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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.

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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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User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 8:19:16 PM
Brain drain?
I find most of these discussions to be naive and based on fundamental ignorance regarding mainframes.  Most of the talk regarding new technologies treats it as if it were merely a fashion or fad.  It is equally interesting to note how often the tone resembles a kind of "head-shaking" as if those "poor corporations" haven't figured out yet how to get off the mainframe.

 So here's a reality check.  The reason the mainframe is still in such widespread use, is because there is no alternative on the horizon.  The simplistic notions of a few distributed platforms isn't remotely prepared to cover 7x24 availability to process billions of transactions a month with sub-second response times.  The sheer volume of data involved as well as support would render most distributed solutions outrageously expensive and the notable lack of expertise among young people regarding the actual requirements of a data center is truly mindboggling.  [...and please spare me the tired old model of Google].

 The reason universities don't teach the mainframe is because IT professors are ignorant regarding the mainframe.  It has often been an irony that many universities use mainframe systems which aren't even supported by the supposed IT scholars, so while they teach on ***x systems, the university itself runs on a mainframe supported by hired staff.  It's pathetic.

This rhetoric regarding the mainframe is approaching 25 years of talk.  If any of it were remotely true, then I would say ... "put your money where your mouth is", because there hasn't been a single credible replacement of anything except the smallest supposed "mainframe" systems.  Let all the experts come out of the shadows and provide these "new" technology solutions.  Yet, when it comes time to actually deliver, I suspect they'll by silent.

The simple truth is that the young "superstars" couldn't even tell someone what a mainframe configuration consists of, let alone have a worthwhile opinion about how to replace it.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 11:59:27 AM
The Issue isn't a skills shortage. The issue is unlocking the incredible insight value of data sourced on the mainframe.

By Chris O'Malley

I posted a blog June 2012 that is as valid today as it was nearly two years ago.  When all the other platforms have left corporate data centers, the last computer standing will be the mainframe.  Please see my blog as to why: Far from Extinct, Mainframes Will Rule Entperprise Data Centers in the Future.

The critical challenge for mainframe organizations is to find an easy and fast method of including mainframe transactional data into modern analytics engines.  For many mainframe organizations this means translating and transforming hundreds of millions of rows per day and, in some cases, more than a billion of rows per day.  What complicate this effort is the facts that mainframe data structures that are very foreign to Big Data skilled professionals and that the value of this data is most often greatest in the moment that the transaction occurs.  The critical attributes to any solution that bridges the mainframe with an analytics platform such as Hadoop is abstracting away the complexity of the source mainframe data, easily handling the changes that inevitably occur in the mainframe data formats and transform the data at wire speed to support true, real-time analytics efforts.  

In solving these challenges, the mainframe continues its life as a transactional processing powerhouse with the ability to stream and/or batch fashioned data at wire speeds to analytics engines for true real-time insights. 

Over time, the market tends towards the right tool for the job and companies will invest in the necessary skills required.  The mainframe has proven for 50 years and counting it's value as the right tool for transactional systems.  The data integration work between a mainframe source and a data analytics target is achieved better, cheaper and faster by using the likes of VelociData that provides wire-speed data transformation, data quality, data sorting and data encryption.  The analytics work is best done on either a Big Data platform or within a data warehouse machine.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 11:33:05 AM
Point taken about the phone lines in the photo. I apologize for any confusion. Laurie
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 11:20:18 AM
Please check your photo - those are phone lines and not a mainframe
Please check your photo source - the caption that the photo owner posted was "HACKING THE MAINFRAME Just kidding. Marcus Hecht, Ecotrust Network Administrator, reroutes telephone lines for our new FoodHub coordinators, Megan and Leora."  Those phone lines have nothing do with any computer system.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 8:57:57 AM
Waste of electrons
This is such a beat up - if they want mainframers, then pay them and talent will be attracted to the package. IBM and CA have both been pushing their respective training and development programs in Universities plus making applications that 'simplify' mainframe development and management (aka mainframe 2.0 bullshit). Simple supply and demand will settle this argument - while there are fewer mainframe shops, they do more with less (where have we heard that before), and consolidation amongst the classic mainframe customers continues as they all buy each other. There wil be mainframes and the staff to support them around for decades yet.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/18/2014 | 8:35:36 AM
Re: Just do like my company is doing...
I met with General Motors this week, and they described moving all their mainframe apps from an outourced provider to in-house staff in October. And this is in the midst of a big app consolidation effort. GM looks to be keeping mainframe apps around and hiring staff to run them.   
User Rank: Ninja
3/18/2014 | 2:42:48 AM
Re: Just do like my company is doing...
COBOL also creates some limitations, it is a nice secure environment but it was not written to last for so long and does not enable the creations of new services. The best approach would be a balanced approach, by planning for the future while at the same time keeping the current system alive.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 11:03:05 PM
Job opportunities for me...
I have over 20 years on the mainframe and I can easily see working another 20 years in it. Most of the systems engineers I deal with are in their late 50s and 60s. Having the deep knowledge of the mainframe that I have will be valuable in the coming years as companies look for experienced people (but will they pay me for that experience...probably not).

But, I also have learned Java, C#, and HTML and have started writing plugins at work for Eclipse. The plugins interface with SQLServer, DB2 on the mainframe, and our software change management tool, also on the mainframe . We have also written plugins that can submit jobs on the mainframe to do work. With these plugins, our developers can be in a GUI environment, still coding in COBOL, and never have to log onto the mainframe at all.
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 8:49:36 PM
I was talking to a group of 30-somethings about the significance of the invention of the COBOL compiler and the "mother" of COBOL -- Grace Hopper.  

They looked at me as if I lost my mind.  

We're doomed.

User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2014 | 8:36:29 PM
Re: Homework not done - lots of schools teaching mainframe
IBM has indeed put some programmatic muscle behind the mainframe -- they've got a good reason to do so. Kohl noted in our interview that IBM's mainframe software business is "alive and well" as additional evidence of the technology's continued relevance. The contest you mentioned, "Master the Mainframe," is definitely worth a look for current/future university students:

That said, I'm not sure it's accurate to suggest that 1,000-plus schools are actively teaching the mainframe -- that many schools may have signed on to IBM's academic initiative at the time (the link you shared is from 2011) but that doesn't mean there's a significant academic investment in the mainframe. (Schools can apply for membership in that program free of charge.) This list is probably more indicative of the US schools that are actually doing something with the program versus just signing up for membership, though I haven't asked IBM for confirmation of that:

Bottom line, I think what Kohl and other are hoping for is a more industry-wide mainframe investment in skills development along the lines of what IBM has tried to do.
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