What does a COBOL Programmer do?


Unbeknownst to most, the COBOL programming language is everywhere! This week in our Career Insight series, we take a look at what COBOL is, WHO a COBOL programmer is, WHAT they do, and HOW they do it. Interested? Keep reading to find out!

What is COBOL?

COBOL programmer job overview

COBOL – short for COmmon, Business-Oriented Language – is a computer programming language that emerged as a way for coders to write programs that could be run on more than just one computer by a single manufacturer.

The COBOL language was designed in 1959 and unlike its primary competitor at the time, FORTRAN, it was intended for business use, rather than scientific use.

Now you’re probably wondering – does anyone really still use a language created in the 60s? Well, yes.

The ease of use and portability of COBOL proved so useful that it dominated much of government and business data processing for decades. In fact, major US federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration are still based on COBOL. The SSA has 60 million lines of COBOL in production as of 2013.

Why haven’t we outgrown COBOL? It’s not that easy. Despite ongoing discussions to re-engineer business and government processes, it takes a long time and a lot of money to rewrite a program, especially one that works. Research conducted by the US SSA found that the benefits of replacing COBOL would not outweigh the risks.

COBOL vendor Micro Focus claims:

  • COBOL supports 90 percent of Fortune 500 business systems every day
  • 70 percent of all critical business logic and data is written in COBOL
  • COBOL powers 85 percent of all daily business transactions processed
  • $2 trillion worth of mainframe applications in corporations are written in COBOL
  • 1.5 million new lines of COBOL code are written every day
  • 5 billion lines of new COBOL code are developed every year
  • The total investment in COBOL technologies, staff and hardware is estimated at $5 trillion
  • An estimated 2 million people are currently working in COBOL

You may not be aware of this but COBOL is everywhere – from ATMs to healthcare prescriptions, and even POS systems. COBOL programming language is the behind-the-scenes lifeline that supports and controls over 85% of all business applications.

This, in turn, ensures that COBOL programming is here to stay and the world is going to continue needing great COBOL programmers.

COBOL supports over 85% of all business applications


So who is a COBOL Programmer and what do they do?

A COBOL programmer is someone who writes and works with computer programs writing using COBOL – and this is their primary responsibility. They are often active in the field of business data processing.

COBOL developers work to design, develop, and configure code for new programs, test these programs to make sure they function on the intended operating system and implement adjustments needed.

Since newer programs are scarcely COBOL based, most COBOL programmers work on existing COBOL software and are veterans in the business. A young talent who specializes in COBOL is rare.

Most common responsibilities include:

  • Maintaining and developing COBOL
  • Developing, Designing, Coding, and Testing changes to enterprise software applications
  • Test COBOL programs for errors and fix the faulty lines of computer code responsible
  • Use code libraries, which are collections of independent lines of code, to simplify the writing
  • Responsible for technical analysis and design, code and testing coordination
  • Document systems and programs enhanced, developed and implemented
  • Gathering and documenting system requirements
  • Fine-tuning DB2 SQL queries
  • Defining coding standards to ensure code integrity

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What does it take to be a COBOL programmer? For starters, COBOL programming and the ability to work with a COBOL mainframe are basic skills for any COBOL developer or programmer. 

Further skills that are important for a COBOL developer include:

  • Excellent mainframe programming
  • In-depth understanding of project management and software development cycle
  • Vast knowledge of business processes in healthcare, banking, and finance sectors
  • Knowledge of advanced debugging tools
  • Databases: MS SQL Server, Access, and DB2
  • Platforms/Systems: Windows, Linux, UNIX, IBM Mainframe
  • Languages: CICS, Visual Basic, COBOL, TSO, JSL, and QMF.
  • Tools: ENDEVOR, XPEDITER, Test Director, and JES2.
COBOL programmer skills

Apart from intensive technical skills, COBOL programmers also require certain soft skills in dealing with their work. These include –

  • Analytical skills – Computer programmers must understand complex instructions in order to create computer code.
  • Concentration – Programmers must be able to work at a computer, writing lines of code for long periods.
  • Detail oriented – Computer programmers must closely examine the code they write because a small mistake can affect the entire computer program.
  • Troubleshooting skills – An important part of a programmer’s job is to check the code for errors and fix any they find.
  • Relationship Management – Able to build constructive and effective relationships within a team or independently


Most COBOL programmers have a bachelor’s degree; however, some employers hire workers who have an associate’s degree.

In the programming field, your programming skills are valued much more than your degree. However, a bachelor’s degree in computer science does go a long way with employers.

COBOL programmer background

The irony here, however, is that most Computer Science degrees these days don’t include COBOL programming. The majority of COBOL specialists today are programmers of older generations. However, experts believe that COBOL will continue to play an important role in the foreseeable future.

There are of course several ways for you to pick it up on your own through courses and certifications, such as –


There is a serious gap in the required COBOL workforce. As older programmers move towards retirement age, there is a marked rise in COBOL fluent candidates – meaning an increase in salary as well.

Inexperienced programmers can expect to receive $49,000 annually while more senior programmers can command up to $98,000 per year, on average. This sets the average rate at $70,000.

How much does a COBOL programmer make?

Junior $49,000
Average $70,000
Senior $98,000

What about experienced freelancers and consultants working with COBOL?

Average rate COBOL Programmers (2022) $81/hr

The average hourly rate amongst freelance COBOL Programmers is $81/hr.

Freelance rates in COBOL Programming range between $61 and $96 for the majority of freelancers.

If we consider an 8-hour working day at $81/hour, the daily rate for freelance COBOL Programmers is around $648/day.

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Natalia Campana

Natalia is part of the international team at freelancermap. She loves the digital world, social media and meeting different cultures. Before she moved to Germany and joined the freelancermap team she worked in the US, UK and her home country Spain. Now she focuses on helping freelancers and IT professionals to find jobs and clients worldwide at www.freelancermap.com

By Natalia Campana

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