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Amazing Grace Hopper – Happy Birthday to the Mother of COBOL

by in Application Modernization

There are many drivers for those pursuing a new career in Information Technology.  For some, the lure of working within an industry undergoing continual change, new challenges, and fast paced innovation, fuels that ambition. For others, it’s the quest to create the new—and the change that will re-shape industry, business, and society.  I can’t think of a better example that embodies that innovative spirit than that of Grace Hopper

Today marks what would have been her 115th birthday. Grace Hopper, the lady who came to be known as the Mother of COBOL. In this blog, let’s look at some of the details of how she helped drive the creation of the business world’s most successful programming language--COBOL.

Grace Under Pressure

Grace Hopper was already a well-known pioneer for computing by the time she attended the first Data Systems Languages (CODASYL) conference, a consortium that aimed to guide the development of a standard programming language that could be used across multiple computers, in 1959. The output of that meeting was the blueprint for what was to become the common business oriented language--COBOL.

So what was Grace Hopper’s role?

Grace established the concept of the compiler – taking coded instructions and translating them into repeatable machine execution. This idea was carried forward into CODASYL.  This language was targeted for “use on many computers” (the success criteria was for code to execute on 2 different class of machines) – but it was Grace Hopper that pushed for the language to be as “close to English” as possible.

Her later work on language standards, where she was key in defining the relevant test cases to prove language compliance and portability could be planned for and verified.

Finally, another interesting fact here is that Grace popularized the term ‘debugging’ (which at the time literally meant taking a moth out of a piece of computer circuitry), which was to become a vital component *(and reference) to future development products.

Language Progression

The CODASYL meeting took place over sixty years ago, in 1959. However, the COBOL language blueprint set a progressive course that ensured its adoption and usage for many decades to come.

New standards bodies appeared as custodians of the language, agreeing updates to the standard in 1968, 1974 and 1985, with additional updates in later years. Grace continued to lobby for language standardization and the US Navy played a key role in establishing tests and metrics that allowed vendors to check against the standard.

The language was adopted as a de-facto standard by many hardware manufacturers, a plethora of whom started to emerge in the 1980s with the advent of the micro-processor. Soon enough, household name manufacturers were providing, among other technology, their own “COBOL compiler” product on their platforms. Of course, across the 500 or more platforms on offer to the mark since the late 1970s, Micro Focus provided the technology as part of an OEM engineering contract to the hardware industry.

Over time, the IT world also evolved. The standard and supporting technology for COBOL had to evolve with it, to support many emerging technologies. Here are just a few examples –

  • Client/server
  • OO (object-orientation)
  • SOA (services-oriented architecture)
  • Web services
  • Managed Code
  • Java byte code
  • Mobile
  • Public, Private and Hybrid Cloud
  • Containers

No one could have predicted the enormous growth of technology and how it disrupted every industry and transformed billions of peoples’ lives. Yet Hopper’s language blueprint of portability, ease of use, readability, and standardization was a platform from which vendors such as Micro Focus have been able to build a pattern of continuous improvement, to enable COBOL to remain relevant, accessible and valuable in today’s digital world.

Good News, Like COBOL Moves Fast.

The anniversary of Grace Hopper’s birthday has been celebrated by many throughout the IT industry.  More notably, it was remembered by Google in the best way they know how back in 2013 with the creation of a unique “doodle” (the picture on the main search page) as homage to Grace Hopper, including COBOL code being executed on an old machine and even the infamous moth making an appearance.

Grace Hopper’s Legacy: COBOL

Grace remained active in the industry well beyond her scheduled retirement and – as a TV appearance on the Letterman show demonstrates – she remained sharp, clever and creative.  Those design principles from over half a century ago, in other industries, would be unlikely to survive. Yet such was the foresight and wisdom of Grace Hopper and her cohorts, her legacy and contributions to the IT industry continue to thrive to this day. In fact, just a few years ago, Micro Focus helped the COBOL programming language to celebrate it’s Diamond Anniversary with our #COBOL60 Campaign alongside its continued engineering investment in COBOL to encourage future innovation.

To this day, COBOL remains highly portable, scalable, extensible, debuggable, easy to learn, and is the preferred language of business for the vast majority of the global Fortune 100. Micro Focus embodies those principles in our COBOL technology: over 500 platforms have been supported with our portable COBOL technology – the industry’s workhorse language, built for business.

Micro Focus’ latest technology supports COBOL applications being developed under Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code or Eclipse and deployment across a range of modern platforms including Linux on IBM Z, the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), .NET, Unix, Windows, Linux on Intel, Containers, and the Cloud. Grace Hopper may no longer be with us, but her enduring language is still at the core of many business systems and as demonstrated through recent market research, will continue for decades to come.

A new COBOL Working Group has also been recently launched through the Linux Foundation and Open Mainframe Project aimed at furthering the great work of Grace Hopper and advance the positive attributes of this world class business oriented language.

I hope you agree with me that #GraceHopperDay should happen each and every year on December 9.  Her unique spirit for innovation, transformation and change remains strong and ever present across the COBOL community.  She remains a model for many within IT and an inspiration for those considering a new career in enterprise application development.  Join us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter to share and celebrate her life and legendary contributions to modern COBOL programming.  Happy Birthday Grace Hopper.


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