Translating legacy languages to aid digital transformation efforts

Posted 10 June 2022
Dave Harwood, Head of Technical Delivery, Consulting & Solutions, AKKA & Modis

Having emerged onto the technology scene over 60 years ago, Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) is regarded by many as an antiquated language. While it may well be one of the oldest programming languages in use, COBOL still underpins many of the finance and administrative systems used by established banks and government agencies today.

However, the majority of engineers who worked with COBOL in their early careers have since retired and new recruits are increasingly focused on up-and-coming technologies such as Java, Python and C#. In fact, research shows that the COBOL programmer community is shrinking faster than the available positions globally, as 10% retire each year, which translates into roughly 84,000 unfilled mainframe positions in 2020.

And yet, despite the rise of low and no-code application development in recent years, COBOL and its counterparts remain the backbone of the technology industry. So, how can organisations reap the benefits while keeping pace with competitors in the digital transformation stakes? The absorption of old school knowledge, coupled with the upskilling and reskilling route, is a good starting point while automation, through the adoption of AI, , is also showing its worth in this field.

Learning from the experts

According to IMB, the average COBOL programmer is 58 but 62% of developers are under 35 years old. Retiring programmers take with them all the institutional knowledge and subject matter expertise they have built up over decades. As a result of this, there have been instances where experts in their 50s and 60s have been brought out of retirement to interact with the systems they’re so familiar with. In tandem, a very limited number of universities now offer COBOL courses, leading to a waning supply of junior engineers who can carry these heritage applications forward.

Organisations must bridge this gap, ensuring that the skills are passed on to the next generation before they leave the profession. When the remaining COBOL programmers leave the office for the last time, businesses need to ensure that the knowledge transfer has already taken place.

Capitalising on the value of upskilling and reskilling

Legacy programmers can be costly. At AKKA & Modis, we recognise the dilemma that businesses face in this regard. While their skills may well be invaluable, funds are never limitless – and Modis Academy aims to provide a lower cost model by way of a solution, tailoring the service to the specific needs of each company.

We marry the knowledge that a legacy programmer might bring to the table with the expertise of a fully-fledged trainer, to adequately up or cross skill some of the more junior programmers at an organisation. This is delivered through a combination of online learning and on the job implementation. The desired end result is twofold – profitability and productivity. Businesses are equipped with employees who have the required skillset but at a more affordable rate. Meanwhile, employee engagement remains high as they feel valued with notable investment into their professional development, thus cementing talent retention in a fluctuating market.

Utilising translation tools

Some businesses are already making efforts to replace existing COBOL code with modern, easier to navigate languages. However, it is an extremely complex task and could take entire teams of engineers years to completely rebuild the core technology of a business.

Tools now exist that can translate COBOL code into languages like Java and Python, widening the talent pool for businesses to tap into. Nevertheless, with these translation tools, no testing takes place to ensure the effectiveness of the translation efforts and as such, risk adverse companies come up against a stumbling block.

AI-assistance to the rescue

AI technology has made great strides in recent years. Using AI, millions of lines of code can be quickly translated and tested unsupervised, reducing the risk of errors and bugs that may appear as a result of alteration to the source code. It can also be edited on a regular basis, evolving with the needs of the business. This ensures it can respond to any issue in real time, no matter the scale.

Companies with decades-old tech can now easily improve and build robust cross-platform software with little or no modifications to the code. By utilising AI, organisations can finally look to shed their legacy code, adapting to the rapid changes at play.

Moving forward

As the world rapidly becomes more digitalised and data-driven, the importance of programming is only set to increase. Programming skills are essential to the success of businesses, and developers are in high demand.

It’s vital that organisations utilise these emerging tools in order to adapt and maintain a competitive edge in the future, ensuring that applications don’t lag behind business needs.

At AKKA & Modis, we can help make this happen. We prepare your business for an evolving technological landscape in a world of complexity, where technology drives constant change.

Find out how our experts can support your organisation to make the most of the data opportunity here.