Did You Say COBOL? It’s Time to Recruit

All of a sudden there is a high demand for COBOL programmers. I personally didn’t see this coming, but some people did.

The lack of COBOL programming expertise has led to long waits in processing unemployment benefits and small business loans at a time when joblessness has hit record highs. Even if the original programmers built in a nice end-of-life feature by using only two digits for the year, a lot of COBOL code survived Y2K and still lives on today. Two hundred forty billion lines of COBOL code are still being used, And apparently, it needs some updates.

If you are tasked with finding people to do these updates, I suspect an ad for “COBOL programmers with unemployment insurance system experience wanted” probably doesn’t result in a lot of resumes hitting your recruiter’s desk. The pool of developers that meet that criteria is probably very small — IBM found the average COBOL programmer is 58 years old, and roughly 10% are retiring each year. The chance of finding a good one is therefore pretty slim.

So, how do you find that COBOL programmer? Well, do you really need a COBOL programmer? Or do you need someone who can come up to speed quickly on legacy code? Does the latter open up a larger pool of potential candidates?

I believe in hiring for talent (natural ability) and not as much for skills (ability coming from knowledge). I often see job descriptions with many bullets or boxes to be checked. The way I look at it, every box to be checked is an opportunity to disqualify a potentially talented engineer. Consequently, it’s important to minimize the boxes and increase the size of your candidate pool.

That being said, I do look for certain skills, but I try to focus on more fundamental skills. In sports, we often hear coaches talk about the importance of fundamentals during training camps and throughout the season. I think fundamentals are just as important in engineering. When I’m looking for embedded engineers, I look for an understanding of things like interrupts, perhaps basic operating system concepts, and can they write a simple while loop? I’ve also found that asking someone to convert a two-digit decimal number into binary tells me a lot about their understanding of fundamentals. And the key here is “understanding,” I really focus on how well candidates understand things.

Since it might be hard to find that COBOL programmer with experience on unemployment insurance systems, look for a talented programmer who has strong fundamentals and train them. The ability to understand things quickly is what will help that person learn COBOL and figure out the 60-year piece of code.