff in years.”
It is not just IBM i, but IT as a whole that seems to be less interesting to today’s Western youth. “What bothers me more than any of these questions is the dearth of students choosing an IT path of any kind,” Gantner says. “From what I’ve read, it seems students seeking IT education paths of any kind in North America have been dropping steadily for years. Even more alarming is that the number of young women considering IT as a career path is dwindling even further than the general trend.”
Most of Hansen’s IBM i students are men. “The typical newbie is a kid who grew up on PCs. He–and it’s still usually a he–was hired to install and update PCs, but proved to be smarter than average and was told he is now in charge of ‘that black box over in the corner.’ Where large companies tend to spend 5 percent or so of an IT employee’s salary on training, the typical IBM i shop often acts like more than a couple hundred dollars is breaking the bank. So, the employee is told to scrounge around and get himself trained–just don’t leave the office or spend more than $2,000. That’s my niche and I’m proud of it.”
Many of the RPG and COBOL jobs out there are maintaining existing systems. There just aren’t many (if any) new applications being written in RPG or COBOL. While it is unglamorous to maintain other’s code, there are still RPG and COBOL jobs out there–but they don’t necessarily pay very well, which doesn’t help the recruitment effort. Paris notes that many of the forums and social media hubs where IBM i professionals gather to ask questions are frequented by newbies from other countries, like India and China. “They pay their own money to learn RPG, because as soon as they have that skill, they can get a job.”
New Stuff Rules
In the end, it shouldn’t be surprising that that younger kids just starting their IT careers would look to more glamorous jobs, such as creating the next great iPhone game or writing a Facebook app. Kids can and should be forgiven for daring to dreaming of fame and riches, both of which are possible in today’s world, where über-nerds like Mark Zuckerberg are the new geek gods.
“If I were an IT student today, I’d be studying the newest stuff so that 1.) I could get a job at Google, and 2) I’d have skills for my 40-year career,” Hansen says. “But were I interested in IT 40 years ago, I’d have gotten a job with IBM. RPG and COBOL jobs are still available, but they rarely go to the best and the brightest. I don’t mean this to sound elitist. But to a nonprogrammer, everybody who works with computers seems like a rocket scientist. Within the industry, however, the cream of the crop gets jobs at Google, etc., the second-tier gets jobs at Fortune 500 shops, and the rest get jobs at SMBs: the typical IBM i shop.”
COBOL has never been the “it” technology, according to Hansen. “Even when I was an undergraduate [1966-70], COBOL was not cool. Universities wanted to turn out computer scientists, not coders,” he says. “I don’t know if this mindset has ever changed. Universities turn out computer scientists who get jobs with IBM, Google, etc. It has always been the second-tier colleges and junior colleges that taught languages that could be turned into immediate jobs.”
However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find IBM i and RPG skills at community and technical colleges. Without a concerted effort and funding by all stakeholders to reverse that trend, the number of students exposed to technologies such as RPG, IBM i, and COBOL will continue to decline.