With SHARE Virtual Experience 2021 (August 9–13) in full swing, we spoke with Misty Decker, product marketing director at Micro Focus, about her session, "Meet the Women of COBOL." Some of the panelists who discussed their careers in COBOL during this week’s session include Dr. Gina Bullock, assistant dean and director of the mainframe program at North Carolina A&T State University, Susan Drennan, vice president of COBOL sales at Micro Focus, and Giulia Sermann, a mainframe presales consultant at Micro Focus who also blogs about learning COBOL. With recent headlines calling for changes to systems running applications in COBOL, these women talked about the history of the programming language, the women involved in its creation, and the importance of the language today.
COBOL History Begins With Women
Grace Hopper, Jean Sammet, and Mary Hawes are just some of the women involved in the development of COBOL. "I never learned about these amazing women in school, discovering them only after I was deep into my mainframe career," said Decker. "I was stunned to learn that women comprised the majority of the team developing COBOL as a language. It made me wonder how women could have been so visibly the leaders of our industry in the 1960s and yet we still struggle to achieve parity 60 years later."
Grace Hopper inspired much of Decker's work with the IBM Academic Initiative and her work in product marketing at Micro Focus because Hopper had an uncanny ability to explain complex topics in a way that anyone could understand them. She added, "Jean Sammet’s story is inspirational in how often she refused to accept the gender biases of her day and persisted until she found a way around them. Decker explained, "Although Grace Hopper is often called the mother of COBOL, it was actually Mary Hawes’s idea to have a common language for business applications."
I was stunned to learn that women comprised the majority of the team developing COBOL as a language.
What Are the Misconceptions of COBOL?
There are a number of misconceptions about COBOL, Decker said, but just because the programming language was created 60 years ago, doesn't mean it hasn't been updated with new features. Among the misconceptions Decker and the other women of COBOL tackled include the idea that COBOL applications should be rewritten and that young programmers are not interested in learning COBOL, creating a skills gap. Decker said, "Many COBOL applications don't need to be rewritten, they can be modernized with APIs and micro services, support CI/CD, and DevOps practices." She added that there are some use cases, like financial calculations, in which COBOL is the better choice, compared to Java or Python. Decker also pointed out that COBOL is easy to learn, noting that young programmers will not have a hard time acquiring the skills their employers need.
In today's business world, COBOL applications are being modernized. Decker said that Marianne Bellotti, author of Kill It with Fire and another leading woman in IT, explains how to best modernize IT systems of all types, including COBOL. She also noted that "Bellotti doesn’t really like the term 'modernization' because it implies that the new things are automatically better. Instead, Bellotti prefers to think about it as 'Restoring Operational Excellence' and focusing on getting the applications and the infrastructure to a place where they can deliver what the business needs. All work starts with identifying the business objectives, regardless of the age of the technology or the applications."
Drennan deals daily with the modernization of COBOL applications. Decker said that Drennan will share her experiences working with companies to help them focus on what value they want to derive from their modernization projects. Drennan then helps those companies identify the specific actions they should take, whether that's enabling a hybrid cloud infrastructure or turning their existing COBOL applications into COBOL micro services.
COBOL of the Future
Dr. Bullock, meanwhile, will lead the discussion on training new COBOL programmers. At her university, she focuses on exposing students to the value of mainframes and COBOL. At the same time, Decker said Dr. Bullock wants to help students also work toward high-paying, meaningful work. "Dr. Bullock is personally making a dent in diversity by putting a special focus on women and people of color," she added.
Sermann, who is just starting out in her career, is already helping others learn COBOL. She, along with her colleague Jennifer Osborne at Micro Focus, have worked together to update the COBOL course from the Open Mainframe Project (OMP) with Micro Focus tools to use in training our new employees. "And now, they’re helping to mentor the student intern in the OMP Mentorship Program as he makes a version of that course available to students without reliable internet access," said Decker.
Decker is hopeful that attendees of the session, "Meet the Women of COBOL," will not only learn about the founding pioneers of COBOL — Grace Hopper, Jean Sammet, and Mary Hawes — but also the "smart and amazing women" working with the language today. COBOL is more than a 60-year-old programming language, and modernizing it is more about making sure the applications deliver what businesses need. Decker pointed out that there is a new generation of COBOL experts coming out of universities, and "these women will lead us to our future."
If you haven’t already, register today to catch this session and others on-demand in the virtual event platform. Plus, check out the Women of COBOL series starting with an August 25 webinar, and follow updates on TechChannel.com for future monthly episodes.