University of North Texas information technology and decision science professors teaching mainframe and COBOL, a 70-year-old programming language that runs most business transactions in the United States, give students an edge in a field operating most financial transactions in the country.
Common Business-Oriented Language – COBOL – powers approximately 80 percent of in-person financial transactions and 95 percent of ATM swipes, according to a recent “Forbes” article. Daily, COBOL is used to process $3 trillion in commerce, and more than 1.5 billion lines of COBOL code are written each year, with more than 220 billion lines total.
While students learn the basics of COBOL, the overall degree focuses on mainframe computing, according to assistant professor James Parrish. COBOL is only one of several languages covered.
“Students come out — they’re not necessarily COBOL programmers, but they have the fundamental skills to become really good COBOL programmers. It’s a four-course track, but it gives them everything they need to know to work in this environment,” Parrish said. “These systems were so stable and so efficient that they were running seamlessly for many, many years. Then all of a sudden, we needed to add a code for unemployment for the global pandemic. Governments looked around and said, ‘okay, who can change this code that’s been running for God knows how many years?’ There’s not a lot of people in the younger work force that can do it.”
Le Roy Hardy, a mainframe professional who teaches in the program, has more than 30 years of industry experience and said one of the first industry events he attended at UNT with students presenting to corporate partners such as Citibank and IBM really drove home how vital the program is.
“That room was electric. These employers were amazed when they were looking at the students, and the students were amazed looking at the employers,” he said.
Regents Professor Steve Guynes, who has been teaching at UNT for 50 years, noted that none of the students in the G. Brint Ryan College of Business are required to take a mainframe course as part of their study, yet the classes often fill up.
“Mainframe is extremely hard. We make it an elective. We offer Intro to COBOL and Mainframe every fall— just the fall. We teach the advanced mainframe course every spring,” Guynes said. “We’re attracting some of the top kids I’ve ever seen. It makes teaching fun.”
The students in the class are also excelling on a national stage, with UNT students winning IBM’s Master the Mainframe challenge three of the last four years and placing in the top 10 all four years. In the North America section of the challenge last year, 4,286 students from 600 schools started the challenge. Only 126 students finished all parts of the challenge, and 14 of those students were from UNT.
“We have a world class mainframe program going on here, and the employers in this area and nationwide are just clamoring to get to our students. The typical starting salary for an Information Systems major is around $45-55,000. Our mainframe folks come out making somewhere around $75-80,000,” Parrish said.
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