Perl Meets COBOL


A few weeks ago I went to do a four-day beginning Perltraining at a local utility company. It was quite different from other training classes I'd given. Typically, my students have some Unix and C experience. These students, however, had never seen Unix before -- they were mostly COBOL programmers, working in the MVS operating system for IBM mainframe computers.

Fortunately, I have had some experience programming IBM mainframes, so I wasn't completely unprepared for this. When we contract classes, we always make sure that the clients understand that the classes are for experienced programmers. In this case that backfired a little bit -- we were asking the wrong question. Almost all my students were experienced programmers, but not in the way I expected. After several years of teaching Perl classes, I have some idea of what to expect, and the COBOL folks turned all my expectations upside down.

For example, when I teach a programming class to experienced programmers, I take for granted that everyone understands the notion of block structure, in C or Pascal perhaps. People familiar with this idea look at the code and see the blocks automatically. But the COBOL folks had not seen this before and had to learn it from scratch. Several times I was showing an example program, and one of the students would ask what part of the code was controlled by a while clause.

This tended to put me into I-am-talking-to-novices mode, and my automatic reaction was to slow down and explain every little thing, such as what a variable is. But this response was inappropriate and incorrect, and I had to consciously suppress it. The COBOL programmers were not novices; they were, as promised, experienced programmers, and it would have been patronizing (and a waste of time) to explain to them what a variable was; of course they already know about variables. In fact, they often surprised me with the extent of their knowledge. To explain the $| variable, I started to talk about I/O buffering, and suddenly I realized that everyone was bored. "Do you already know about this?'' I asked. Yes, everyone was already familiar with buffering. That was a first for me; I've never had a class that knew about buffering already.

I didn't have to explain filehandles; they already knew about filehandles. But they used jargon to talk about them that wasn't the jargon I was familiar with. "Oh, you're establishing addressibility on the file,'' someone said. They seemed pleased at how easy it was in Perl to establish addressibility on a file.

That reminded me of a story about the mainframe people seeing Unix for the first time back in the 1970s. They asked how you allocate a file on Unix. Dennis Ritchie explained that you didn't have to allocate a file, you just create it, but they didn't get it. Finally he showed them:

        cat > file

and the mainframe people were astounded. "You mean that's all?'' This was a little like that sometimes. They were impressed by things I had always taken for granted, and underwhelmed by things that often impress C programmers.

Some things they picked up on much better than other programmers I have taught. As soon as I explained the pattern /cat$/, someone pointed out that that if you read in a record from a file, the record shouldn't match the pattern even if it does appear to end with cat, because the record will have a newline character on the end, and thus will end with cat\n, not cat. I had to explain what $ really does: It matches at the end of the string, or just before the newline if the string ends with a newline. I had never had to explain that before, because I had never met anyone before who had picked up on that so fast. Usually Perl programmers remain blissfully unaware of this problem for years until someone points it out to them. At Perl conferences, when I explain what $ really does, about half the audience is thunderstruck.

I'm not sure why it was that the COBOL folks realized so quickly that there was something fishy about $. But I have an idea: The IBM mainframe file model is totally different from the Unix or NT model. Instead of being a stream of bytes, an IBM file is a sequence of fixed-size records, and there is good OS support for reading a single record. Any program can instantly and efficiently retrieve record #3497 from a file; doing this on a Unix system requires toil. On a mainframe, records aren't terminated with \n or anything else; they're just records, and when you ask the OS for a record, you get it, with no \n, or additional cruft. So to the COBOL programmers the idea of variable-length, \n-terminated records was new and strange, and they must have been constantly aware of that ever-present, irritating \n, the way you're aware of a stone in your boot when you're hiking. They couldn't forget about it the way seasoned Unix programmers do, so they saw how it sticks out of the explanation of $ in a way that a Unix programmer doesn't notice.

After I got back I talked to Clinton Pierce, who has a lot more experience training COBOL programmers than I do. Clinton says that his students also find the file-as-stream notion strange and new:

Reading lines of text (records) and taking time to parse them into fields seems redundant. This usually starts a long discussion about why Perl programs bother to construct formatted text files -- only to have to parse them apart again, instead of simply letting the record-reading library routines parse things for you.

This is an interesting contrast to the Unix point of view, which is that the OS needs to support record-oriented I/O about as much as it needs to support trigonometric functions -- that is, not at all.

The different file models led to some other surprises. One of the exercises in the class asks the students to make a copy of a file in which all the lines that begin with # have an extra # inserted on the front. The sample solution looks like this:

        while (<>) {
          print '#' if substr($_, 0, 1) eq '#';
          print;
        }

The COBOL programmers found this bizarre. One of them asked if a beginner could reasonably be expected to come up with something like that. At first I wasn't sure, and then I thought back and remembered that in the past, many students had come up with that solution. In fact, I had taught some classes in which every student decided to do it that way. Then I thought some more and realized that those were classes full of C programmers, and that it was a very natural way to solve the problem -- if you were already a C programmer.

Clinton points out that on the mainframe, there's an extra step between linking an application and running it: You have to explicitly load it into memory. The edit-compile-run cycle on System/370 is a lot longer than in the Unix world, partly because Unix has such a lightweight process creation model. Clinton says that the one thing mainframe programmers find strangest is the way Perl collapses the edit-compile-link-load-run-debug cycle down to only two steps.

Clinton also says that his students tend to have trouble with inter-process communication, such as as backticks or system(). I don't have enough experience to understand the details here, but I can verify that it was hard to get the point of this across to people who didn't have prior experience in the Unix "tools" environment. Opening a pipe to a separate program doesn't make a lot of sense unless you live in a world like Unix where you have a lot of useful little programs lying around that you can open pipes to. To explain piped open, I had to concoct an example about a data gathering program that writes its output directly to the report generator program without using an intermediate temporary file. The students appreciated the benefit of avoiding the temporary file, but the example really misses the point, because it omits the entire Unix "tools" philosophy. But I was taken by surprise and wasn't prepared to evangelize Unix to folks who had never seen a pipe before. However, Clinton does report that his COBOL students take naturally to the idea of modules and of loading some other program's functionality into your own as a library routine.

It was an eye-opening experience, and it uncovered a lot of assumptions I didn't realize I had. I hope I get to do it again sometime.

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