Earlier this month, in a report entitled Ensuring You Have Mainframe Skills Through 2020, analyst Gartner warned of an impending mainframe skills gap. A generation of experienced IT staff are approaching retirement just as the mainframe is experiencing a renaissance.
The world’s top 25 banks run on mainframes and there are more Cobol transactions in a day than Google hits, according to some estimates. IBM, a mainframe market leader, profits handsomely from its computing behemoths: last year’s revenue from System z was up 19 per cent on 2008.
Mainframes are highly efficient. For example, a System z can replace 1,500 x86 servers but consumes 15 per cent of the power. Bank of New Zealand, for example, is replacing 200 Sun servers with a five-CPU System z.
However, not everyone agrees that the industry faces a mainframe skills issue. After all, some so-called skills crises are often over-egged by head-hunters and trainers, and mainframe staff have been laid off owing to recession and offshoring.
“Valued mainframers, far from being lost to normal retirement, are in reality being lost to redundancy and forced into early retirement,” said IT worker John Williams, in response to Computing’s article about the Gartner report on 13 April.
Other IT workers have contacted Computing, angered by what they see as a systematic “ship-it-abroad” policy for IT jobs and puzzled by the incongruity of a mainframe skills gap.
One points to a job advertised for a software licence controller in south-east England commanding a salary of £40,000 but carrying a caveat: “This position will initially be UK based (1 to 2 years) and then based in one of our offices in India. The salary will then reflect the Indian salary scale.”
Even IBM sees no immediate skills crisis. “I’m not getting any feedback that there is a significant mainframe skills gap,” said Colin Grocock, IBM mainframe business development manager.
Furthermore, mainframe vendors such as IBM and Unisys and software developers such as CA and Micro Focus are simplifying mainframe development by automating operations, and training a steady stream of graduates.
However, no matter how simplified the programming tools or automated the systems, experienced staff are still needed to maintain critical legacy apps.
“The deep knowledge of 20-year-old application environments is essential,” said Grocock. “There is a big difference between deep business application knowledge and programming language skills.”
For example, at mail order apparel firm JD Williams a key member of the mainframe team retired last December.
“He was an expert in a 25-year-old Customer Information Control System application,” said Mike Madden, the firm’s development services manager. “He wasn’t the only one who knew that system, but he was the man you’d go to if you had a problem.”
So arguably the skills gap is not in entry-level skills, but the deep knowledge of business applications built up by experienced staff over 30 years.
“How come we lay off people with these skills? The industry has almost stripped itself bare,” said Darin Edmunds, head of education services at Micro Focus. “We have to start teaching core essentials of mainframe computing, not just programming by rote, and educate people to apply their training to make meaningful business solutions. That only comes with experience and knowledge of best practice.”
Indeed, it was these deep-level skills that were highlighted in Gartner’s report.
“A bright and motivated 23-year old will not be ready in week one to step in and replace personnel with intimate and detailed knowledge based on 30 years of experience,” reads the report.
Furthermore, developing for mainframes requires different thinking compared with, say, Windows or Linux systems. Mainframes use procedural language where control resides in the program, not user interaction.
And in organisations where applications have been patched on patch over 30 years, code can be optimised but there still needs to be someone who understands the overall structure of the application.
“It would be naïve to think that you could replace that person with software,” said Thomas Leitner, senior European vice president of mainframe solutions at CA. “Our idea is to free up that person from routine admin tasks so they can focus on optimising the code and passing on their knowledge.”
Demand for experienced staff with business nous is likely to outstrip supply, warned Gartner vice president Mike Chuba: “There will be a call for this deep knowledge, as vendors and the various consultants, system integrators and outsourcers are all in need.”
That might not affect organisations today, but they need to plan for the future and ensure that skills are transferred.
“We do not have anyone else who is critical to the mainframe due to retire immediately, but in five years there will be a steady stream, so we have to keep on top of it,” said JD Williams’ Madden.
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