Without fail whenever I get an interview request, or an invitation to speak about my work doing legacy modernization everybody wants to talk about mainframes and COBOL. The assumption is that I will tell some good war stories about the drudgery of old systems for other engineers who don’t need to worry about that stuff because their careers are focused on modern technology.
Granted, when I started working with legacy systems I was also drawn to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not factor of the most ancient programs. The thrill of unearthing and dissecting older and older systems, figuring out forgotten languages that most programmers have never heard of, let alone interacted with. I have always been fascinated by low level languages and systems, the magic that turns changes in voltage to abstractions in math and design. But lately I’ve become much more interested in the coming legacy apocalypse and how to slow down the rising level of technical debt on new(-er) technologies.
The legacy apocalypse is not the death of the last Baby Boomer COBOL programmer. To be honest that crisis has come and gone. When people talk about the threat of old systems, they love to trot out a stat about how old COBOL programmers are. For example, in 2006 the average age of a COBOL programmer was 55. That sounds bad. Lots of critical staff are close to retirement! Who will look after their systems when they’re gone?
Averages can be misleading. In the same survey 52% of programmers were 45–55 and 34% were 35–45. But more to the point, eight years later when all those 55 year old programmers were supposed to have retired Micro Focus’s survey of COBOL programmers and executives put the average age of a COBOL programmer at 55 again. Their 2019 survey had the average at 50.
In fact, the average age of COBOL programmers has been steady for decades. When my father worked on Y2K bugs he was in his late 40s~early 50s. His colleagues were similar ages. Every time I see people making a big deal about the age of the COBOL community I think of something American oboist Blair Tindell wrote about the classical music community:
The terror about older listeners was misplaced, ignoring the fact that…