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Mainframe Brain Drain Raises Serious Concern

As IT pros with deep mainframe know-how approach retirement age, a major skills gap may await enterprise CIOs that still rely on the decades-old technology.

8 Data Centers For Cloud's Toughest Jobs
8 Data Centers For Cloud's Toughest Jobs
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The sharpest young gun in your IT shop might have a precocious set of in-demand skills, from cloud computing to mobile development to Hadoop and other big data platforms. But ask them to find their way around a mainframe, and they'll likely say: "A what?"

Keith Kohl, director of product management at Syncsort, recently encountered this firsthand when speaking with a group of Hadoop pros. "They understood Hadoop, they understood big data, they understood distributed -- like Linux -- systems," Kohl said in an interview. But there was a notable gap in the group's collective expertise. "It became apparent they didn't even know what a COBOL copybook is, which is absolutely required for mainframe data -- it's one of the most common schemas for mainframe files. They don't even understand how to get the structure of mainframe files and use that to ingest mainframe data into Hadoop [or elsewhere]."

While you might not find the mainframe much in today's startup environments, many longstanding enterprises still rely on the machines, which date back to the 1950s. That's especially true in sectors such as banking and financial services, healthcare, retail, and telecommunications, according to Kohl. The lack of mainframe experience among younger generations of IT pros could become a pressing problem for CIOs in those and other fields in the not-so-distant future.

[For another perspective on how to stay relevant in IT, see Network Engineers: Don't Be The Dinosaur.]

"The people that do run the mainframes are starting to retire," Kohl said. "It's not uncommon for the systems programmers, the mainframe developers [and] architects, to have been in their jobs for over 30 years, 35, even 40 years -- which is getting up there."

The underlying problem with aging mainframe pros: There's no army of youngsters eager to fill their vacant seats. As a result, companies that still depend upon the mainframe might soon find it near impossible to hire the right people necessary to support legacy applications, transaction processing, and other related functions.

Image credit: Sam Beebe on Flickr.
Image credit: Sam Beebe on Flickr.

"If I'm a bank or a financial institution and every trade or ATM transaction goes through a mainframe system, how do I maintain that? That's a huge risk," Kohl said. "If I'm a health insurance provider and every claim goes through the mainframe, how do I keep those systems up and running?"

In a recent Compuware survey, two-thirds of CIOs said that retiring mainframe talent will hurt their business in the form of increased application risk, lower productivity, and more project overruns, among other potential headaches. Most of the CIOs surveyed (81%) believe the mainframe will remain an important part of their business for at least the next decade.

Kohl pointed to two primary causes of a pending mainframe knowledge gap. The first is simply an image problem: Mainframes aren't cool these days, nor is COBOL or job control language (JCL), two core programming languages underpinning mainframe development. It's much hipper to have the likes of Hadoop on your IT resume. By comparison, mainframe skills don't seem to look as good -- even though they remain relevant to many employers.

The second is a corresponding lack of education and training opportunities. Kohl believes the mainframe is disappearing from university curricula and other training programs. Anyone with an Internet connection can immediately begin taking classes in Python or Java from the likes of Udacity, Udemy, and Codeacademy. Good luck finding a COBOL course on those sites.

Kohl believes the solution will come from a coordinated effort among enterprises, vendors, and universities and other educational organizations to develop the next generation of mainframe skills -- and to promote those skills as sought-after among hiring managers. That effort may have a ways to go: Of the CIOs included in the Compuware survey, 40% said they haven't taken any formal steps to mitigate a potential mainframe brain drain. That's only a modest improvement from 2011, when 46% of IT chiefs in a similar survey said they'd done nothing to plan for a mainframe talent gap. Kohl's optimistic that the industry will eventually move to reinvest in mainframe skills development, but his glass is half full, in part as a matter of necessity.

"The industry, from an IT perspective, has to do it," Kohl said. "All of these really vital, mission-critical systems have to be up and I've got to maintain them."

Could the growing movement toward open source hardware rewrite the rules for computer and networking hardware the way Linux, Apache, and Android have for software? Also in the Open Source Hardware issue of InformationWeek: Mark Hurd explains his "once-in-a-career opportunity" at Oracle.

Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses. View Full Bio

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Bigfoot54
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Bigfoot54,
User Rank: Apprentice
4/1/2014 | 3:46:09 PM
Another Problem
The other problem facing the mainframe world as well as the rest of the IT world is that ubiquitious onager known as a personnel recuiter.  Many of these people are the same people that were unable to cut it in a Computer Science or an Information Systems program in college.  They do however seem to have learned enough IT buzz words before changing their major to history or philosophy to obtain employment as a recuiter, as such positioning themselves to be a oozing carbuncle on the posterior of those who could make it in a CS or IS program.  These recuiters fail to realize that COBOL is pretty much COBOL regardless of platform.  Although I had four courses in COBOL in college, did COBOl exclusively  for about 6 years, I can not now get a job in an IBM COBOL environment because I have never had the opportunity to learn CICS.   Having survived courses in Assembler and Mainframe operating systems, I can't imagine that learning CICS could be any more difficult than either of those two courses.  Yet recuiters will not even present me to a potential emoployer for this reason.  I think that what is needed is a law similar to the real estate law that requires that any offer to buy be presented to the seller, which requires that if a candidate can demonstrate training or experience in the primary skillset specified on a job ad,  that the recuiter be required by law to present the candidates resume to the hiring managers for consideration.  Too many well trained highly experienced people are out of work because some ignoramus in a recuiting firm is looking for cookie cutter candidates.  

The other problem is corporate personnel departments who frequently write position requirements without any direct knowledge of what the technical requirements entail and are incapable of understanding that a candidate who does not have A,B,C,and D on their resume but does have A, B, D and E could function in a given position as well as candidates having A, B, C, and D.  Hiring managers need to wake up.  Their problems as stated in this article are in large measure of their own creation, due to their incompetence and their own lack of professional experience in the technologies that they presume to manage.
BetsyJ958
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BetsyJ958,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/24/2014 | 6:34:09 AM
Please open your eyes
The author clearly isn't looking beyond the edge of his desk.   As one of the 'old-timers' I have been involved with IBM mainframes for 30 years and I have watched the platform continue to grow and embrace any new technology you want to throw at it.  I have made certain that I keep my skills updated as well.   Any of the dinosaurs you mention are more ostriches with their heads in the sand.  Every discipline will have people who just maintain the status quo but to lump everyone together is an insult.  Also, the author obviously isn't aware of the growing number of new mainframe professionals being groomed, Marist College comes to mind first.   I have to shake my head at the narrow focus of people like the author - just as I do at the people who think virtualization is new....what do you think the mainframe has been doing for 50 years? 
eairey039
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eairey039,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/19/2014 | 1:29:23 PM
Bridging the Skills Gap
The current IT skills gap is a growing concern. As discussed in the article, young professionals are entering the workforce simply lacking the traditional skills possessed by experienced mainframe pros reaching retirement. There are two issues you mention in the article that I believe we can help address as an industry -- One, the perception of mainframe and COBOL skills and Two, the lack of education and training opportunities offered to young professionals. As you state, mainframes aren't perceived as 'cool' these days, nor is COBOL coding. However, mainframe systems and COBOL applications are still very critical in supporting the business organization. Did you know that COBOL still powers 70% of all business transaction processing systems, and there are more than COBOL transactions processed every day than Google and YouTube web searches combined!  Many of our 'every-day' activities interact with a Mainframe or COBOL system, oftentimes without us being consciously aware.  Given our dependency on this technology, and the apparent talent gap, who will support these legacy applications?

In order to bridge the gap, academic institutions and organizations must work together to prepare the next generation of workers with the skills necessary to succeed in today's workplace. According to recent research findings from Micro Focus, 85% percent of respondents confirm it's difficult to find staff or new recruits with mainframe application skills. Not only that, but 14% of staff members currently responsible for this task will retire in the next 5 years — up from 11% in 2012. The study also found that the majority of IT leaders (83%) believe it's valuable for students to learn mainframe programming languages and more than 9 out of 10 say these languages should be taught as part of the standard IT curriculum. The reality is that only 27% of universities around the globe adhere to these standards. In order to fill the gap we must teach next generation IT pros the legacy skills necessary to maintain and enhance today's critical business systems.

The current skills gap has actually opened tremendous opportunities for the next generation of IT professionals. For those entering the industry, it is to your advantage that you learn these legacy skills in order to both maintain these mission-critical business systems but also to position yourself for a lasting and rewarding career!

-Ed Airey, Product Marketing Director of COBOL, Micro Focus
GerhardA320
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GerhardA320,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/19/2014 | 8:17:30 AM
Why pick on the mainframe?
One attitude that seems to be prevalent in such discussions is that implicit assumption that somehow the mainframe is deficient as a technology.  Yet, what is this supposed deficiency? 


So the argument invariably shifts to cost, without actually demonstrating why alternate technologies should be cheaper [which they aren't] or how they are more flexible [which they aren't].

Instead we continuously see a picture being painted of the mainframe being some old technology as if it were still some huge beast filled with vacuum tubes.


I'm always fascinated by how someone may bring up the historical image of a mainframe taking up a whole room.  Invariably they don't know what to say when I point out that this is precisely what they are now so proud of when they point to something like the Google data centers.  Yes, we've come full circle.
GerhardA320
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GerhardA320,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/19/2014 | 8:06:49 AM
Re: MF talent
While your observation that many old-timers have not kept up with newer technologies, there are also a fair number that have and are quite diversified.  However, the reverse cannot be said.  The younger "talent" knows virtually nothing about mainframes and the institutions responsible for their education are even more ignorant.

So, it's always interesting that mainframers get accused of being "stuck" in their technologies, while no one ever suggests that Windows or Linux folks learn the mainframe.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/19/2014 | 7:59:34 AM
Good luck getting the genie back into the bottle
The industry can only blame itself for telling everyone that mainframes are dead. Quite contrary, the mainframe model is alive and well even when it is called "cloud".
anon2655720611
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anon2655720611,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/19/2014 | 7:26:01 AM
Re: MF talent
Who said you are the only one learning other skills, besides the MF?  Did I say that people are refusing to learn other things, and thus being let go?  
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
3/19/2014 | 3:46:22 AM
Re: Just do like my company is doing...
I get a similar view from financial institutions, provided with the right API it is possible to move from a mainframe but it's a slow process. These API requires developer skills from both worlds and the firms that have embarked on a long term plan will manage to move onto a modern system that does not have a skills shortage.
anon6985051470
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anon6985051470,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 11:08:50 PM
Re: MF talent
As I was reading this article, I was already saying to myself, "The comments will be full of folks whingeing about there being plenty of mainframers who can't find jobs", and I was right.

The ignorance cuts both ways: too many mainframers haven't learned anything since 1981. They haven't figured out how to use Google, refuse to look at Linux, think TCP/IP is something newfangled that they don't need to pay attention to.

This isn't 1980: the mainframe is just one component in the IT infrastructure, and whether it's better for a given use case or not, it doesn't stand alone. Learn something new. Embrace new technologies. Make yourself more valuable. When it comes time to cut someone, who do you think they're going to pick: the cranky old fogey who refuses to move forward, or the cutting-edge kid who's up on the latest whiz-bang stuff?

Paradoxically, the fact that the mainframe keeps running and running doesn't actually help here: it's all too easy to conclude that something that never causes a crisis must not be very difficult to use, or perhaps not even that useful. That isn't an argument for destabilizing the z environment, mind you! But when there's a networking problem involving an x86-based web front-end interacting with middleware and winding up in DB2 on z/OS, it would behoove the z folks to be part of that solution, able to understand at least some of the other technologiies involved, and not just say "Nope, DB2 is fine, your problem, <click>".

I've been using mainframes since 1975 or so, and that's my primary job still. But along the way, I've become familiar with Windows, Linux, networking, and a host of other technologies, because they make me better able to do my job. My skills in those other areas certainly aren't at the level of my z skills, but they're strong enough that when someone starts talking about a multi-tier application environment, I can understand and contribute.

Yeah, this is politics to some extent. It's also not being a dead shark: the industry keeps moving forward; so should you.
anon2655720611
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anon2655720611,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 8:27:06 PM
MF talent
There are PLENTY of mainframers, not that old, that are beign cut for offshoring.  Tech more than any other field makes excuses about no talent, and requests more offshore people.  It's all about the money, come on people...   
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