COBOL Is for Anyone: Transitioning to IT From Alternate Career Paths
In Episode 5 of our 'Women of COBOL' series, two young programmers explain the appeal of transitioning to a COBOL career and share what they've learned so far
Maria Skyttberg: Thank you.
Misty: Thank you. Great. So we’ve got to start this conversation with the obvious place to start, and that is how in the world did you find a job in COBOL? Where did you come from and how did you find a job in of all things, COBOL?
Maria: Go ahead.
Jennifer Osborne: I don’t know. I’m trying to think. How did this happen? Yeah so, I finished my degree in events management of all things and I left uni and I was like you know, I don’t really know what to do. I was in that kind of weird stage where like the whole world is ahead of you, so you’re like, what to do? So then I found actually Micro Focus and then I applied through a more general sales program, and then they gave me, I think it was eight weeks of training. So we were taken through each of the different areas of the business, because there are several different portfolios, and then one of the portfolios that really resonated with me was COBOL and the legacy systems. I just found that so fascinating that I just wanted to learn more and more and more. Then you know I got speaking to people in the teams, more of the specialists, and then kind of one thing led to another, and here I am specializing in the subject.
Misty: It’s such an interesting story from event management to COBOL. Maria, tell us your story.
Maria: Actually, my story begins in preschool. That’s where my career started, and then I got a job in payroll and from there I got a chance to go to CGI. My previous manager at my old job recommended me to CGI because my current manager had a theory that we would like to have some person that knows the main knowledge rather than the programming knowledge, and I proved that theory to be great.
Misty: Wow so you started as a preschool teacher?
Misty: And then you moved into payroll and payroll processing I’m assuming, right?
Maria: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.
Misty: And then your manager at the payroll company says CGI is looking for people with an understanding of the domain and they want to teach you programming.
Maria: Yes, correct.
Misty: Wow. So the perfect job for you I guess is teaching people how to program payroll systems.
Maria: In the future.
Misty: Maybe that’s for going in the future, right?
Maria: Right. In the future. Not now [laughs].
Misty: These things have a tendency to circle back around, speaking as somebody who started as an actress and is now doing webinars on the internet. So that’s really, really interesting, how you came from completely different paths from what people think of COBOL programmers need to go to college with a programming degree. So how was it stepping into a programming job without a programming background? Because you both have that in common.
Maria: Yeah, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just went in with my head first. The one thing I did was I searched for COBOL on YouTube. That was my only preference actually.
Misty: Did you do that before or after accepting the job?
Maria: In the meantime, when I—what do you say in—?
Misty: You had the job but you hadn’t started yet.
Maria: Yeah, you could say that.
Misty: Yeah okay, okay. You were like okay, I’m going to do this. Maybe I should know a little something about what I just signed myself up to do.
Jen: What am I getting myself into?
Maria: Exactly. They gave me much, actually. I got the concept of COBOL, but nothing I can use when I started, so it was a whole new field.
Jen: Because that’s the thing. You don’t just learn COBOL. You learn what is a file system, what is a database, what is you know, and then it’s like so many different things that relate to it. So then that’s where I really struggled with it first because I was like oh, it’s just a programming language. I mean very naïve. Then you know there’s just so much and IT loves an acronym, so once you find something then you have to be like okay, so what does this mean? Then you find out what that means and you’re like oh wait, but that relates to something else that I don’t know. Then it’s just so many different layers.
Maria: It is. It definitely is. In my case, I had to learn a totally new payroll system, but not like the way you see it, but in the batch. You just see code. So that and I’m still learning, using it everyday, but it’s really, really, really fun.
Misty: It’s really fun. All right, I have to ask about that. So you both seem to be really enjoying your jobs. What is it that’s fun about it?
Jen: I think it’s just so satisfying when you try and maybe do something. In my case maybe I’m working with a customer, trying to get something to work on their system, and then it breaks, because of course it breaks. Then when you go in and then maybe like you try fixing this thing and then it still breaks, but you get a different error message. And then you go in and then finally when it actually works, it’s just such a rewarding feeling. It’s like a jigsaw, and then when you finally put that final piece in, it’s like, yes.
Maria: Yeah, I agree. I totally agree, but for me it’s like also when you have something you want to compute, you know the rules and the laws of Swedish payroll, and you just get it correct. Yeah, it’s a satisfying feeling really and I love debugging. I love, love, love debugging.
Jen: What do you love about debugging?
Maria: It is just basically I can go through a bunch of programs that depend on each other to see the whole picture, and when you find that space where okay, this is where it’s starting to go wrong, and then you can fix it. Then you can see oh yeah, now it’s great. That’s why I love debugging, mostly.
Misty: It’s like a puzzle, but what you’re pursuing is hiding from you and you have to find that trail, right?
Misty: That is really cool. So you guys love your jobs and you came to it with no COBOL background. Let’s talk a little bit about what each of your respective organizations did to get you on board and teach you what you needed to know because Jen, you did say that it’s more than just the programming language itself. So why don’t you start with what Micro Focus did to bring you on board?
Jen: So, as I said, I came in through a graduate program, a very general one, and then I decided to specialize. I was immediately paired up with a mentor and then he kind of took me under his wing, so to speak. I shadowed a lot of his customer calls. We worked on projects together. I would start off like, proofreading some documents and then I just like, worked up. So then I’d maybe do maybe like a five-minute demo here, and then the next week maybe like a ten-minute demo, and then just like build its way up. So just the natural progression. What I found with the COBOL community is that everyone’s extremely supportive. They’re all so excited to see new people in COBOL, and especially women in COBOL—everyone’s really receptive to that. So I’ve found anytime I’ve reached out to anyone, they’ve been more than willing to take the time out to help me explain. I always say there’s no such thing as a casual COBOL fan. People either love it or they hate it [laughs], so when they love it, then they just want everyone to know everything about it.
Misty: And Maria?
Maria: Yeah well, I have two mentors you can say, one which I had daily meetings with everyday and have had since I started two years ago. They both have a ton of experience—and I mean a ton, like 50-plus years altogether—all in the payroll system. So I couldn’t have better mentors, actually. In the beginning I was like it had so many things—talking, debugging, asking questions—now to more like I’ve got my own errands, cases. And now it’s more like I do it on my own and maybe, maybe I might call to them, like can you see if I have done something wrong. They are always there as a team chat away or a meeting away, so it’s pretty cool. The sad thing is they are close in retirement—
Misty: Which is probably why they hired you, huh?
Misty: These people are retiring. We need somebody to learn everything they can from them before they go.
Maria: Yup. Actually, the one person I meet with everyday is 75 years old—
Maria: Yeah, and works like 12 hours a week, only to help me. So I’m very grateful for that.
Misty: Wow. Wow. That is a lifetime of experience you can tap into there. So it sounds like at Micro Focus, Jen was hired as part of a broader program, and it had some structure to it. It sounds like you were hired into a specific team and that team is more informal the way they’re teaching you. It’s one on one as opposed to a this, then this, then this.
Maria: Yes, it’s more like okay now, we have this case. What can we learn about this? So it’s more floating, actually on takeoff and yeah, it’s a small group. I think we are five, six people, and I’m the youngest.
Misty: And hopefully not the last one to be joining the group.
Misty: A decade ago we launched a storytelling activity, a campaign which the point of it—and maybe this is something that you’re getting informally, Maria—but we had tried to do it formally for an organization that had a lot of people close to retirement. We just asked them to tell stories, and then what can we learn from those stories? So tell us about the worst customer issue you ever had. Tell us about the biggest mistake you ever made. Tell us about the thing you’re the most proud of. Those stories are a very easy way to get people to talk and that’s really where the wealth of discovery is in the those events that are so memorable. Somebody would tell you the story if you’re sitting down over a beer. Yeah, let me tell you about this time. Those are the good ones. Those are the good ones.
Maria: Yup, and here’s a cat.
Misty: There’s a cat. Hello. What the cat’s name?
Maria: This is Sikeston.
Misty: Oh lovely. Hi, Sikeston. Say, "I’m learning COBOL, too," Sikeston.
Maria: He is, actually. He is with me every day.
Jen: Misty what do you think your Cats of COBOL webinar series?
Misty: Nice. Oh, I think we’re launching that—we’re definitely launching that one [laughs]. All right, so let’s talk about storytelling since we’re on that. Any crazy stories or surprising stories from your first two years in COBOL? Tell us a story. No pressure [laughs]. Yeah, I didn’t prep you guys on this one because it just kind of happened. It just came up. Any stories to tell?
Maria: That’s a hard one.
Jen: That is a hard one.
Misty: There’s this time when I thought I knew what I was doing and I found out I didn’t? Everybody has one of those.
Maria: Well, I think I’m still in like the honeymoon phase, so ask me in a year maybe.
Misty: That’s pretty good: two years honeymoon, you know.
Misty: Isn’t one year the average for a honeymoon? The honeymoon phase is one year. After that you start saying, why did you leave your socks on the floor? Before that, it’s cute. Oh, he left his socks on the floor. After a year, why are you leaving your socks on the floor?
Jen: I will say—we’ve actually just last week we hired six new graduates and I’ve been kind of looking after them. They are keeping me on my toes because they ask me things that I think I know, and then it’s completely different knowing something and being able to explain it to someone else. I found it extremely interesting, shall we say? There’s nowhere to hide.
Misty: There’s nowhere to hide. They do say the best way to learn something is to have to teach it. I want to pull out something that you said earlier, Maria, and I didn’t point it out before but I should have. You said that your training program had you do a demo, and then you did a little something, and then you had to demonstrate. Then you did something and it was a little longer, right?
Jen: Yeah, that was me. Yeah.
Misty: Oh, that was you, Jen? So I really like that because it forces you to learn it, because you have to stand up and explain it, right?
Jen: Yeah, yeah, very much—especially when there’s a spotlight on you and even if you know that the other people are going to be supportive, you still want to do yourself proud, don’t you? So you think almost maybe you put a little more pressure on yourself in a good way, because then it does kind of encourage you to go maybe the extra mile—or, oh maybe I should research this just in case they ask me a question on this.
Misty: Yeah. I think that it really does make a big difference. I’ve noticed even in my children’s schooling that they are incorporating presentations like that more and more into the education. But Maria, you have the other side of that, in that you have real product deliverables that you have to do, right? You’re making actual updates to the real production—
Misty: And so there’s certainly a lot of learning involved there. How do they pick which new enhancements or defects that you work on vs. them?
Maria: In the start, it was my previous manager who works as a—she tests my code to see if it works. She knows me, so it was more like okay, these cases are appropriate for me to try on, and she gave me a really, really hard one my first case. I haven’t solved it yet.
Misty: Oh wow.
Maria: Yup, done a lot of things in between, but that case, it’s not complete. So I said thank you.
Misty: It’s your Mount Everest.
Maria: Yeah, so since then it has just been rolling because I have shown what I am capable of, and then just taking more and more complicated cases. Of course it’s based on which is more prioritized.... It depends, but it’s mostly taxes, absence, vacations, yup.
Misty: That’s really great. I love how you have—you know she had high confidence and she let you start right from the beginning with a big problem. That’s quite the story arc, talking about storytelling, having that one case that you’re working on for multiple years. When you finally solve it, you let us know and we’ll throw a party for you [laughs].
Misty: We’ll have around the world because we’re in all different time zones here, right? So we’ll just, all around the world, we’ll do 24 hours of celebrating Maria’s win.
Maria: Sounds great. Sounds good.
Misty: Yup, so no pressure. Get it solved soon.
Jen: Yeah, I want a party.
Misty: I want a party.
Misty: All right so let’s talk about the things you liked about your first two years, and because we have to say nothing is perfect, what are the things you haven’t really liked about your first two years?
Misty: Liar. There’s got to be something. It would be great if they just paid me more. At the very least you could say that.
Maria: Yeah, yeah. That’s a good thing.
Misty: We’ll be sure to send this to your manager.
Jen: I think—so mine kind of pretty much the same thing. I like the fact that there’s always something new to learn, but I also hate the fact that there’s always something new to learn, because you think you’re getting so far with it and then it throws you a curve ball. Then you feel like oh, am I back at square one? You’re not back in square one, but you just feel like, you know, I put all this effort in and I don’t think or I’m not as far as I thought I was. But then I think you need that though, don’t you? Because if everything was just on an uphill all the time, then it’s not as satisfying. It’s like I was saying earlier, like when you try something and it breaks and then you don’t get the satisfying feeling when you fix it if it never broke in the first place. I’m getting a little philosophical; however, that’s kind of my answer.
Misty: I was going to get philosophical too, because what you’re experiencing is there’s this psychological thing of—it’s this quadrant of what you know and what you think you know. You don’t know anything and you don’t think you know anything, right? That’s where you started, but then you think you know a lot but you only know a little bit. You don’t actually know a lot. That’s where you move to next, and then when you become an expert is when you know a lot, but you know how much you don’t know. That’s where you’re moving to... So that’s a good thing. Maria, what is it that’s been great and what is it that’s been maybe not so great?
Maria: I don’t know. I think everything is so good now. Of course I have bad days as well, struggling you know, two years with one case, but I tend to focus on the good things. I might say the most challenging may have been to start in the middle of a pandemic, working from home, not having colleagues around you can turn over and ask a question. So it’s been especially in that way but also it been—I’ve got the chance to take it at my pace at home, not stressed, so even that is not a bad thing for me. I don’t know. Good things. I’m learning every day. That’s a good thing. Something new. It’s fun to wake up in the morning, turn on the computer and just get on with it. Or you know when you get this light bulb when you are in the shower. Oh yeah, that’s the thing. I will try that. I will try that or when you go to sleep, ah okay I need to remember this tomorrow. When you’re out for a walk or go to the store and it’s with you in a way, but it’s not in a way that makes you like oh, I’m thinking of work everything all the time. It’s more of a—
Misty: It’s not stressful. It’s more interesting.
Maria: Exactly, exactly. It’s more like oh, my brain works this way. Okay, I’m in this coding debugging mode and just yeah. Also, what I like about these two years, I have found some more between personal life/work life more balancing life, and feel like I can take a walk, a pause and my work is not—well it doesn’t affect the work in a bad way.
Misty: Yeah, which must be better than preschool teacher.
Maria: Oh yeah. Oh yeah [laughs].
Jen: No question.
Misty: I can’t even imagine. It’s—yeah.
Maria: Not for me you could say, not my type.
Misty: I love my kids. I’m not sure about other people’s kids, especially when they’re little and they’re in large groups because they can gang up on you.
Maria: They can.
Misty: And do. So let’s talk about your advice for other women through your story. If you could go back to the interview process or to searching for a job or your on-boarding, any of those things in the last few years, is there anything you would have done differently? Is there anything you would recommend your organization/your employer would do differently?
Jen: I don’t know. I would say one piece of advice is if you can, try and find a female mentor, because—I mean tech is a very male-dominated industry. COBOL is a very, very male-dominated industry, so it took me awhile to find a lot of good female mentors, and even if they’re not necessarily in COBOL, even if they’re technical people or even just in the organization. Because sometimes it’s just nice to have a bit of a sanity check, a reality check sometimes. So that’s one piece of advice if you can.
Misty: I love that. You don’t need to have one mentor, right? You can have multiple mentors with different reasons of why you picked them.
Maria: I never thought of that, female mentor. Maybe I should be one.
Jen: Oh yeah.
Misty: Maybe you should.
Maria: Yeah, in the future.
Misty: There’s a lot that you get out of being a mentor. I find that I grow from every single one of my mentees, and not only that, they inspire me and they make me want to be better.
Maria: That’s cool.
Misty: It is cool.
Maria: My advice would be that my employee would have hired me before, or someone else, just because my colleagues are close to retirement and you can’t replace 50 plus years in like, overnight or a couple of years.
Misty: That is so important. It bears repeating because we see this over and over again when I talk to organizations. They say we know we have to address the problem and you know, but we have other more important things we have to do right now. Well you’re not valuing the risk to your organization that you are creating today by not addressing a problem that’s going to happen in the future. So and they have a hard time because they see it as a future problem that can be addressed in the future.
Misty: Right? They don’t see it as a today risk.
Misty: So hopefully some people are listening to this episode here and are taking that lesson away. You need to address that problem now.
Maria: Yes, before it’s too late.
Jen: Yeah, very much. Yeah, and too late doesn’t mean when the people have already retired. You know too late can mean—
Jen: Now, yeah.
Misty: That’s great. So let’s start with or go back to the advice for young women. Hopefully we’ve got some young women listening to us right now and are inspired by your stories that you didn’t know anything about programming and then you stepped in and you found this amazing career that really has you excited. You know who would have thunk that somebody in event management and somebody as a preschool teacher would find such a rewarding career—because those both sound like a lot of more fun than programming—and yet here you are, obviously excited and inspired and just having a ton of fun with code, right? So I hope that’s resonating and getting women inspired. So for those women that are inspired, what are your tips? How do they do this themselves?
Jen: I think reaching out to people: LinkedIn, social media, like there’s so many people who are to—you know, there’s a Facebook group. There are so many avenues that I can think of to just get involved, speak to people. As I said before, the COBOL community is so welcoming and so like, they just really want to teach everyone. They love COBOL so much and they just want everyone else to love it as much as they do. And yet I think just leveraging at work—that’s actually such a corporate way of saying it but yeah—essentially reach out to people. And also YouTube, just Google, like those kinds of things—really, really useful. That’s how I taught myself a lot of COBOL.
Maria: Yeah, and I hope the companies would like to hire people with other types of knowledge—not only programming—to get more diversity. So that’s my hope.
Misty: I think that’s an excellent point, Maria, and it bears repeating that you two are a great example of taking somebody who’s just plain really smart, and giving them the tools and the opportunity to learn. You don’t have to get a four-year degree in programming in order to be a programmer, especially in COBOL. You know Grace Hopper absolutely insisted that COBOL be accessible to anyone, not just people with specific skills, so this is a fabulous career for somebody that’s interested in programming. And you know, some of those other languages can be a little harder to learn than COBOL. So, all right. As I’m sitting here I realize I’m talking to two young women, and I have over 30 years of experience. Do you have any questions that you’d like to ask the old lady on the call [laughs]? I’m not kidding. Ask me anything.
Jen: Well, how do you see—so COBOL has had, let’s say, a bit of a rough reputation for the last 30-40, however many years.
Misty: Since the day it was invented, yeah.
Jen: Since the day it was invented. So how do you see the future of COBOL and you know, please say yes, but is it worth a younger person getting into COBOL?
Misty: Okay, we’ll start with that. It is definitely worth it, because COBOL is still a very, very large part—some estimates are 40% of all production code in the world is COBOL. A recent survey that Vanson Bourne did found 800 billion lines of COBOL in production. So you’re going to encounter it, first of all. But second of all, the most valuable people to any organization are the ones that can bridge the old and the new. Take advantage of what’s already there and bring it forward into the future, and it’s those people that can—when you know one thing really, really, really well and you’re just isolated to that one thing, you’re not providing broader value to the organization. For that really exciting, growth-oriented career, it's knowing a little bit of everything. So whether you’re going to go and get a job that’s labeled as a COBOL job, I think all young people should learn COBOL because they’re going to encounter it, and it makes them more valuable to their organization. So that’s the answer to that question. As far as dispelling the myths, that’s the whole thing that the Open Mainframe Project’s COBOL working group is trying to address. [[ LINK: https://www.openmainframeproject.org/all-projects/cobol-working-group ]] It’s a complex issue. There’s a whole lot of history and unconscious bias going on. COBOL—I think of it as the people’s programming language. It was created specifically for the regular, average person in a business to be able to program business logic. So from a hierarchy point of view, that doesn’t sound as fancy or as important as the higher languages coming out of the university. So there’s some bias going on there: I’m too good for COBOL. But really let’s think about it: It’s just a programming language. The really good people are the people that make applications that last, that matter. It doesn’t matter what programming language you’re writing it in, it’s what you do with it that matters. And that’s where we’re trying to change the conversation. So, there’s that answer. Maria, did you have a question for the old lady in the room?
Maria: I’m this type of person that tomorrow when I wake up, then I would have come up with a question.
Misty: No worries. I’m here all week, as they say on the stage. No, I’m always happy to answer questions. The best way for people to reach out to me is on Twitter. I am Darth Misty the Mainframe Sith, because I go out and I correct stupid tech reporters that say things like COBOL is old and everybody needs to get rid of all of their COBOL—and there is my Twitter handle, [[ LINK: https://twitter.com/MistyMVD ]] because our producer is super-fast. Thank you, Marcella. And with that, I think that that’s all of our time today. I had a ton of fun. I think we should have not only a COBOL Cats series, but we should launch it together in one of our respective cities over a beer, because we have too much fun together.
Jen: And we should all make sure we bring—I can’t provide a cat, but I can provide cute dog pictures if that would help.
Misty: Oh yes.
Maria: I have two cats, so I can bring two.
Jen: I’ll borrow one and then—
Maria: Yeah, you can borrow [laughs].
Misty: Nice. Nice. So, thank you both of you for joining me today. I had a ton of fun. I learned a lot. I love your energy and excitement. For people with two years of experience, I mean that’s long enough to be past the honeymoon phase, and to see you still both so energized and excited is really encouraging to an old lady like me, and I’m sure to all of our COBOL audience as well. Great tips. I hope that we get more people like you into our industry because we need you. You are amazing. Thank you for joining us.
Jen: Thank you for having me.
Maria: Thank you.
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