Women in IT – more, please - Thoughts from ‘Women of COBOL’

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I think that the lack of women in STEM represents an appalling waste of talent – why restrict your talent pool to about half of the population? I, for one, know that the first programmer was Ada Lovelace, and that Admiral Grace Hopper designed COBOL – to be accessed and used by ordinary people with a reading age above about 7. And I am old enough to remember when the majority of programmers were female, as were the best programmers in our cohort. What went wrong?

Well, the TechChannel series Women of COBOL has some clues. Well worth watching – not just because of the impressive and entertaining women, but because it explains what is good about COBOL and why you should speak about it in the present tense, not the past. Basically, COBOL is very much a BUSINESS-oriented language, which separates business logic from the computer environment, and the latest versions have Object-Oriented features. It is also about the most standard language there is – just about every computer has a COBOL compiler and if it has, your program will run. The Women of COBOL series is the brainchild of Misty Decker, product marketing director of Micro Focus (now OpenText), and is particularly relevant to Mainframe 3.0 modernisation.

So, why has COBOL fallen out of fashion? Perhaps because it embodies things like abstraction from technology, comprehensibility and standardisation, that men have been taught to despise. A slight over-statement perhaps, but here is a story. I once attended a training course with a mixed COBOL and C cohort, and it used a COBOL code snippet as an example of something or other. This snippet had a data structure that related fairly clearly to a business form, used commands like MOVE and read more or less like structured English. One of the C programmers on the course objected to its use, because (he said) he found it incomprehensible.

Have we perhaps evolved a species of bright male programmers who place technology above business and have an English reading age below 7? If so, let’s change direction quickly – and one of the best programmers I ever knew was female and had a degree in Latin (perhaps programming is more of a communications/language thing than a maths thing). The marching song of this new movement might come from Peggy Seager: “Gonna Be An Engineer”.

Yes, I do think that programming should be a kind of engineering; and I also think that COBOL can usually be modernised rather than replaced. Yes, there is fear of a “skills gap” – but COBOL is a very easy language to learn, and it encourages one to think about the business process rather than writing code. Which is no bad thing. And let’s make sure that all our jobs are accessible to women (as well as other disadvantaged groups). There is a skills shortage, and any form of waste really isn’t appropriate.