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Bug Re-Boots Cobol Experts’ Fading Careers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cobol programmer Bruce Fassett’s retirement lasted all of one week.

He had toiled for 15 years in a nondescript cubicle in Phoenix, one of hundreds of programmers detailed to one of the least glamorous jobs in high technology: maintaining an ancient Cobol database that tracks commissions of Motorola’s chip salesmen.

When Motorola began cutting back its work force early this year, Fassett, 57, decided to take a voluntary buyout, hoping to test the rumors that Cobol programmers were in demand because of the year 2000 problem--a computer malfunction that will strike hardest on decades-old Cobol programs.

He didn’t have to wait long. Within a week, he was snatched up by data processing giant EDS, which gave him a considerable increase from his last $60,000 salary, allowed him to work a 4 1/2-day workweek and agreed to let him live anywhere in the United States near a major airport. During any out-of-town assignment, the company would provide him with free lawn care, pet care, covered airport parking, spousal flights and dry cleaning.

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Once considered the dinosaurs of the technological revolution, Cobol programmers have become a hot commodity precisely because they stayed in the high-tech Jurassic era.

Like priests who dutifully maintained dusty heaps of scrolls, they are being recalled from seclusion to recover the ancient knowledge of Cobol.

The new demand has prompted the Labor Department to ask the American Assn. of Retired Persons and the National Council of Senior Citizens to coax retired programmers back into the work force.

EDS, which hopes to hire 500 programmers this year, has promised a millennium bonus to any programmer who manages to stay with the company for just 16 more months until 2000. Up to 5% of the money EDS earns from its year 2000 repair projects will be split among those workers who stay.

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Contrary to common perceptions about how quickly technology changes, the demand for Cobol programmers--along with technicians fluent in other fading languages such as PL/1, ALGOL and APL--demonstrates how stubbornly old technology clings to life. Programs metastasize into the cracks of technological societies and morph into complex entities that are as difficult to remove as they are to understand in part or whole.

The demand is still somewhat selective. Some retired programmers who have been out of the business just a few years have found themselves facing a wall of resistance. But for others, this fleeting moment before 2000 is a last opportunity to grasp the stardom and riches that went to a younger generation of hotshots who created the high-profile programs of the personal computer.

“These guys are like diamonds now,” said Chris Thorne, a recruiter for Professional Access, a contract software engineering firm.

Still Used in Many Mainframe Programs

Cobol, for all the disparaging remarks about its antiquity, is still the most widely used language in the world of corporate information systems, accounting for as much as 60% of mainframe programs, according to Capers Jones, chief scientist of Artemis Management Systems, a software management company based in Burlington, Mass.

Jones estimates there are about 9.5 million Cobol applications in the world--all tended by 2.4 million Cobol software workers.

Cobol is almost exclusively a language of large mainframe computers dedicated to the obscure yet often gargantuan record-keeping tasks of modern business. It is a language that essentially does not exist on personal computers.

Cobol, for “common business-oriented language,” was created in 1960 from ideas developed by Grace Murray Hopper, remembered as the mother of computing and the discoverer of the first computer bug--an actual moth inside one of the first computers.

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What distinguishes the language is its use of plain-English terms--a radical advance on the first method of punching in commands coded in ones and zeros. With Cobol, programmers could use words--such as “add,” “subtract,” “compute,” “rounded,” “display” and “perform"--that would later be translated into ones and zeros.

“Cobol was a language that you didn’t have to be a scientist to use,” said Brian J. Boyle, editor for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer’s Year 2000 Focus Group. “Its greatest flaw and greatest strength is that it’s like English. It has periods. It has commas, just like Faulkner. The problem is that if you missed that period . . . oh boy.”

The language also has an admirable orderliness to it. For example, all variables in a program are defined in one specific area of the program, known as the data division. This might seem like a minor point, but in programs that can run into the millions of lines, being able to find a variable is critical.

While dozens of modern computer languages have similar attributes, the difference is that Cobol was the first to seize the business market, and it quickly entrenched itself as programs grew too complex to easily remove.

R. Wayne Horscroft learned Cobol in 1967, long before universities had computer science departments and before most people had even seen a computer. He had been production manager in a plastics factory in his native New Zealand and decided one day to answer an IBM advertisement that simply asked, “Do you have any interest in computers?”

He taught himself Cobol using the 3-foot stack of manuals that IBM shipped with its computer.

Creators Are Now Fixers

As the decades wore on, the job of Cobol programmers began to change from that of creator to maintainer--an almost janitorial process of repairing and revising what had already been written years before.

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The advent of the personal computer was the final blow to the priests of Cobol, shifting the attention and energy toward consumers and desktop applications.

“The really good ones got out and learned Java,” said Bruce Clark of Stabiliteam, a year 2000 consulting firm based in New York. “They managed their careers a little better.”

Now the year 2000 problem has returned the focus to Cobol programmers, many of whom helped create the problem in the first place by truncating four-digit years to two digits in an effort to conserve expensive memory and disk space.

Jones, of Artemis, said that even with the millions of Cobol workers, there is still a shortage of up to 400,000 people. It could even be as high as 750,000, since many companies also need to work on the complex conversion of computer programs to handle the new currency of the European Union, the euro.

The bidding war has created astronomic salaries for the most experienced programmers and benefits packages that have almost a Hollywood flavor.

EDS was able to lure Fassett into its fold by allowing him to live anywhere in the country as long as it’s near a major airport. He chose Sunnyvale, Calif., to be with a longtime girlfriend.

Clark, of Stabiliteam, said his company offers programmers monthly salary adjustments to prevent them from jumping at every offer that comes their way. So far, salaries have increased 30% to 40% every six months.

“The turnover rate is a threat to completing year 2000 projects,” Clark said.

Edward Arpin, a 49-year-old Cobol contractor, has worked at three different sites during the last 2 1/2 years.

Arpin doubled his annual salary to about $120,000 on his last move. The opportunities were so good that his wife, Leslie, who had left programming 14 years ago to raise their children, went back to work last year as a Cobol programmer.

“This is a once-in-a-career situation . . . ,” Arpin said. “This time there’s a built-in deadline. You have to do it.”

Short-Term Hard Labor

Programmers who are returning to the field are finding a morass more daunting, tedious and stressful than they could have imagined.

For three years, Horscroft headed the year 2000 project for Utah Power & Light, where he had worked for 16 years. The stress and hectic pace of the job was one of the reasons he decided to take early retirement in February.

“It’s extremely exhausting work,” said Horscroft, 55. “Why would I want to clean up someone else’s mess? I don’t want to travel or drag home work all the time.”

He stayed retired for about three months before deciding to go back to work.

Within days, he had an offer from one company for $60,000 a year, which he immediately turned down, saying he didn’t want to work on year 2000 anymore. By the time he got back to his home a few miles away, the company had called and increased the offer by $20,000 a year. He turned that down too.

That same day brought calls from four other companies.

He finally accepted a job at $55,000 a year overseeing software application development for Washington County in Oregon.

“I’m not going to let the year 2000 change my life,” Horscroft said. “I’ve got a nice house, I drive a Jag, I golf every week. What would more money do for me? There are going to be a lot of people who literally crash and burn over this year 2000.”

If nothing else, Horscroft figures he will at least have a steady job after the millennium problem fades into history.

“I think a lot of employers may feel vindictive about being held hostage through this,” he said. “By the middle of 2000, a lot of these programmers will be on the street.”

*

Times staff writer Ashley Dunn can be reached via e-mail at ashley.dunn@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Curing a Common Code

These lines of Cobol code were written to check that a date being entered was no more than a year in the past. Similar code fragments can be found in programs that track one-year subscriptions and memberships.

IF WS-JUL-YEAR LESS THAN WS-SYS-JUL-YEAR

SUBTRACT WS-JUL-YEAR FROM WS-SYS-JUL-YEAR GIVING WS-YR-DIFF

IF WS-YR-DIFF GREATER THAN 1

GO TO BLINK-EFF-DATE

ELSE

IF WS-JUL-DAY NOT GREATER THAN WS-SYS-JUL-DAY

MOVE NO TO BEGIN-DATE-SWITCH

GO TO BLINK-EFF-DATE

*

The first paragraph checks if a year being entered (the variable WS-JUL-YEAR) is within one of the current year (WS-SYS-JUL-YEAR).

The second paragraph checks if the full date being entered (WS-JUL-DAY) is less than 365 days in the past.

*

The use of two-digit years will cause the program to erroneously process calculations involving the year 2000. For example, if the current year is 2000 and the date being entered is 1998, the program will validate the entry even though it is more than two years in the past. The customer would be recorded as having a valid subscription or membership for an extra 98 years.


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