The legions of software programmers banks have relied on to develop and maintain their breadand-butter computer systems are facing up to a harsh reality -- their once-prized skills are becoming obsolete as fast as any other worker's in the Information Age.
After decades of rock-solid job security as demand outstripped supply for competent programmers able to harness the power of big banks' multimillion-dollar mainframe systems, bankers now concede many of their technology staffers' abilities don't match up well with the new technological order, where networks of personal computers are slowly but surely gaining preeminence.
The tens of thousands of software developers now employed by banks are mostly proficient in writing code for the mainframe world, mainly using the programming language Cobol, developed in the early 1960s as the first software language aimed at business and accounting.
Despite its long lifespan, most bankers and technologists are not yet ready to declare Cobol a dead language -- the vast majority of core accounting systems running banks today are still written in it. But the advent of the relatively cheap processing power of PCs has introduced a new style of writing software, called "object oriented" programming, where software applications are comprised of many distinct, self-contained mini-programs, called objects, that can be mixed and matched as the need arises.
And while the use of object-oriented programming is still minuscule in comparison to the use of Cobol in financial institutions today, bankers see a major shift in the coming years. According to the American Banker/Andersen Consulting/Tower Group 1994 Survey of Technology in Banking, which polled the top 150 U.S. banks, there are now slightly less than 30,000 people in employed in financial institutions doing applications development for mainframes or minicomputers -- but by 1997, the research found that group will drop by nearly 5,000 employees.
In contrast, the number of programmers employed at banks for "distributed applications development," i.e., programming for PC networks, will increase by about the same number.
"Object-oriented programming will be critical to reducing our cycle time" for software development, said Donald R. Hollis, executive vice president and chief technology officer at. First Chicago Corp. "It is the first time we have software tools that can take advantage of all the power contained in PC networks."
It would therefore be easy to infer that most of these soon-tobe displaced Cobol programmers, due to their extensive banking expertise, would be retrained for object-oriented programming.
But bankers admit it isn't that simple. "We're looking very heavily at using object-oriented methodologies," said Eugene H. Friedman, vice president of corporate information technology services at Chase Manhattan Corp. "But the problem is object-oriented languages are very difficult to come up the learning curve on."
Mr. Friedman added that he has seen studies that show twothirds to three-quarters of programmers who try to make the transition from Cobol to objectoriented languages fail.
The reason is object-oriented languages, with enigmatic names like C++ and Smalltalk, are as different from Cobol as English is to Swahili.
Cobol programmers see the programs as a series of processes linked to a data base. That's a very a rigid approach, but one that takes best advantage of the precious resources of a mainframe computer.
Object-oriented programming turns that view upside down, encapsulating data and functionality in each object, making the writing of software initially more complicated, but ultimately easier to modify.
"Being a good Cobol programmer can actually be a hindrance to becoming a good object-oriented programmer," said Dwight Ford, an object-oriented software consultant based in New York who has worked at a number of big banks.
"Moving to object-orientation involves a mind shift, where you're asking people to change how they think about building systems, and that can be very frustrating," Mr. Friedman said. "They actually have to unlearn a lot of what worked before."
Trying to move Cobol developers into object-oriented programming can be a painful experience for banks as well. Software experts cite Swiss Bank Corp., which in 1991 decided to overhaul its entire computer system using Smalltalk.
After putting hundreds if its Cobol programmers on the project and spending tens million of dollars, Swiss Bank admitted failure.
Despite the fiasco, the bank is still pursuing object-oriented programming, sources familiar with the project said, but has vastly scaled back the number developers working in the language.
At First Chicago, Mr. Hollis admitted that many of his bank's over 700 Cobol programmers won't make the transition to object-oriented systems development. He said the bank is developing a two-track career path for programmers. One path will be for people with Cobol experience who show aptitude for object-oriented programming, and the other track for programmers who will continue to maintain the bank's "legacy" systems, or move into non-programming jobs like operations management.
"These people have a lot of valuable knowledge," he said. "I don't think we'll ever have to lay off programmers.
But Mr. Ford said many Cobol programmers, used to being pampered by their bosses and constantly showered with lucrative job offers from other firms, are leaving voluntarily rather than take a slow-track career. path. "A lot of them just give up and go sell real estate," he said.
Mr. Friedman said Chase hopes to tackle this problem by testing an object-oriented development tool from Micro Focus,' Inc. that incorporates Cobol.
"This way, our programmers can use a language they're familiar with, and all they have learn is the design and logic portion" of object orientation, he said, adding that using this tool in addition to doing development with C++ and Smalltalk, Chase expects up to three-quarters of its 1,500 Cobol programmers to be able make the transition to object-oriented systems development.
Wayne Sadin, chief technology officer at Michigan National Corp., said while he believes while Cobol will be around for a long time to come, object-oriented programming will become more prevalent when banking application software vendors start using it. "If anyone developing a mainstream banking application can give me a library of objects, I'd be foolish not take advantage of it."
But no matter how quickly or slowly the transition to object-oriented programming takes place, one thing is for sure -- software developers are just as susceptible to the changes technology has wrought on the workplace as any other bank employee.
"Despite what many may think, I've found people who work with technology are more conservative and resistant to change than anyone else in the bank," Mr. Hollis said. "They have no problem imposing change on others, but it's a different story when the change affects them."