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Alumni Make a COBOL Connection to Lucrative Careers

PCCC alumni enjoy their new careers at Express Scripts - (l to r) Olha Bahriy, Sara Rodriguez Vivero, Tom Garside. PCCC alumni Olha Bahriy, Sara Rodriguez Vivero, and Tom Garside with their supervisors at Express Scripts, (far left) Alex Kuznetsov, and (far right) Gerald Veenstra.

Posted April 12, 2018

Three PCCC alumni who entered an internship to learn one of the oldest computer programming languages are now, as a result, happily employed in full-time jobs at a major company where their entry-level salary is over $50,000 annually.

“The internship offered us a great opportunity,” said Olha Bahriy who graduated from PCCC last May.
“I was always told I’d need a bachelor’s degree and years of experience to get a job like this, but we were hired with our associate’s degree.”

Olha, Tom Garside (’17), and Sara Rodriguez Vivero  (’15) all hold an Associate in Science Degree in Computer Science from PCCC and now work as programmers for Express Scripts, an independent manager of pharmacy benefits, and a major pharmacy nationwide.

It all began when LaunchCode, a non-profit organization that trains promising people for jobs in technology, contacted Professor Eric Cameron, the coordinator of internships for PCCC’s Computer Information Sciences department.

“LaunchCode was seeking talented students for an internship to learn COBOL,” said Professor Cameron. An early programming language, COBOL is no longer taught in most colleges, but many large companies still use systems based on that language, so there is demand for programmers who know it.

Tom and Olha were still students at PCCC when Professor Cameron, encouraged them to apply for the internship. Already an alumna, Sara learned of the opportunity through PCCC’s STEM department.

They were accepted and trained last summer at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark. After six weeks, all three were apprenticed to Express Scripts at the company’s location in Franklin Lakes, a Bergen County community a few miles from PCCC’s Paterson campus.

Following a three-month apprenticeship where they worked closely with Express Scripts mentors, the PCCC alumni became regular full-time associate programmers at the company.

Recently, they came together with two of their supervisors to talk about the internship program and why a computer language thought by many to be past its prime is experiencing a revival.

“Most insurance companies, stock companies, and pharmacies use COBOL,” said Gerald Veenstra, a senior manager of claims adjudication. He noted that over the years, when industries that used COBOL started outsourcing jobs to other countries, the computer language was taught less and less in the U.S. and was replaced in college curriculums by newer programs.

“The COBOL programmers who continued to work for companies that used the language are now growing older and retiring,” said Veenstra.  “Their jobs need to be filled, so demand is growing for young new COBOL-trained programmers.”

“We’re very pleased Express Scripts started this program with LaunchCode,” said  Alex Kuznetsov, senior manager for claims adjustments. “This is the first time we’ve done it, and it’s great to see young faces here.”

Why would companies want to train and hire people to work with an old program, instead of just upgrading to a newer program? “Some companies have done that, but it is very costly” said Kuznetsov." 

”  Tom agreed. “It’s not economically viable,” he said.  “It makes more sense to maintain COBOL and train people to use it.”
A former archeologist who came to computer science as a career changer, Tom pointed out that COBOL is not the fossil some may think it is.  “People think of COBOL as an old language, but it is updated and is developing,” he said.  “Mainframes are still going strong.”

Sara added, “COBOL even has modern hardware. That’s important to know.” 

Though well versed in Java, C++, Python, and other modern programming languages most commonly taught in colleges today, Tom, Sara, and Olha all see the value of having learned COBOL. “Every programmer should be well rounded,” said Sara. “COBOL offers something different. It’s logic thinking in reverse."

Pleased with their jobs and with the flexibility and opportunity to grow in the company, Tom and Olha are already pursuing bachelor’s degrees in computer science. Sara plans to do so later.  An added benefit: Their employer’s tuition reimbursement policy.

Olha summed it up.  “COBOL and Express Scripts gave me a good opportunity to grow in my career,” she said. “My dream is coming true. “