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COBOL Touches Our Everyday Lives

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Guest: Sudharsana Srinivasan | Mike Bauer
Project: COBOL Programming Course/Open Mainframe Project (Twitter)
Show: Let’s Talk

There are over 220 billion lines of COBOL in use today and 1.5 billion are written each year. But COBOL doesn’t enjoy the same visibility and popularity as other languages like Python, Java and so on. The reason for this “is the misconception that it is a dead language,” says Sudharsana Srinivasan, Chair of the COBOL Programming Course. The root of that misconception is due to a lack of awareness of the fact that COBOL is actively used and really impacts our everyday lives. The Open Mainframe Project (OMP) community is aware of the challenge and is working on addressing it.

There are many projects under the umbrella of Open Mainframe Project to help improve the visibility of COBOL. One such initiative is the OMP’s COBOL Programming Course which brings valuable resources to the new breed of developers.

It can be seen as a gateway to bring education to the community of learners. “Either beginners who want to get started and learn about COBOL, or even first, those who want to have a quick refresher, this is a great opportunity to come and learn about COBOL,” says Srinivasan. The course also offers hands-on labs and exercises that put users on a real mainframe.

The COBOL Programming Course gets all the help it needs from sister projects like the COBOL Working Group. “The COBOL Working Group aims to promote the language by making materials more accessible to learners,” explains Mike Bauer, Chair of the COBOL Programming Course, “It only leverages free and publicly available tooling for accessing the mainframe environment, and in fact, provides a mainframe environment for learners to complete the hands-on exercises.”

Interestingly, the COBOL Programming Course actually went viral at the beginning of the pandemic when COBOL was in the news. “Our repository received over 100,000 views, and 8,500 plus learners have completed the hands-on exercises using the mainframe environment that we’ve provided,” quips Bauer.

Moreover, Bauer expects to continue to see a steady flow of learners coming onto the platform and onboarding onto the language. He adds, “…COBOL will continue to be critical to the world’s economy. And most of the world’s largest banks, insurance companies, retailers all rely on mainframes, and it’ll continue to be a critical skill that’s needed in today’s technical ecosystem.”

Learn more about the project in the interview above.

The summary of the show is written by Monika Chauhan.

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Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is your host, Swapnil Bhartiya, and welcome to TFiR Let’s Talk. And today, we have two guests from the Open Mainframe Project. We have Sudharsana Srinivasan, Chair of the COBOL Programming Course, and Mike Bauer, once again, Chair of the COBOL Programming Course. Mike, Sudharsana, it’s great to have you both on the show.

Mike Bauer: Thanks for having us.

Sudharsana Srinivasan: Yep. Nice to be here.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Sudharsana, if I ask you, what are the challenges that the COBOL community is facing these days?

Sudharsana Srinivasan: COBOL as a language, I think, the biggest challenge for COBOL is the misconception that it is a dead language. And I think the root of that misconception is lack of awareness of the fact that COBOL really impacts our everyday lives. So that can be addressed with education, which is what we’ll be talking more about today.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Yeah. So let’s talk about how you are trying to address this challenge of awareness? What are you folks doing?

Sudharsana Srinivasan: The Open Mainframe Project COBOL Programming Course is our gateway, if you will, to bring education to the community of learners. Either beginners who want to get started and learn about COBOL, or even first, those who want to have a quick refresher, this is a great opportunity to come and learn about COBOL. And guess what? The bonus is, the hands-on labs and exercises put you on a real mainframe.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Mike, how does this COBOL Programming Course work with other programs at the Open Mainframe Project? Because there are many other programs. Of course, one is the COBOL Working Group. So talk about how it’s helping other projects as well.

Mike Bauer: Yeah, absolutely. I would say there’s a lot of synergy across Open Mainframe Project Projects. Definitely, the COBOL Programming Course is an asset to the COBOL Working Group, but also the Open Mainframe Project Zowe is an asset to the COBOL Programming Course. Let me explain that a little bit further.

The COBOL Working Group aims to promote the language by making materials more accessible to learners. And the COBOL Programming Course, as Sudharsana mentioned, certainly achieves this. In fact, it only leverages free and publicly available tooling for accessing the mainframe environment, and in fact, provides a mainframe environment for learners to complete the hands-on exercises.

In regards to promotion, the COBOL Programming Course actually went viral at the beginning of the pandemic when COBOL was in the news. Our repository received over 100,000 views, and 8,500 plus learners have completed the hands-on exercises using the mainframe environment that we’ve provided. And I mentioned Zowe briefly, so let me touch on that.

Zowe’s a platform that enables us to leverage distributed tooling when working with the mainframe environment. Not only does this provide our learners a free and publicly accessible toolchain for completing the hands-on exercises, but it’s also familiar to them having just come out of university. These are tools, text editors like Visual Studio Code, CI/CD Pipeline, tools like Jenkins, and popular scripting languages like JavaScript or Python.

Swapnil Bhartiya: We started this discussion with the kind of challenges that are there for the COBOL community. And of course, this course was to address the awareness problem. If I ask you, what other resources are there that the Open Mainframe Project is offering to the COBOL communities?

Sudharsana Srinivasan: We do have a couple of other resources. One of them being the COBOL Working Group, which is about bringing COBOL out to that larger community. They work extremely closely with the educator system and universities and such as well. So there’s a lot of cross-pollination of content and ideas there. And then, there is the COBOL Check Program, which is also part of the Open Mainframe Project. So we’re really working hard to bring COBOL front and center and making sure that we are able to bring education and awareness about COBOL.

Swapnil Bhartiya: You have all these programs to support the community. If you look back at one year, can you share some milestones that you have achieved and you are proud of?

Sudharsana Srinivasan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Mike already touched upon how this programming course when we landed it April 2020. I remember to the date, April 14th, 2020, on Open Mainframe Project. It had amazing response and over 100,000 views in the first month of our landing the course. So in the past year, the first year itself, we have been able to graduate from an incubation project at Open Mainframe Project to an active stage project. So I think, as a project, it is a proud moment for us.

So we’re an active stage project at OMP, and also we’re part of the OMP Summer Mentorship Project this past summer. And we got to work with two brilliant young minds who worked on updating the content. As you can imagine, a year-long, the content had not really been refreshed. So these two young mentees worked on bringing some advanced topics. So there is some really good solid content out there for even our folks who’ve already done the course to come back and check out the advanced content.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. Thanks for sharing that. Now, since you mentioned mentees, I want to ask you, Mike, tell us about these mentees. Were they already aware of COBOL? You must be knowing the backstory. What attracted them towards COBOL, and how did they contribute to the project?

Mike Bauer: So sure. We had two mentees contribute to the course. One had a little bit of familiarity with COBOL, having already completed the course prior to applying to the mentorship program. The other one was starting fresh. But both were able to onboard onto the language, and the one who hadn’t completed the course was able to complete it very quickly and start contributing right away. And they made some outstanding contributions to both our getting started course, as well as our advanced topics course.

So one mentee updated all the screenshots to use the latest Zowe technologies in the completion of the course content, and the other added a number of chapters, chapters on how to handle tables in COBOL, ABEND handling, program tuning and simplification, all the COBOL compiler options, and even multithreading. So they certainly added quite a bit of content. So even if you have taken the course, I would encourage you to take a second look. And especially we didn’t have the advanced topics course right away. That’s now out there. So please revisit and take those additional chapters.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Now I have a question since, Mike, you kind of touched upon that point. If I ask you, and of course, Sudharsana, you can also pitch in. What advice do you folks have for someone who’s either interested in COBOL or is already engaged but at a very early stage?

Mike Bauer: I would say seize the opportunity that is the COBOL Programming Course. It’s an opportunity to get experience and education around the language, but also an opportunity to get hands-on experience with mainframes. And especially when you’re applying for different careers, entry-level positions, or just want a refresher on the technology, being able to put that sort of experience on your resume will be a key indicator to folks looking to employ you that, hey, they actually have experience because it is rare at a university for folks to have hands-on experience with COBOL on a real mainframe.

Sudharsana Srinivasan: I was just going to add that I always tell students when they ask, and that be an and, right? It’s not an either, or. Add COBOL to your tech tool kit. And to Mike’s point, that is definitely a differentiator. And it will be noticed. It is a skill that is sought after. So be an and, add COBOL, come check out the COBOL Programming Course.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. And we are at the end of this year. This year was very long. Like what, 10, 20, 30 years long. But we are reaching the end. If I ask you about COBOL, what kind of trends are you expecting for COBOL in 2022?

Sudharsana Srinivasan: I think it’s going to be where we continue to see steady growth, at least from the COBOL Programming Course point of view, a steady growth in learners. I think with this Open Mainframe Projects, not just the COBOL Programming Course, the COBOL Working Group, we have done a phenomenal job in these past couple of years to bring awareness and bring it out to the learning community. So I think that trend is definitely going to continue and build that next-generation skills pipeline for COBOL.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Mike, what trends do you see?

Mike Bauer: I think we’ll continue to see a steady flow of learners coming onto the platform and onboarding onto the language. Now, will we see a similar explosion to what we saw in 2021, primarily fueled by, or, even really, back to 2020, primarily fueled by the pandemic and COBOL being in the news? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing we can guarantee is that COBOL will continue to be critical to the world’s economy. And most of the world’s largest banks, insurance companies, retailers all rely on mainframes, and it’ll continue to be a critical skill that’s needed in today’s technical ecosystem.

Sudharsana Srinivasan: I just wanted to share a little tidbit from earlier this year in Halloween, actually. I saw this decoration in the front of a house, and it was a bunch of tombstones of various different programming languages. And there was a tombstone for COBOL. And the irony here is somewhere some COBOL code got executed to purchase that tombstone. Think about that.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Right, and the beauty is that you will not find any Halloween decoration for a lot of products, but COBOL, even if the tombstone was there that meant people actually know about that, right? It still is spreading awareness. Like any press is good press, right? Sudharsana, Mike, thank you so much for taking time out today and talking about this course, that first step that they are going on from within the Open Mainframe Project. And I would love to have you, folks, back on the show, because as you said, we are going to hear a lot about COBOL in 2022 as well, so thank you.

Mike Bauer: Thanks for having us on.

Sudharsana Srinivasan: Thank you so much for having us.

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