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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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anon8996352152
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anon8996352152,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 12:16:51 PM
Does author/publisher know what the subject is?
Your picture is just a black and white photo of a telco punchdown rack.  Technology still in use when dealing with copper phone lines or interfacing to RJ45 connections.  Very little to do with mainfraimes.
rhariharan950
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rhariharan950,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 12:36:55 PM
COBOL and Mainframes - Keep them alive and kicking!
COBOL and Mainframes are robust and have stood the test of time. The self-documenting nature of COBOL is a facilitating factor to keep these critical systems alive for the next decade.

Software maintenance professionals need to be well rewarded and motivated. There shoud be "joy" in sustenance!

Ramesh Hariharan

CompuSharp Inc

Santa Clara, CA

(408) 850 7160
ANON1249547663249
50%
50%
ANON1249547663249,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 12:47:19 PM
Just do like my company is doing...
Instead of developing the next generation of mainframers, they're using the ones that have now (who are indeed retiring by the boatload), fill the gap with consultants (of marginal quality I might add) while fully doing away with it and as much as possible, go SaaS. 
IMjustinkern
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IMjustinkern,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 12:55:23 PM
some grumbling, but maybe other opportunities to come
At a few "old school" mainframe events in the last few months, our CTO Joe Sturonas has definitely come back wondering where the next generation of mainframers will come from. Could be something where many of the traditional jobs do disappear or morph into infrastructure or cloud "management" roles. I know they've done a solid job of marking the generational woes and not-always-bleak times at Millenial Mainframer
rpeterson537
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rpeterson537,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 1:03:48 PM
Mainframe is dead and so is COBOL
The COBOL language has been expanded to become impossible to teach or learn.


The IBM mainframe is an expensive proposition for what you get and having a proprietary technology locks a firm in to be at the mercy of smarter competitors.

 
majenkins
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majenkins,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 1:08:10 PM
Re: Just do like my company is doing...
That is one of the standarrd answers just replace the Mainframe with something, like a gazillion smaller servers, however as you prepare to do that be sure to bring a bug checkbook with you, because it is going to cost like crazy.
KenD721
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KenD721,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 1:44:02 PM
Response to Mainframe Guys
Well, if companies didn't lay so many of us "Old Timers", Cobol, PLEX, BAL, PLI & Systems Programers off in the last 20 years because they were going to "Downsize", go to "Distributed networks" Migrate to Microsoft servers (Crash daily & 3 finger salute them) there would not be a lack of old farts! We seldom complained about working day and night to keep your systems running, we seldom got angry when the phone rang in the middle of the night when you called us in to work on something. We actually enjoyed our work, we loved keeping our systems running and our customers online with all the systems that these Mainframes ran! Schools stopped teaching Cobol and other mainframe classes because it was trendy to learn Windowz crap! Well, look at where that got businesses now! 

Want a solution? Hire back some of us "Over the hill" folks and we would be happy to support your systems. If not, well good luck.......

 

EX- IBM Sr. Systems Programmer.
KenD721
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KenD721,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 1:47:52 PM
Re: Mainframe is dead and so is COBOL
No way, COBOL is actually very easy to read, document, follow, debug than many languages that are out there. It reads like simple english. I have written many applications in Cobol and it was never tough to create something that stood the test of time, kept on working.
esalva80
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esalva80,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 2:04:08 PM
Mainframe VS Youngsters
Very good article.

We lack of a complete knowledge and Support for the whole platform: Z/OS, ISV's, and many critical business aplications running inside the BOX. Is sad to said that Im the younger profesional interacting with the mainframe, Moreover interested in the platform.

I think the manufacturers lack of training and pricing strategies,  and this allowed the distributed systems have won road against Mainframe platforms. 

 

   

  
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 3:44:08 PM
Mainframe Skills
You don't often hear the words mainframe and Hadoop in the same career conversation. It does seem a MOOC would be helpful here to pass along that inter-generational knowledge.
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