COBOL is a coding language older than Weird Al Yankovic.
The people who know how to use it are often just as old. It underpins the entire financial system.
And it can’t be removed.
How a computer language controls the financial life of the world.
When Thomas first started programming, it was 1969. He was a kid just out of high school in Toronto, without any particular life goal.
His father was a carpenter, but good luck following in his family’s footsteps; Thomas was all thumbs. “My father knew I couldn’t hammer two pieces of wood together,” he laughs.
So his mother suggested something weird and newfangled: What about… computer programming?
Computers, in 1969, were still strange new curiosities, the size of big cabinets.
But companies around the world were realizing they were invaluable for any task that required a lot of rapid-fire accounting, like tallying up payroll. Jobs were on offer to anyone who could learn even a little coding.
So Thomas found “some fly-by-night, little pop-up school” in downtown Toronto, and over the next two months, learned the hot computer language of the day: COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language).
After he graduated, he got hired in the check-sorting department of a major Canadian bank. (He doesn’t want me to name it, banks are secretive; “Thomas,” I should mention, is a pseudonym, if you hadn’t guessed that already.)
Thomas wasn’t yet a programmer for the bank then, but over the next few years he made it clear he wanted to be, and his employer paid for him to do a bunch of honest-to-goodness college courses in coding, and in 1978 he began a long career at the bank as a programmer.
Thomas loved it.
It was like constant puzzle-solving, a game of mental chess. He’d sit at his desk, writing out his code by hand, then give it to a “punchcard operator” who’d put holes in cards to represent his programming instructions.
Twice a day they’d feed those cards into the huge “mainframe” computers at the bank.
It would take hours for Thomas to find out if his code had actually worked correctly, or whether he’d made a goof that grounded things to a halt. If he had, he’d pore over the error statements, rewrite the COBOL, and try again.
Over the next few years, Thomas became good at COBOL, and wrote thousands of invaluable lines of code. When the bank issued payments, it was his code, every day, helping them tally it all up correctly.
As the ‘70s and ’80s and ’90s wore on, he and his coder colleagues probably wrote tens of millions of lines of COBOL.
There’s one system he’s particularly proud of, a lightning-fast program that can process “anywhere between three and five million transactions a day. That’s my baby!”
He wrote his first bits of that program in 1988.
And the thing is — that code is still running today.
Thomas retired from the bank in 2007 at about 60, and when he left, the bank was still relying on the system, which by then was 20 years old and written when Thomas had a lot more hair and when Phil Collins’s “Groovy Kind of Love” was a chart-topping hit.
These days, the code is over three decades old. It’s still crunching millions of records a day.
Indeed, he believes most of the code he and his peers wrote back in the day is still running because the bank can’t function without it.
In fact, these days, when the phone rings in the house Thomas retired to — in a small town outside of Toronto — it will occasionally be someone from the bank.
Hey, they’ll say, can you, uh, help… update your code? Maybe add some new features to it? Because, as it turns out, the bank no longer employs anyone who understands COBOL as well as Thomas does, who can dive in and tweak it to perform a new task.
Nearly all the COBOL veterans, the punch-card jockeys who built the bank’s crucial systems way back when, who know COBOL inside and out — they’ve retired. They’ve left the building, just like Thomas.
And few young coders have any interest in learning a dusty, 50-year-old computer language. They’re much more excited by buzzier new fields, like Toronto’s booming artificial-intelligence scene. They’re learning fresh new coding languages.
So this large bank is still dependent on people like, Thomas, who is 73, to not only keep things running, but add new features and improvements.
Will his COBOL outlive him?
COBOL will probably never die. But that hasn’t stopped many coders from predicting, over and over again, that it is about to meet its doom. Indeed, the first warning that COBOL was dead came from before the language was even released.
In 1960, the committee that was devising COBOL was only one year into its work — but one member, RCA executive Howard Bromberg, was worried they were moving too slowly. If they didn’t get COBOL out faster, he reasoned, the business world would move on! Computer manufacturers would release their own unique languages, and business programming would descend into the land of Babel.
So Bromberg decided, “in a fit of pique,” to send a message to the head of the COBOL committee, Charlie Phillips, who worked for the Defense Department. Bromberg bought a tombstone, which was topped with a granite icon of a “sacrified lamb,” and had “COBOL” carved on it. (“What kind of a name is that?” the tombstone-maker asked him.)
Then Bromberg put the tombstone it in a crate and shipped it off to Phillips at the Pentagon.
“There were rumors all over the industry that COBOL was dying,” as Grace Hopper later recalled.
60 years later, the tombstone is sitting in the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and COBOL still runs the world.
Photo credit: Erol Ahmed on Unsplash