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Programming Languages: COBOL Means Business

August 04, 2014

In my previous post, I wrote that COBOL has grown and thrived for 50 years. I also wrote that in the past, COBOL did not get significant attention in universities because the business nature of COBOL did not match the math and science focus of computer science departments. Nevertheless, COBOL is a programming language with powerful capabilities and straightforward effectiveness.

What does this mean? COBOL is a language that was designed to meet business needs by making use of the automation supplied through computer programs and systems. It’s so useful that you can take motivated people with no computer training and turn them into COBOL programmers. After they become proficient at COBOL they can move into other areas of systems analysis by designing application systems, writing test cases and user documentation, etc.

Why can you do this with COBOL? COBOL requires that you describe all the data with which you plan to work. This is straightforward. If you are working with data from a file, you lay out the fields in the record in the order that they appear in the actual data and you can work with them in the logic portion of the program. For other data like report layouts or work data fields, you do the same—lay out the fields. This data description, when done well, is elegant and descriptive. Of course, when done thoughtlessly, it can create confusion for programmers that come along later to maintain the program.

Once the data to be used is defined, you supply the statement that work with the data. This too is straightforward. If you want to compute the sum of two data items, you use the COBOL ADD statement. If you want to create a report, you move data elements to the report layout fields then WRITE the report to the report file that will be printed. Basically, that is it—define the data then work with it using the statements that are supplied with the language.

I know from experience that you can train regular people to become COBOL programmers because that is exactly what happened to me in 1978. I know you can teach regular business people to write COBOL because I taught hundreds of business students in the 1980s to write basic COBOL programs. The university where I worked had the idea that future business leaders should have the experience of writing business programs so they would have more that a casual understanding of IT and programming. We spend many hours together debugging programs, so I know that they found it a humbling but useful experience.

The COBOL Programming Guide is a good place to look to get the main idea about COBOL or to get a refresher. It is an easy to read and well-organized resource for COBOL.

Posted August 04, 2014 | Permalink

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