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Bug Re-Boots Cobol Experts' Fading Careers

Trends: Firms pay big salaries to lure programmers who know the old language and can help fix the year 2000 problem.


Cobol programmer Bruce Fassett's retirement lasted all of one week.

He had toiled for 15 years in a nondescript cubicle in Phoenix, one of hundreds of programmers detailed to one of the least glamorous jobs in high technology: maintaining an ancient Cobol database that tracks commissions of Motorola's chip salesmen.

When Motorola began cutting back its work force early this year, Fassett, 57, decided to take a voluntary buyout, hoping to test the rumors that Cobol programmers were in demand because of the year 2000 problem--a computer malfunction that will strike hardest on decades-old Cobol programs.

He didn't have to wait long. Within a week, he was snatched up by data processing giant EDS, which gave him a considerable increase from his last $60,000 salary, allowed him to work a 4 1/2-day workweek and agreed to let him live anywhere in the United States near a major airport. During any out-of-town assignment, the company would provide him with free lawn care, pet care, covered airport parking, spousal flights and dry cleaning.

Once considered the dinosaurs of the technological revolution, Cobol programmers have become a hot commodity precisely because they stayed in the high-tech Jurassic era.

Like priests who dutifully maintained dusty heaps of scrolls, they are being recalled from seclusion to recover the ancient knowledge of Cobol.

The new demand has prompted the Labor Department to ask the American Assn. of Retired Persons and the National Council of Senior Citizens to coax retired programmers back into the work force.

EDS, which hopes to hire 500 programmers this year, has promised a millennium bonus to any programmer who manages to stay with the company for just 16 more months until 2000. Up to 5% of the money EDS earns from its year 2000 repair projects will be split among those workers who stay.

Contrary to common perceptions about how quickly technology changes, the demand for Cobol programmers--along with technicians fluent in other fading languages such as PL/1, ALGOL and APL--demonstrates how stubbornly old technology clings to life. Programs metastasize into the cracks of technological societies and morph into complex entities that are as difficult to remove as they are to understand in part or whole.

The demand is still somewhat selective. Some retired programmers who have been out of the business just a few years have found themselves facing a wall of resistance. But for others, this fleeting moment before 2000 is a last opportunity to grasp the stardom and riches that went to a younger generation of hotshots who created the high-profile programs of the personal computer.

"These guys are like diamonds now," said Chris Thorne, a recruiter for Professional Access, a contract software engineering firm.

Still Used in Many Mainframe Programs

Cobol, for all the disparaging remarks about its antiquity, is still the most widely used language in the world of corporate information systems, accounting for as much as 60% of mainframe programs, according to Capers Jones, chief scientist of Artemis Management Systems, a software management company based in Burlington, Mass.

Jones estimates there are about 9.5 million Cobol applications in the world--all tended by 2.4 million Cobol software workers.

Cobol is almost exclusively a language of large mainframe computers dedicated to the obscure yet often gargantuan record-keeping tasks of modern business. It is a language that essentially does not exist on personal computers.

Cobol, for "common business-oriented language," was created in 1960 from ideas developed by Grace Murray Hopper, remembered as the mother of computing and the discoverer of the first computer bug--an actual moth inside one of the first computers.

What distinguishes the language is its use of plain-English terms--a radical advance on the first method of punching in commands coded in ones and zeros. With Cobol, programmers could use words--such as "add," "subtract," "compute," "rounded," "display" and "perform"--that would later be translated into ones and zeros.

"Cobol was a language that you didn't have to be a scientist to use," said Brian J. Boyle, editor for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer's Year 2000 Focus Group. "Its greatest flaw and greatest strength is that it's like English. It has periods. It has commas, just like Faulkner. The problem is that if you missed that period . . . oh boy."

The language also has an admirable orderliness to it. For example, all variables in a program are defined in one specific area of the program, known as the data division. This might seem like a minor point, but in programs that can run into the millions of lines, being able to find a variable is critical.

While dozens of modern computer languages have similar attributes, the difference is that Cobol was the first to seize the business market, and it quickly entrenched itself as programs grew too complex to easily remove.

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