Why Computer Languages are Still a Big Deal

There are many systems written in many languages, but with open-source languages getting all the attention in recent years, are there enough people to support them?

Flashback 10, 20 years ago in the IT world, and you saw a world divided by languages. On the larger systems, you had seasoned developers well versed in Cobol, RPG, C/C++ and Java. On the smaller, PC and Mac boxes, there were cadres of C/C++ developers as well, along with Visual Basic, C#, and Objective-C.

Since then, numerous more lightweight scripting languages have grown in popularity, including Javascript (which is not related to Java), Perl, Python, PHP and Ruby.

Every language has certain advantages in certain types of applications or environments, and most are cross-platform, meaning they're supported by a variety of operating systems and hardware. Initiatives such as cloud and service oriented architectures — in which applications are abstracted as services — have made underlying languages less apparent or relevant to business projects.

This raises the question: how important is it for insurance IT managers to be looking for certain language skillsets in their staffs? With so much being virtualized and put out in the cloud, are individual language specialties still critical?

The bottom line is that specific language skills are still needed. For example, take Cobol. IBM recently pointed out that “nearly 15 percent of all new enterprise application functionality is written in Cobol.” That's new applications, mind you. The same IBM release points out that Cobol “powers many everyday services such as ATM transactions, check processing, travel booking and insurance claims.” At last count, “more than 200 billion lines of Cobol code [were] being used across industries such as banking, insurance, retail and human resources.”

This also raises the question of where the new Cobol talent will come from. IBM and its independent user group partner, SHARE, have been working hard to fund or teach Cobol courses at colleges and universities. But it goes without saying that today's typical college IT student is likely pursuing courses of study using open-source languages to pursue the building of clouds and social media sites.

In a study of 376 employers I helped conduct and publish in cooperation with SHARE, IBM and the University of Northern Illinois a couple of years back, we found 37 percent of companies still sought Cobol programming skills from incoming developers they hire.

SOA, virtualization and cloud take away a lot of the headaches associated with building, integrating and maintaining today's variety of underlying systems. But they only go so far. There is still demand for language skills for the critical applications that make everything work.

As employers, it's important to get that message out there. Collaborate with local schools and colleges, and let it be known that skills such as Cobol are still vital — and will make for great job offers.

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology. He can be reached at joe@mckendrickresearch.com. This blog originated at Insurance Networking News, a SourceMedia publication.

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