The ‘Obsolete’ Job Skill in High Demand

Banks and other firms are scrambling to find agile employees to learn a 60-year-old computer programming language.

In today’s world, it’s hard to imagine how a 6-year-old piece of technology would be relevant, let alone a 60-year-old one. But it’s a reality for banking institutions across the world, and many organizations are finding it tough to find talent skilled in a tech created before most people had color televisions.

For decades, banks have been relying on the Common Business-Oriented Language—known commonly as COBOL—to power millions of transactions and serve as the foundation for mainframe computers. But while the language, which first was developed in 1959, still does the job, it’s has been falling out of favor with programmers for decades, so today’s programmers don’t generally learn it. Now, financial firms are facing a significant talent shortage because the generation of programmers who know COBOL are retiring without viable replacements. Just swapping out COBOL is not a viable option for many organizations, either; a changeover would cost a significant amount of money and any problems with the switch could leave customers without access to their accounts.

The COBOL quandary offers a lesson in agility, experts say. If business leaders don’t look over the horizon and stretch their organizations to innovate, they run the risk of being left behind. “They need to weigh the risks and outcomes of doing nothing versus doing something, and play out that risk over several years to determine the best course of action,” says Sam Wallace, Korn Ferry’s Technology practice market leader in North America

Of course, doing “something” doesn’t have to mean doing “everything.” Wallace says modern technology can increasingly wrap around existing technology to improve it, especially as AI, social media, and other technologies have advanced. “Companies have to think about how progressive technology can integrate into what’s existing without taking out a whole foundation,” she says. “To take out a whole foundation is problematic to say the least.”

Beyond COBOL, organizations need their business model and culture to align with the technology aspects of the business (and vice versa). “Do we have an operating model embedded in our business to move as quickly as we can? Is there support, from the board and CEO on down, to promote the technology function as a strategic capability? I think organizations can do a better job of continually asking these questions,” says Craig Stephenson, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and managing director of the firm’s North America CIO/CTO practice.

Having that support is especially important now that technology has become so integral to business value. Nowadays, companies in nearly every sector are relying on technology as a growth strategy, meaning that the talent pool is getting more and more competitive. “A car company is now as much a tech company as Facebook is,” says Wallace. Indeed, the auto industry has spent billions just to snag top tech performers in the driverless space.

With so many sectors dipping into the same talent pool, it’s critical that companies try to cultivate the best opportunities possible. And experts say the prospect of replacing an outdated system isn’t exactly an alluring proposition for the best talent. “You have a workforce that is in high demand. They want to enjoy a lot of autonomy. They want to work for someone they consider a luminary. They want to come out of the experience more marketable,” says Stephenson. “Coming in and replacing a core system isn’t going to provide the experience that emerging talent are seeking.”