Those in search of eternal life need look no further than the computer industry. Here, last gasps are rarely taken, as aging systems crank away in back rooms across the U.S., not unlike 1970s reruns on Nickelodeon's TV Land. So while it may not be exactly easy for Novell NetWare engineers and OS/2 administrators to find employers who require their services, it's very difficult to declare these skills -- or any computer skill, really -- dead.
In fact, the harder you try to declare a technology dead, it seems, the more you turn up evidence of its continuing existence. Nevertheless, after speaking with several industry stalwarts, we've compiled a list of skills and technologies that, while not dead, can perhaps be said to be in the process of dying. Or as Stewart Padveen, Internet entrepreneur and currently founder of AdPickles, says, "Obsolescence is a relative -- not absolute -- term in the world of technology."
Y2k was like a second gold rush for Cobol programmers who were seeing dwindling need for their skills. But six-and-a-half years later, there's no savior in sight for this fading language. At the same time, while there's little curriculum coverage anymore at universities teaching computer science, "when you talk to practitioners, they'll say there are applications in thousands of organizations that have to be maintained," says Heikki Topi, chair of computer information services at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., and a member of the education board for the Association for Computing Machinery.
And for those who want to help do that, you can actually learn Cobol at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, which according to Mary Sumner, a professor there, still offers a Cobol course. "Two of the major employers in the area still use Cobol, and for many of their entry-level jobs, they want to see that on the transcript," she says. "Until that changes, we'd be doing the students a disservice by not offering it."
2. Nonrelational DBMS
In the 1980s, there were two major database management systems approaches: hierarchical systems, such as IBM's IMS and SAS Institute Inc.'s System 2000, and network DBMS, such as CA's IDMS and Oracle Corp.'s DBMS, formerly the VAX DBMS. Today, however, both have been replaced by the relational DBMS approach, embodied by SQL databases such as DB2, Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server, says Topi. "The others are rarely covered anymore in database curricula," he says.
3. Non-IP networks
TCP/IP has largely taken over the networking world, and as a result, there's less demand than ever for IBM Systems Network Architecture (SNA) skills. "It's worth virtually nothing on the market," says David Foote, president of Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn. Foote tracks market pay for individual IT skills, which companies usually pay as a lump sum or a percentage of workers' base pay, either as a bonus or an adjustment to their base salary. SNA, Foote says, commands less than 1% premium pay. "It's like a penny from 1922 -- there has to be someone who wants to buy it."
Despite the fact that many banks, insurance firms and other companies still have large investments in SNA networks, the educational offerings in this area are also rare, according to Topi. "The dominant model of protocols is TCP/IP and the Internet technologies," he says.
This store-and-forward LAN-based e-mail system from the 1980s was once used by about 20 million people. However, as e-mail was integrated into more-complex systems such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange, its popularity waned, and in 2000, it was withdrawn from the market. According to Foote, "cc:Mail is a bygone era. Now e-mail is tied into everything else, and cc:Mail didn't make that leap." Just the same, the product continues to be commercially supported by Global System Services in Mountain View, California.