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IT skills from the last century still in high demand

New Jersey made headlines in 2020 when its governor pleaded for COBOL programmers to help rescue the state's unemployment claims processing computer system, which was bogged down under the burden of COVID-19-related traffic. The scene was reminiscent of the clamor for COBOL experts during the Y2K problem, but fewer people today are conversant in the 60-year-old language.

This instance highlights the current need for IT skills related to legacy technologies and products. While COBOL may be nearing geriatric status, job opportunities still abound. Indeed.com listed more than 1,300 job opportunities for COBOL programmers at the end of the first quarter of 2021. And job listings tell only part of the picture.

Demand for older IT skills is often satisfied by specialty development shops that rent out their services for spot maintenance and bug fixes, helping their clients avoid having to post full-time positions, said David Foote, co-founder and chief analyst at Foote Partners LLC. The organization is a research firm that gathers verified and validated skills and certifications data from approximately 3,800 employers in the U.S. and Canada each quarter.

The importance of legacy technologies

The global software developer shortage has been well documented, but the need for skills in legacy technologies that are sometimes arcane is particularly dire. Today's software engineers are attracted to languages such as Python and JavaScript, which simplify much of the underlying complexity. But those old code bases still need to be maintained, and that creates a buyers' market for people who can get their hands dirty, said Ehsan Foroughi, vice president of product at cybersecurity advisory firm Security Compass.

"The number of people who can code a driver of firmware or who can contribute to the inner workings of an operating system is diminishing, making them hard to find, expensive and in demand," he said.

While the number of postings can signal the need for particular skills, the number of open jobs may mask actual demand. Foote Partners instead tracks cash pay premiums above average base salary because the researchers believe pay more accurately reflects true demand.

Mainframes

Despite predictions by some pundits that the mainframe would be dead and buried 25 years ago, big iron not only lives but still crunches 90% of all credit card purchases and processes more daily transactions than Google search, according to the Share user group. That means demand for people who can support IBM 360-based systems software -- some of which is rooted in the 1960s -- is still booming.

These include Customer Information Control Systems (CICS), application servers for high-volume transaction processing that IBM released in 1969, with more than 800 jobs posted on Indeed.com; and Time Sharing Options (TSO), which allow many people to use a mainframe at the same time. It turns 50 this year and has more than 250 jobs posted on Indeed.com.

Some technologies that IBM invented for mainframe communications in the 1970s are still in widespread use.

"I can't believe there are still pay premiums for things like SNA and VTAM," Foote said, referring to systems network architecture and Virtual Telecommunications Access Method, respectively, which IBM developed in the 1970s to connect mainframes. "There are an estimated 20,000 SNA controllers still around that need maintenance and support."

Programming languages

The more popular a language is at its apex, the longer demand tends to linger. Take Fortran, a language widely used in technical computing that was released in 1957. Indeed.com lists more than 600 Fortran jobs.

"You still find Fortran used in very large-scale simulations of physical systems like stars and galaxies, as well as climate and groundwater models," said Dana Wyatt, a software development instructor at training firm Develop Intelligence. "The demand for these skills certainly outpaces supply."

C is a cross-platform language that was born in 1972. It was immensely popular in early days of Unix before being superseded by derivatives such as C++ and Java. Nevertheless, C is widely used in embedded programming such as home appliances, manufacturing and cars, said Pablo Listingart, founder of ComIT, a charity that places people in IT jobs.

Caroline Lee, co-founder of e-signature software maker CocoSign, estimated that 10% of older businesses still need C skills.

"Updating old technology can be a resource drain, and as more seasoned employees cycle out of the workforce, companies can find themselves lacking skills that are now viewed as outdated," Lee said.

Foote Partners found that C language skills are currently earning an average cash pay premium of 11% above average base pay. 

Some languages have staying power in specific industries. For example, MUMPS is still widely used in healthcare and Ada in the U.S. Department of Defense, where it was developed.

"Lots of people undersell the value of Ada knowledge, but defense and security will be with us for a long time," said Alexei Miller, managing director at software engineering firm DataArt. "It's a hidden gem."

Legacy platforms

Linux may have won the Unix wars, but there is still a lot of Unix out there. Indeed.com lists more than 1,100 jobs for Unix system administrators, 800 related to IBM's AIX Unix derivative and more than 1,700 positions on the Solaris platform that Sun Microsystems released in 1993. People with AIX or Solaris skills earn an average of a 9% premium above base pay, Foote Partners said.

Protocols to enable inter-program communication stick around because they become embedded in complex systems. The Component Object Model (COM) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) have both been superseded by more modern standards, but there is plenty of maintenance work to be done, said David Ciccarelli, CEO of Voices.com, a job search website for professional voice actors.

"A niche market still exists for COM developers as there are still systems that rely on COM in order to function," he said. "We also see demand for SOAP developers, as there are many older systems still using it."

Network platforms are also sticky because they support a host of other applications. Novell Netware lost out to the internet protocol in the late 1990s, but there were more than 140 Netware administrative and support jobs listed on Indeed.com at the time of this writing.

Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) was long ago eclipsed by faster networking technologies, but it's still a mainstay in niche industries such as broadcasting, said Ryan Shultz, enterprise architect with data center colocation provider Involta.

"In many studios across America, ISDN still is the preferred means of providing studio-to-studio connections," he said.

Among jobs that attracted bonus pay in Foote Partners' most recent survey were HCL (formerly Lotus), Notes/Domino, PowerBuilder and Baan, an early enterprise resource planning suite that had its best days in the 1990s.

Even products that aren't currently sold or supported can live on under a different label.

"A lot of old products get purchased and rolled into something new, but they're still around," Foote said.

Acquiring companies can prolong the life of aging code by absorbing it into new products that need to maintain backward compatibility.

What is the future of legacy technology?

There are several reasons why organizations continue to hang onto products and technologies long after their appeal has waned. Sometimes the software becomes so enmeshed with a process that it's nearly impossible to uncouple. That's the case with Mechanization of Contract Administration Services (MOCAS), a software program that the U. S. Department of Defense deployed in 1958 and which is still running strong. The DoD had planned to switch MOCAS off in 2000 but decided the code was too tightly intertwined with its contract management process and chose to modernize it instead.

And sometimes there are good business reasons to leave well enough alone, Foote said. A large chain retailer that Foote worked with recently was still running point-of-sale systems software developed in the early 1980s. That company was in the process of making some big investments in robotics and AI at the time and determined that its money was better spent there.

This was last updated in June 2021

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