Ready for Their Close-up?

by Stevan Alburty

from Upside

1998 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




     The reclusive silent-movie star removes her sunglasses, revealing the once-famous eyes that have not lost their power to haunt.
     "Hey, you're Norma Desmond," says a young man. "You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."
     "I am big," she sniffs. "It's the pictures that got small."
     Anyone who'd like to see what it's been like to be a COBOL programmer these last few years might want to rent the 1950 classic film, Sunset Boulevard, with Gloria Swanson as an aging actress who sits in her Beverly Hills palazzo watching her old movies and waiting for her comeback. ("I hate that word," she snaps. "It's 'return!'")
     Java, HTML, GUI. Phooey. Real programmers didn't use to need interfaces, they had talk. (COBOL has long been known as one of the wordiest languages ever.) Despite its chattiness, the language was workmanlike and effective. But during the last decade or so, faced with competition from younger, sexier languages, COBOL became about as hip as Homer's hexameter verse. And all those pencil-protectors were looking more and more like little tombstones with pens.
     Then came Y2K.
     Despite technology's professed love for the future, nobody in the 60s or 70s apparently thought we'd ever have one. Now that the Year 2000 is almost here, the decision to save two bytes by typing PIC 9(2) instead of PIC 9(4) seems about as smart as Kevin Costner's decision to make The Postman. The media is convinced that at midnight on January 1, 2000, planes will fall out of the sky, nuclear power plants will melt down, and the government will become more dysfunctional than it already is.
      But wait a minute. Who's that coming from over-the-hill? (Literally.) Suddenly, there's a big, big demand for old COBOL programmers.
     John Gould, a recruiter for Interlink Technology Solutions in Daytona Beach, admits to having become the computer industry's equivalent of an ambulance chaser. "We'll go so far as to call the people who administer pension plans to try and get the names of programmers who have retired. We say we just want to call and congratulate them, but what we really want to do is hire them." His latest find? A 69-year-old, who Gould says is "bright, but no longer flexible, bodily-speaking."
     Having clear-cut the U.S. of available programmers, Gould has gone as far as Europe and Australia to find them and is currently trying to "woo a young lady from China." He has sometimes gotten himself a PIC-in-a-poke, grabbing coders from overseas sight unseen, discovering once they arrive that their personal habits make them more suitable for a cage than a cubicle. "Worst-case? We park them offsite and have them dial in."
     Eve Luppert, former human resources director for a Seattle software company, says COBOL programmers have difficulty fitting into today's more progressive development environment. "These are people who felt completely comfortable at a company with a sideburn length-limit. They've stopped being technology-friendly. They now see it as the enemy."
     In Sunset Boulevard, the cameras finally come for Norma Desmond, but only as the result of a tragedy. Come January 2nd, 2000, all those COBOL programmers may find themselves, like Norma, insisting sadly that some day they'll write another program, and another! After all, this is their life. It always will be. It's just them, and the mainframes, and those wonderful users out there in the dark.