PCMAG - The World Depends on 60-Year-Old Code No One Knows Anymore (COBOL)

edited December 2023 in Programming

"Every day, 3 trillion dollars worth of transactions are handled by a 64-year-old programming language that hardly anybody knows anymore."

My early years in computerland - spare hours spent learning Btrieve, COBOL, Fortran (all on a silver Tandy CoCo). Decided the life of a programmer was no life for me. Still I'm fascinated, not only that COBOL has such long legs, but the minds that went into developing the language.

Way beyond my pay grade.

1967 Edittion:


  • COBOL was "designed to be self-documenting and highly readable," so it was the easiest language for upper management to understand. That probably added a lot to it's longevity. A lot of welfare applications were written in it and are still running, so COVID led to a boon for COBOL programmers as welfare programs received a high influx of applications. The business world is weird.
  • COBOL is a language that met the needs of a particular domain. There are all kinds of domain specific programming languages.

    It never ceases to amaze me how people want to spit out millions of lines of code in C/C++/C#/Java/ or whatever re-inventing the wheel, when the same thing could be done in perhaps thousands of lines of code in some domain specific environment. Yes, that can lead to inflexibility or lock-in, but like all tools, one must way the pros and cons.

    I guess the new trend is just to have an "AI" program for you. But what people fail to understand is those few lines of specification you feed in as a "prompt", is actually "code". If it spits out a million lines of program code for you from a dozen lines of text... you are still doing it wrong.

    I've been around projects where management constantly wanted to have everyone totally re-write existing applications in the new language-of-the-day. Never happened.

    "Who has the current business requirements documents?"

    "Uhh, business requirements?"

  • COBOL has lived so long because IBM has done such a good job in making it possible to upgrade your mainframe systems and keep everything running with backwards compatibility.
  • “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

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