Back some years ago while doing my PhD I read an article (may be in The Economist magazine) telling the story of a computer programmer in Bulgaria who was earning much money for maintaining a very old language being used in the financial system, named COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). This article mentioned that COBOL was one of the most efficient languages in its applied field and that it would not disappear soon. The main reason for its survival was the risk of bugs when rewriting COBOL programs to any new computer language and hence the financial cost. Though this was interesting, I would not have guessed that one day I would be coding COBOL. In fact, as many scientists, I learned Matlab® to analyse data and do simulations. I was also starting to use the Linux shell program that was kind of geeky thing.
First, a bit of history and description of COBOL before telling on my career reorientation. Back in 1959, the aim was to develop a computer language that could run on different manufacturers’ machines (The reason we find the word ‘Common’ in the name of COBOL). Private industries and federal agencies in USA gathered their strength to produce common computing languages. By the way FORTRAN came out from the same motivation, which is to be compatible on several computers. If you want to know at bit more on the history of COBOL, you will find the name of Grace Hopper one of the main people involved in its development (who believed that computer programs should be easily intelligible). She was at the head of a team that wrote the COBOL compilers, which translate this language into 0 and 1. Hence, COBOL became available on different machines. At that time, 1960, it ran on UNIVAC II computer and RCA machine.
COBOL is meant to perform accounting tasks: records transactions, track property, payroll calculations, etc. Coding COBOL is close to ordinary English, thus self-documenting and very simple to read for people not familiar with coding, see pictures. However, COBOL has a very rigid format and is not adapted for scientific calculations. For me, used to a more sophisticated coding language, it was rather limited. However, during my training, two very important aspect of computing, which I did not acquire before was taught: the translation between binaries and hexadecimal, and the backbones of computers (hardware parts). On the coding side I was introduced to 3 other languages/applications that are side by side COBOL: JCL (to launch programs), CICS (for secure real-time transactions operations, the most used world-wide) and DB2 (to access database using IBM’s SQL).
Do you know who are the people coding COBOL nowadays? When I joined the Informatics Technology (IT) course in COBOL my surprise was to find out the background of the other 11 students: Molecular Biology, Ecology, Chemical Engineering, Economics, Law, Health Sport Sciences, Accounting, Oceanography, Bio-informatics, Management and for myself Physical-Chemistry. The recruiting criteria were to have a least a Master degree and pass two logic tests. The course was taught by people who themselves came from Chemistry and Physics some 30 years ago. Obviously, we were following their path except that the course was in 40 days, in other words very intense and demanding.
Page from first draft of COBOL, November, 1959
Printout from COBOL test programs run December 6, 1960 at RCA
But how did I land there?
But how did I land there? I ended my postdoctoral position for a sabbatical year to help an NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) in a suburb near Paris in France. A year later, I had a girlfriend and took the decision to live closer to my future wife and find a job near Paris. With the help of a coach, my (CV) curriculum vitae and biography were updated and uploaded on several career websites. After two months of active applications, asking old colleagues for advice and getting in touch with recruiters (via workshops, Linkedin.com, etc.), there were only disappointments. Even scientific research groups, doing the same kind of work I did, would not send back any answers.
People or companies did not reply or confirmed that they received your applications. Or, some answers were “if you do not hear about us in two weeks, then it means that you are not selected for farther process of recruitments”. Then, my age and years of experience did not fit to some companies who were looking for beginners. Finally, I got a call from a very enthusiastic lady who praises my career and the social work. Being more concern by my application I ask if she called to plan an interview, the answer was “NO”. Why did she call then? Well, because she was touched by my mission in Paris suburb. So what about the job application, why did I not fit to the requirements?
The kind lady started by telling that the job required someone who can manage a small team and agreed that if I did not have much experience there I could still learn. She said that without doubt I had all the required skills and experience to perform the scientific work. But, I never work in the industrial field and this was the main reason. Her advice was to find someone (by mouth to mouth) that could introduce me in the industry, work for a least a year, and then apply again. Eureka! Finally, I realised that I was no more in an Anglo-Saxon country where my experiences are not as important as to know someone that could back me up for a job. All this time when people said “I prefer to go through someone I know” I did not take the weight of how this is important here in France.
As I did not know many people in my field in France I decided to start in something new. Where I would be a newbie, learning and being introduce to people in the actual field. Clearly with a scientific profile one of the top recruiting opportunities was a career reorientation in IT. Companies were ready to pay during your period of “studentship” and promised that there are jobs waiting for you. So I jumped in the IT boat, but not without issues! Most companies do not want people older than 28, too bad! But still, a few would be ready to give you a try, but without salary while learning and reimburse the total cost of the course or work for them for a year.
That was for me full of joy, I got to learn something new, challenging and funny, at least during the course. Soon recruiters visited our class and we went through interviews. Most of my classmates had already a job before we finished our course, while for the rest and I it took at most one month. Today, six month later, I cannot be happier on the level of salary and to feel safe (being able to pay my rent, food, etc.). The job itself, well I hope to be more than a backup (intellectually it is not very nourishing to my taste) and be more involved in the decision making. Further, programming does not take most of my time; I do a lot of writing documents. For each program and every modification brought to them, this involved many documents that need updates. The worst is to put in sentences a program made or modified by someone else.
How do I see the future?
How do I see the future? First, I started to learn other computing languages that are funnier than COBOL and easier to write (in terms of number of coding lines).Then, I hope to go back in the scientific field as an IT developer where I would feel a bit more at home. Last but not least, there are so many IT job opportunities that I am already looking forward to move out of the polluted, busy and stressing Paris area. Every one or two weeks, there is a recruiter who want to be my friend on Linkedin.com and I started to received phone calls after two month of work.
My colleagues’ stories on how they end up in IT and their views on their future have a common theme. After their master degree in their respective scientific field they looked for several months but did not find any job while looking on their own. Once subscribed to a specialised headhunting company they were offered an IT training and a job. Why are they still working in the business informatics world? For some it is the good salary, others because they find no interest in going back to science, and last because they are happy.
COBOL Program (1/2)
COBOL Program (2/2)
COBOL Program Result
Average annual salary for a COBOL Developer = 36k €
In the last 15 days the number of job opportunities using ‘COBOL’ as search word on
- indeed.fr = 250
- indeed.com =27
- indeed.nl =2
Job opportunities using ‘COBOL’ as search word on Linkedin.com/jobs
- France = 619
- Belgium = 102
- Netherlands = 44
Job opportunities using ‘COBOL” as search word on BrightOwl
Last modified: September 27, 2018