Thursday, June 12, 2008


COBOL causes brain damage

Has anyone ever thought about how COBOL was created or even considered that it is the Walmart language of IT...

Back in the summer of '58, the US government (hint, this might be the first clue that there is a problem), emboldened by its continuing success on the world stage, decided to define a computer language. It gathered all the luminaries that Captain GraceHopper could locate and invited all the computer companies to a massive confab in Washington DC. Their plan was straightforward: the computer industry would standardize on one language. All the greatest language theorists were gathered into one group that would produce a specification for this ultimate language within three years.

As an afterthought, a bunch of file clerks and administrative assistants were tasked to survey then-current languages in order to produce a bureaucratic structure for managing the language long term. (clue number two, doesn't this feel like enterprisey architecture). The language definition group were a bunch of long-hairs who would never be able to move quickly enough to do anything that had quality and speed to market at the same time.

These guys might not have understood languages, but they knew paperwork, deadlines, and politics. They were given six months. They took just four and so COBOL-59 was born. The government immediately announced it would accept no other language in its contracts (regardless of whether something else would have been better, faster or cheaper). The industry instead of collaborating, had this most wonderful early CMMi like mindset shoved down their throat where they presented a tombstone (Powerpoint didn't exist back then) and then immediately disbanded.

In order to give the Federal government some credit, we have to acknowledge that there were many languages even worse than COBOL, where RPG and Smalltalk come to mind. Anyway, if you fast forward to the year 2008 imagine being in a large enterprise or even in remote parts of India where you have been asked to maintain a 30 year old COBOL application while the rest of the world discovers the possibilities of the Internet. If you fit this demographic, you should slap yourself silly for not just bad career planning, but for falling asleep at the wheel.

One may conclude that COBOL doesn't cause brain damage but that brain damage did cause COBOL...

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