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Women of COBOL Episode 1: Overturning Biases on COBOL and Women in Tech

Announcing the first episode in our TechChannel-hosted video series spotlighting women of COBOL, moderated by Misty Decker! This episode’s guests include:

  • Moderator: Misty Decker, product marketing director, Micro Focus
  • Maemalynn Meanor, senior PR manager, The Linux Foundation and Open Mainframe Project
  • Keelia Estrada Moeller, senior editor, TechChannel


Misty Decker: Hi and welcome to our very first episode of the Women of COBOL series where we ask two women to sit down with me for a chat; every episode is going to be about a different COBOL topic. So I’m Misty Decker. I’m product marketing director at Micro Focus and I’m a very active evangelist for all things mainframe modernization and COBOL. So this series is all about dispelling some of the myths around COBOL while simultaneously showcasing some of the amazing women from the COBOL community so it seemed very appropriate that our very first episode explore what my guests are doing to actively dispel the myths around COBOL. So let’s meet our guests. I hope you already know Keelia Estrada Moeller. She’s the senior editor of TechChannel where this series is hosted and she is also my coconspirator in this Women of COBOL adventure. TechChannel has been taking the lead in publishing factual and relevant information about COBOL. Thank you for joining Keelia.

Keelia Estrada Moeller: Happy to be here and so happy to be talking COBOL today.

Misty: It’s going to be fun. My second guest is Maemalynn Meanor and she’s in charge of all things: Public relations, marketing, social media, all of that at the Open Mainframe Project and in that role she’s been actively promoting several COBOL related open-source projects. So welcome Mae.

Maemalynn Meanor: Hi.

Misty: Thank you so much for joining. So let’s start by talking about this series in particular. Keelia, TechChannel has offered to be the home of this women of COBOL series. What are you hoping to accomplish?

Keelia: Yeah, so I think we’re serving many purposes with this Women of COBOL series. The first is obviously showcasing and amplifying the women behind COBOL who are doing a lot of work behind the scenes and sometimes not even behind the scenes. It’s just not being like recognized and seen and I want to provide a platform for all of that work to be acknowledged and spotlighted which fits into my larger goal as senior editor for TechChannel which is always to amplify the voices and the people behind the platform and the work that’s being done but not only the work, who is doing it and the depth and breadth of the people who are doing this important work so that’s kind of Goal #1. Goal #2 is obviously to bring awareness to COBOL as a very relevant, modern, current programming language that is indeed running the world right now. There are so many misconceptions that the three of us are very aware of that we need to work to overturn and I think this will be key in doing that. The third is our readers at TechChannel after filling out a readership survey toward the beginning of the year all expressed or shouldn’t say all, many of whom expressed a desire for more personalized video content that is still informational so this format will obviously speak to that need.

Misty: Oh yeah, I love it. I mean the whole idea where is to like have a conversation.

Keelia: Right.

Misty: And you know drink tea out of my giant mug and hang out virtually. I mean we could be doing this around you know a table in a coffee shop if we really would rather. So Mae, I’m going to give you a chance to introduce us to the Open Mainframe Project. You know it was all about speeding innovation in mainframes using the open-source community so tell us a little bit about how dispelling myths about COBOL and COBOL fits into that mission.

Mae: Yeah, so it’s actually the same you know the mess—the perception of mainframes and the perception of COBOL is very similar. I mean lots of folks feel as though you know they’re antiquated. No one uses it anymore and you know why are we still talking about it? It’s—your lives depend on it. They just don’t know that. They just don’t realize that and so Open Mainframe Project you know launched several things you know within the last two years for COBOL; you know we’ve got a COBOL working group that you know you’ll tell us a little bit more about and we have our COBOL training program that helps you know new developers, student and folks who just want to brush up on their COBOL skills go through it. It’s a very quick overview, really quick programming course that will help you and anyone with their COBOL resources and skills. We also—gosh when was it the governor, the New Jersey governor had—

Misty: April of 2020.

Keelia: Yeah.

Misty: I remember. It was my birthday and I spent my birthday tweeting out “COBOL isn’t dead.” “Please read a little bit before you write this article”. You know if you’re going to present yourself as a tech reporter, you might want to do five minutes of research before you say all of this stuff. It was a difficult time.

Keelia: It was bad.

Mae: But Open Mainframe, we immediately created a few resources, Q&A’s, forums so we actually created a forum where volunteers could sign up and help right so we do know—I mean we had a few hundred folks sign up within the first few days and they were helping businesses; they were helping government; they were getting hired by these governments to help with everything and so no, COBOL is not dead. People have that expertise and people need it.

Misty:  Yeah, I mean it was—I remember that how quickly the Open Mainframe Project just stepped up to that you know and Keelia, TechChannel just started cranking out the articles really, really fast so I want to give you guys a chance to talk about you worked together. You’re two separate organizations and I know this is not the first time you’ve met each other.

Keelia: No.

Misty: So talk a little bit about what you guys do together and how you support each other?

Keelia: Yeah, I mean I’ve known Maemalynn since we were—well we were still IBM Systems magazine prior to 2021 and you know whenever the Open Mainframe Project would expand or add projects or even dating back to the Zowe announcement, Maemalynn and John Mertic would let me know. We’d jump on a call or meet up at SHARE—remember when we could meet up at SHARE? We’ll be able to do that again soon next year I think but yeah, they’d keep me in the loop and I would write an article based off of an interview. We just kept that relationship going when we launched as TechChannel as an independent technology content organization because we had that great relationship in place already and that’s when I feel we shifted more toward COBOL focused coverage. I’m thinking back to when I think COBOL Check joined the Open Mainframe Project ecosystem and then into the COBOL working group’s great survey and those results, interpreting the results. You know I think early January we launched a COBOL focused e-book and one of the first lines in the eBook addresses what the governor said and the misinformation that kind of triggered the emergence of the COBOL working group’s larger mission and goal which is to overturn those perceptions so Maemalynn and I go way back and yeah, I’ll let you jump in to see if I missed anything there.

Mae: No, I mean—and it’s been great too. It’s cool to see how you know we started you know with IBM Systems magazine and it was this one thing and then it’s just grown like to this huge resource like TechChannel. It covers everything, not just COBOL but everything and you know that when there’s an article in TechChannel, it’s going to blow up. Whatever program, whatever project is featured in there, you know it’s going to get a lot of eyes and it’s been great to see you know that transition you know from the IBM Systems magazine to now TechChannel. You know Keelia and I also work on more than just the COBOL stuff. We’ve also done—we’ve done a lot of in diversity efforts which is another purpose of this you know series so I discovered when I first took the job at Micro Focus. I said all right let me search out more COBOL connections and I searched for COBOL on LinkedIn and after going through the names, I was like it’s like probably 50% are female and I just asked this little throwaway question in LinkedIn wow, I’m surprised at how many women of COBOL there are. Maybe we should you know do something for the women of COBOL and it went kind of crazy. I got more comments than I did on almost anything else I’ve done and there is a large number of women. They are very interested in connecting to each other and sharing you know their technical knowledge not just you know networking for fun but networking for knowledge and moving forward you know.

Keelia: Yeah and I feel like a lot of the work we’re doing from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective, Maemalynn and I, is taking the conversation beyond saying this is an important thing to address not only in this space but across you know different industries as well but what can we do to actually further these efforts and amplify these voices and showcase these people who are doing incredible things across the ecosystem. I’ve—I’m hoping that this video series is one of those action items.

Mae: I totally agree. I’m very encouraged with the way diversity, equity, inclusion has been accelerating it seems like in recent years and being more acted on rather than just talked about you know?

Keelia: Yeah.

Misty: Yeah. All right. So let’s talk about why do you—Keelia, why do you write so much about what people think is this old language, right? Is there really anything new to talk about because I mean the language doesn’t change that much? It has continued to evolve but it’s not like a massive—

Keelia: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it’s a great question so and to answer it I almost want to go back to like how long I’ve been working in this position specifically within the mainframe ecosystem so I came aboard as managing editor of IBM Systems magazine, IBM Z back in 2018 and come 2019 I published an article about COBOL and it was written by Reg Harbeck. I had heard of the programming language obviously but it was one of the first articles I had directly interfaced with that related to the programming language and its relevancy and all of the work that it was doing to keep the world’s operations running essentially much like the conversations about the mainframe and how the mainframe isn’t dead. It’s very much alive; in fact, what would you do without it, right but that particular article got I think three times more traffic on our website than a typical article does so I immediately said you know I have some—I’ve stumbled across something that’s hot and people want to learn about and people think is relevant. You know it was all over social media so I kind of latched onto that and I had a conversation with Reg to talk about why he wrote the article. He said well there are a lot of misconceptions about COBOL which obviously have only grown since that statement from the New Jersey governor and onward especially in the midst of the pandemic but I knew then that my readers wanted that informational content and they needed it to either spread to others who are misinformed or just get all over their social media channels to inform those around them and so that’s kind of the context behind why I’m keeping such a consistent drum beat with COBOL content. It consistently performs well if not you know succeeds over some other content types that are not as targeted toward COBOL. It consistently is like really engaging content on social media so you know as senior editor, it’s my job to keep up content that readers are wanting to engage with and it’s also a message I can personally get behind because you know it’s—these misconceptions are taken very personally by us and has now included me so yeah.

Mae: You’re on the bus now.

Keelia: Yeah, I’m on the bus now. Yes.

Misty: So I know right and Mae you know it really surprises me to think about how a Linux Foundation project has so many projects dedicated to COBOL. I mean you don’t have one project. I mean you’ve got the course; you’ve got the working group; you’ve got COBOL Check. There might be something else there too right? You’ve got a lot of stuff going on around COBOL. Why did—is there really that much work to be done in this space? I mean can’t—isn’t everything that’s ever needed to be invented in COBOL already invented?

Mae: That’s a good question.

Misty: You have a lot of volunteers?

Mae: Yeah so the answer—the short answer is no. There’s always more. You know the programming course, they—is just a year right? It launched in April 2020 and so it’s just a little over a year and they matured their project. They were the first project, Open Mainframe Project, to go through the graduation cycle and so they are a legit—they are a mature project and they have a vibrant passionate community of course of COBOL folks so you know we’ve got that. We’ve got the working group and so Keelia talked a little bit about Reg. So Reg is actually one of the founding members of the COBOL working group and Misty you’re part of that and so I wanted to ask you, put in the hot seat a little bit and to have you tell me about the working group and the work that you guys are doing.

Misty: Yeah. Well you know I had—when I was at IBM, I helped out a little bit with the COBOL course mostly by advertising it to students and when I came to Micro Focus they said oh you’ve volunteered with the Open Mainframe Project. You should join us on the COBOL working group so I was just like supposed to be like a little extra side member and in the way that I do I kind of ended up doing a lot more than I had originally planned and the group really was formed before I joined but to focus on this whole dispelling the myths and removing roadblocks to people understanding their COBOL that they already have and leveraging it in better and new ways. They really did start with—you mentioned it earlier Mae, the survey, doing a survey to try to understand the current state and where COBOL is and people’s plans for moving forward. No surprise to us in the COBOL community there is no less COBOL than the last time it was measured which is like ten years ago. You know it would be a mistake to assume that means the existing code hasn’t gone away because some of it has but there is also new code being written at the same time so it’s not the same code that was there ten years ago. It’s a rotation of some of it’s the same, some of it’s new you know and there’s that working group has really been—what I liked about it is they acknowledge the history of COBOL. You may not know this but COBOL was based on a language called FLOW-MATIC invented by Dr. Grace Hopper and so when they wanted to invent a programming language that would make applications portable so that they could run on any hardware, she came to the project—well actually they brought the project to her and asked for her leadership and help. She said the one thing I insist is that it’s written so that anybody can read it and that’s what FLOW-MATIC was a language that anybody could read so those are the two things that’s really kind of famous about COBOL is it was a language you didn’t have to be a programmer to understand. They wanted anybody in the business to be able to understand what it’s trying to do and the second thing was that it was the first language that let you run the same application on different hardware platforms. Today everybody thinks it’s exclusively a mainframe architecture thing but it’s not. It will run on just about any hardware architecture out there. You just have to have the right complier and run times for it so the COBOL working group—you know the Open Mainframe Project as a whole tends to really focus on anything that’s running on the mainframe but the COBOL working group is really focus on that—on that broader picture of COBOL on the mainframe and COBOL everywhere right because it’s the same source code. So you know I thought that was a really, really interesting part of the COBOL working group that I had never really had a chance to work on before. I’ve been a mainframer the whole time, my whole career. So did I answer your question?

Mae: Yeah.

Misty: All right, good. All right I can talk forever.

Mae: Let’s ask a new question and like you know have a little bit about this whole New Jersey governor who probably doesn’t even realize that he is now famous in the mainframe and COBOL communities. It’s like invoking his name over and over again so you know he made that famous statement that COBALT—that’s what he said instead of COBOL.

Keelia: COBALT.

Mae: He called it COBALT.

Misty: I thought that was the best part about it.

Keelia: So cringe.

Mae: He said COBALT is the reason they can’t pay unemployment claims is because they need more COBALT programmers and no surprise to us, COBOL actually wasn’t’ the program.  You know I’ve got some inside sources that said it was actually the edge of the application so the website wasn’t able to handle more than one process at a time and COBOL—the COBOL applications in the back, not the programming language itself but the applications would eventually become a bottleneck but it wasn’t even getting to the application so he was blaming something that wasn’t the cause of the program but I think he kind of did us a favor. What do you guys think? He really did bring some resources and some attention to something that is a legitimate issue right?

Keelia: Yeah, I mean for things to happen, there have to be people behind this collective mission and goal so I feel like we all rallied to be like no, this is not the case. This is all wrong. That’s one thing that I learned you know. I mention that COBOL focused eBook we did at the beginning of the year and we interviewed Derek Britton and Dr. Cameron Seay for that article. They both talked about that statement from the governor and how it directly related to the founding of the COBOL working group and its larger mission and goals. I’ll let Maemalynn speak to that a little bit more but this—I mean I can’t even explain how revolutionary the COBOL working group is for so many reasons. That was kind of like the momentum behind the emergence of that group.

Mae: Yeah. You know I’m actually going to tell you a secret.

Misty: In front of all of our viewers but that’s okay. All right. All right. Go ahead.

Mae: So I am a mainframer right? I’ve done a lot of PR, a lot of promotions, a lot of communications for mainframes on behalf of the mainframe projects. I did not know about COBOL so not until you know that story came out and all of a sudden we were getting emails and calls from IBM folks and just like you know passionate folks, Micro Focus. Everyone was like all up in arms and I had to be like okay, let me just figure out what this is about and I’ll get back to you. So then I started reading more about it and then you know obviously that article and I was like wait a second. This isn’t right and so when they said they wanted to create the working group and this was one of the main focuses was to hit back—not their words but really hit back and you know raise awareness, fix the gaps. You know it was—I was all for it because even you know and I’ve been working—I’ve been at The Linux Foundation for almost six years. I’ve been working on the Open Mainframe Project for almost five and so it’s a been awhile you know and for me, I just couldn’t believe that I had no idea what COBOL was so I could educate myself and then you know folks from the working group, folks from the programming course really helped me there. You know they helped show me what it was about, their passion, you know what the facts were and that’s what they want to do for everyone right and that’s what their mission is for you know the working group, the programming course, the forums, like that’s all they want to do is just hit back and show these folks like this is what COBOL really is.

Keelia: You know I’m glad you told that story Maemalynn because as someone who—you know I come from a English background so before I went into this role, I didn’t have any background in mainframe, COBOL, computer science like I went into the role because I’m really good at working with technical content and understanding the concepts from reading and editing and like doing interviews so when I first entered the role, I was like headfirst diving into learning about all this new technology. As I you know expanded my role in TechChannel, I’m now working across the mainframe and the Power Systems ecosystem so that’s a whole other conversation but the reason I’m now so invested in getting this information out there is because of the people that I’ve spoken to either inter—at conferences or through interviews or via email or social media. I love being a part of a community that is so passionate about what they’re talking about so I mean I feel that I’m now as personally invested as they are but I had to learn about these concepts and these programming languages and these technology trends from the experts in the field. My job is to write about them and get the word out and get their expertise out but I’m now invested in it too.

Misty: I love that you brought up this point Keelia because you know I see this with talking to the old timers. They’re like well nobody new is doing to want to come into the mainframe space because you know it’s not—it’s not cool. It’s not out of Silicon Valley and what I found when I worked with students was that they love—once they get exposed to it, they love coming into the mainframe space mostly because of the community because of the people and because of how supportive mainframers are of each other and how passionate they are about the technology. As you can imagine, you know poor you know New Jersey governor invokes like an evil curse in our communities and you know I’m sure the vast majority of people watching this are probably already mainframers. Hopefully we can you know get this series out to people that are not as familiar with mainframe and COBOL and just curious. I’m finding there’s more and more of them. They contact me on Twitter and I get a lot of private messages, direct messages on LinkedIn as well. I point them—people that are just curious. They see COBOL and my name on Twitter. I go by Darth Misty the Mainframe Sith.

Mae: Which is awesome by the way.

Keelia: Yeah.

Misty: Which is because of that incident. I took that picture of me dressed up in a black robe with a light saber on my birthday April of 2020 because a tech reporter accused me of being a bot and everything about IBM is Sith is what he said.

Keelia: Wow.

Misty: And I said oh yeah? That’s what you think. Then that’s what I’ll be and so I changed my name and I mean it as a joke and then it took off. It kind of gave me room to push a little harder so on the one year anniversary in April of 2021, I wrote him a thank you letter and I posted it publically and I tagged him in it.

Keelia: Did he respond?

Misty: Nope of course.

Keelia: Oh my gosh.

Misty: You were a jerk to me and I have really benefitted. Thank you.

Keelia: Yes!!

Misty: Yup.

Keelia: I love the name but I love it even more now that I know the back story.

Misty: I wrote an article about the back story of the name on LinkedIn and so if anybody is curious, you can check it out there. All right. I know we didn’t want to talk for too long although obviously we could forever so I want to—I want to ask this last question because it’s a really, really important one. For anyone listening today that wants to help in this mission of advocating for COBOL and countering some of these crazy misinformation right like my favorite is COBOL will destroy the world. My analogy is COBOL is a construction material so you can build a really beautiful house out of wood or you can build a really crappy house out of wood. It’s not the wood’s fault.

Keelia: Yeah.

Misty: So if the application is poorly performing, it’s not because of the programming language it was built out of. It is just a ridiculous, ridiculous statement on its face so for those people that get you know excited about this, what would you suggest they do? I’m sure there’s lots of opportunities through each of your organizations. What can they do to help counter this misinformation?

Keelia: Well I’ll jump in and I feel like you know what I’m going to say is if you want to get the word out, TechChannel is a great place to do that. I am a real person. I interface with every piece of content that is published on TechChannel. If you think I don’t read them, I read them. Just ask the writers when I send them back their edits but—not to say that I make drastic edits. I don’t. They’re smart ones but if you want to write, reach out to me on LinkedIn. Send me an email. I’ll write my email in the transcript below this video. I want to help you get your voice out there and your expertise out there so that’s the first thing I would put out there. The second is share informational articles or content like this video that you find and share it across your social networks. Social media is incredibly pervasive and powerful especially when it comes to overturning misinformation so share, share, share. The third is just you know if you come across someone who is looking for a change in careers and I say this because I spoke to someone who was looking for a new career in maybe computer science and he’s now taking mainframe courses over at University of St. Thomas.

Mae: Oh nice.

Keelia: You know talk to them about the power of the mainframe and the power of COBOL because I feel like once they dive into that world and learn more about it, they’ll see the endless opportunities that are present there.

Misty: Keelia, all three great points and I want to make sure I reiterate here. The first was anyone can be a published author. Keelia will take your drafts, help you make them better, and publish them for you so what an opportunity that is. The second one was share and even if you’re not on social media, I’m sure you know somebody that you can tell them at dinner parties you know, sit at the bar, hey got a beer? Read this article first and I’ll draw you beer. Okay and then the third one was encourage people to pursue mainframe and COBOL careers and I want to add to that one because whenever I talk to students, they’re afraid that a COBOL career is just going to be just maintaining somebody else’s code and there’s no innovation there. There is a tremendous opportunity for innovation. There is a massive backlog of modernization and updating that needs to happen to the existing COBOL applications so that they can interact and work with these new technologies and so these new people coming into the space that know a little bit of the new and know a little bit of the old are so, so important to bringing everything together so just make sure when you invite people to do a mainframe career, you paint it in that—in that regard because it’s a very exciting place to be for somebody that can bring both pieces. All right Mae, your turn. What’s your advice?

Mae: Two words: Get involved. So Open Mainframe Project is you know open-source. Our communities are open. You can connect with us on Slack. You can join the working group, join the programming course. You know we’re taking contributors and even if you’re not comfortable with contributing, listen in you know, ask questions. We’re here; we’re ready. Just come on in you know and connect with us.

Misty: I Like that so there’s a lot of different ways you can interact with the Open Mainframe Project right so I guess the first step is just attend a meeting or would you recommend they you know read through to get there first or how would you expect somebody to dip their toe in?

Mae: Everything is on the website so You can go to all of the projects. You can check out a quick overview of what they are and then all the links are below. There’s Slack channels; there are Git hubs. You can read all about it. You can immediately connect on Slack and just start asking questions. You can—you’ll have access to the calendar when their meetings are and the Zoom information and so it’s all there at your fingertips.

Misty: That is great. That is great and Mae because I know that people can be hesitant to join a new group especially when everybody is already so tight with each other I want to reiterate that the mainframe community at large is a very tight community. It’s basically a family. Any mainframe conference is like—it is. It’s like a family reunion.

Keelia: Yeah.

Misty: There’s more hugs at a mainframe conference than any other—even my own family functions. There’s more hugs at a mainframe conference than my own family functions so it can be a little bit intimidating I think to show up there but it’s a community that really wants to welcome you in and so once you make one friend, you’ll suddenly have 100. So I want to encourage anybody or give you the words to invite other people because you’re probably mainframers listening to this. As you invite people, you know make sure they know that it’s a welcoming club. They just have to stand up and say I’m interested in hanging out with you guys. It’s great. All right. What did we miss? Anything else that we should make sure everybody knows?

Keelia: You know I think we just about covered it.

Misty: I think the most important thing is to encourage them to look out for the second episode. So we have—we’re planning to do a series of these. We’ll see how frequently we can get them together based on available times. Mainframers are very busy these days, a lot of modernization to be done and it’s an exploding market to be honest but we do have a great lineup. We have a session that will be all about bringing young people into COBOL and teaching them COBOL so we’ll have a professor and a student in that conversation. We have a session on what it means to modernize these mainframe COBOL applications or just COBOL applications because they could be on other platforms. We have the author of Kill It With Fire which is my favorite book that I’ve been telling everyone about by Marianne Bellotti. Go buy it today. We also have the vice president of mainframe modernization at Micro Focus and so they’ve got together many, many years of experience so those will be the next two episodes so I hope everybody has enjoyed this. Is there a place for people to leave comments and feedback on what they liked Keelia?

Keelia: We don’t have a comment section but we will share each episode on social media so if you want to see more topic, either leave a comment or send one of the three of us a message. You know we will take your feedback into consideration because community feedback is where the best ideas some from.

Misty: Exactly. Exactly so I’m keeping a list. People have been recommending some amazing women of COBOL so I’m keeping a list of names and I’m keeping a list of topics. The delicate balance for me is to find two women who will have a conversation on the same topic so if you have two women to suggest along with a topic and it’s already made for me, I’ll be okay with that. All right so that’s it for our first episode. I’m very excited. Thank you so much for joining me today and I hope to see everybody at the next one.

Keelia: Yes, thank you.

Mae: Thanks for having us.