The Open Mainframe Project brings together academics and mainframe business experts to collaborate and advance the deployment of Linux and open source in a mainframe computing environment to leverage business technology and infrastructure for a competitive advantage. The aim is to carry the mainframe's design principles of security, stability, scalability, and performance to ensure the mainframe is interoperable in a hybrid environment. IBM Champion Cameron Seay, adjunct professor at East Carolina University, spoke with SHARE'd Intelligence about the project's COBOL goals and generating academic buy-in for training programs.
COBOL Hit Headlines
With the pandemic and rising issues among individual state unemployment systems, COBOL programmers, or the lack of them, were in the news. Some critics called for the replacement of the COBOL programming language itself. Seay explains that the code is abundant and efficient; it's not the code that needs to be replaced because the applications are running well. COBOL compiles large amounts of data effectively, it is prevalent in highly transactional business operations. "COBOL does decimal point arithmetic superbly well," Seay adds.
“COBOL does decimal point arithmetic superbly well.”
A recent survey conducted by The Open Mainframe Project found that COBOL usage is on the rise, but code is being revised as companies' needs change. So, while the language itself is 40 or more years old, code is modified to meet changing needs. Some companies have talked about migrating to different languages, but Seay says that if "you take something that is working and you put it in a new environment, you've just introduced a whole bunch of risk and there's no indication that the applications will run any better or be any more secure than they were in COBOL." Seay adds that as the mainframe improves every two years or so, the COBOL compiler also improves, becoming more efficient and improving performance.
Bring COBOL Back to Class
For companies in need of COBOL programmers, he says, they should look around. There are organizations like the COBOL Cowboys that can help them out. One forthcoming problem, however, is that COBOL is not being taught in college classrooms. As co-chair of the COBOL Working Group, Seay is eager to bring COBOL back to the classroom.
The Open Mainframe Project aims to help students learn the language and find available employment when they graduate.
"I'm not trying to get it in the classroom, not to the extent that Java and Python are in the classroom. I'm not saying that's needed, but there's currently only one school in the entire 17-campus University of North Carolina System that teaches COBOL," Seay explains. "We need more COBOL because it is important. I mean, it is the language that about 80% of business transactions use, according to Forrester and Gartner."
IBM and The Open Mainframe Project have created a free, online COBOL class that teaches students to interact with COBOL using the Visual Studio Code IDE. Seay also points to Dr. Robert Dahlberg as an enthusiastic computer scientist at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, who has worked actively with the Project. He adds that more universities need to be active in the creation of COBOL programs and getting COBOL into the classroom.
Get University Buy-in
To get COBOL into classrooms, Seay asserts that there has to be academic buy-in from the administration and the faculty. "You're not going to do anything without somebody on campus," he says. Seay is working with John Thompson, chief executive of Mobile Collaborative Education Consulting (MCEC), on a boot camp model for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other universities to learn enterprise technologies. These courses are remote-learning classes to teach students foundational, enterprise mainframe skills. The courses run on weekends for eight weeks and they range from introductory level skills to higher skill levels like COBOL.
Through these efforts, Seay points out that he's creating a pipeline of courses that campuses can turn to and educate students on the enterprise skills businesses need. "It's not just about building COBOL skills, it's about ensuring students have the mainframe skills enterprises need and can help students build on in their careers," he explains. To expand the reach of these programs, he adds, "We need access to the students. Once we talk to them directly, getting the courses on campus is a no-brainer because students want good jobs."
Colleges and universities that are committed to the futures of their students are likely to adopt programs that have a proven track record. "We have a proven track record of placing students in good-paying jobs," Seay explains. "One student we've trained told us he had two really good job offers."