Caitlin Mooney is 24 years old and infatuated with Sputnik-era technology.
A recent graduate student in computer science from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Mooney is a fan of technologies that were hot half a century ago, including computer mainframes and software called COBOL that powers them. That stuff won’t score cool points in Silicon Valley, but it’s must-have technology at big banks, insurance companies, government agencies, and other big institutions.
During Mooney’s job hunt, potential employers saw her expertise and wanted to talk about more leadership positions than she was seeking.
“You would be really excited,” Mooney told me.
She is now trying to decide between several job offers.
The resilience of decades-old computer technologies and the people who specialize in them shows that new technologies often build on many old technologies.
If you’re depositing money using your bank’s iPhone app, it’s likely computers behind the scenes that are descendants of those used on the Apollo moon missions. (Plus, half a century-old computer code is burned into the iPhone software.)
It’s often seen as a problem or a punch line that there is still so much musty tech floating around. But it’s not necessarily a problem.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” joked Ellora Praharaj, director of reliability engineering at Stack Overflow, an online forum popular with engineers. “Students outside of school these days don’t necessarily want to work in uncool older languages. But the reality of the world is what drives many of our existing systems.”
Praharaj said she learned COBOL in college in the mid-2000s and “hated it”. But up until about five years ago, she regularly used a 1950s computer programming technology called Fortran in a previous job in the financial services industry. The old stuff is everywhere.
Latin is dead, but ancient computer programming languages like COBOL live on.
According to a Stack Overflow salary survey, the typical salary for a COBOL programmer increased 44% in the past year to nearly $76,000. The self-reported compensation of $87,000 is below that for people using trending software languages like Rust, but it was the largest dollar gain in the survey.
(For the data buffs among us, Stack Overflow said the survey had a sizeable sample size but wasn’t necessarily representative.)
All of this also shows that computer nerds are subject to a fundamental dynamic of supply and demand. There aren’t many people like Mooney who want to work on mainframes and COBOL; the continued need for their abilities gives them power. A job seeker wanting “real world” COBOL experience recently wrote on the tech bulletin board Hacker News, “COBOL developers are a specialized niche these days and are paid accordingly.”
Of course, it’s hard to find someone who thinks boomer tech is the next big thing. Most university computer science programs do not focus on mainframes, COBOL or Fortran.
Year Up, an organization that trains young adults for technology jobs, informed me that they have stopped training in COBOL. Potential employers asked Year Up to focus its curriculum on newer and more widely used software programming languages such as Java and Python.
Some people with years of experience in older technology say they fear they’ve pushed themselves out of jobs with more potential.
But computer scientists told me that while they wouldn’t recommend young people delving into very old technologies, they can be a useful foundation. Inevitably, today’s hot coding trends will be replaced by something new. The important skill is learning how to keep learning, said Jukay Hsu, general manager of Pursuit, a training company for technical workers.
Mooney became curious about computer programming while taking business courses at a community college. She said she started doing her accounting homework in Python “for fun.” When she took a course taught by a professor specializing in COBOL, Mooney found that she liked it. She also felt welcomed by a community of die-hard computer mainframes eager to help a young novice.
“It’s been really great for building my confidence and skills,” Mooney said.
The irony is that COBOL’s designers never expected the software to last so long. As my New York Times colleague Steve Lohr wrote in an obituary for Jean Sammet, a designer of COBOL, the software’s pioneers expected it to be a useful stopgap until something better emerged.
That was about 40 years before Mooney was born. The old stuff will probably still be around after the next 40 years.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.