Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Face to The Mainframe Skills Shortage Argument

by Brenda J. Christie

I recently came across an article on attracting Millenials to the mainframe workplace.  Written by Chris O'Malley, president and CEO of CompuWare, the article, 'Millennialize the Mainframe,' discussed three challenges facing companies using mainframes.

Two of these challenges are very familiar to people in the mainframe world.  The first challenge which is usually bandied about in a "the sky is falling" fashion, is the imminent shortage of mainframe employees due to Baby Boomer retirement.

Challenge One - Baby Boomers Are Retiring

Looking at the chart below, the youngest Baby Boomer has 16 years until retirement, while the oldest Millenial is age 32.  Assuming a company using mainframe technology could attract a Millenial, there would be a maximum of 16 years to transfer knowledge from the veteran Baby Boomer to the Millenial.  

                                                 Source:  Social Security Administration






Years Until
Baby Boomer 1946-1964 51 69 66 16
Generation X 1965-1984 31 50 67 36
Millenial 1982-2004 11 32 67 56

(1) Youngest and Oldest Age are calculated as of 2015.
(2) Full Retirment Age for people born after 1960 is the number of years with several months, (66 and 2 months, 66 and 3 months, 66 and 10 months) depending on the birth year.

Successfully recruiting a Millenial does not take into consideration the propensity of Millenials to job-hop. According to a 2012 Forbes article, Millenials stay at a job on average, for 4.4 years.  A more recent article (February 2015) published by Entrepreneur, contained a job-hopping infographic part of which is reproduced below.

Attracting Millenials to Mainframes

So after training 4 different Millenials, all of whom leave after 4.4 years, the youngest Baby Boomer retires and a whole generation of mainframe knowledge retires as well.  Perhaps there is reason for trepidation and a 'sky is falling' mentality.  However, the extent to which a skill shortage in mainframe technology exists clearly depends on the distribution of mainframe employees across generations.  Companies with Gen X mainframe employees have 20 more years to plan for Gen X retirement.

Challenge Two - Controlling Costs

Companies continue to be under pressure to control costs. My February 18, 2015 post, Mainframe's High MLC Cost - Can It Be Reduced? addressed some of the pressure IT management is undergoing to reduce software licensing costs.  Additionally, seventy percent (70%) of respondents to BMC's 2014 Mainframe Survey placed IT Cost Reduction/Optimization as their #1 priority in 2015.  Given tight IT budgets, many companies may not be able to provide training to existing mainframe personnel in technologies more likely to result in increased revenue, e.g., mainframe mobile, analytics and Big Data.  

Challenge Three - Leveraging Mainframe Intellectual Property

In his  'Millennialize the Mainframe articleChris O'Malley refers to Mainframe Intellectual Property more as the code comprising and used in mainframe applications.  I differ with him on this somewhat since a lot of mainframe code is undocumented, and even when written in higher level languages such as COBOL, can be cryptic to anyone other than the teams that wrote the code.  From this perspective, mainframe intellectual property is actually the knowledge held in the developer's head, not necessarily, the code itself.  I do agree with Chris, however, that this knowledge needs to be harnessed to advance innovation in order to gain competitive advantage.   I also think it is in this area of harnessing information and creating innovation where Millenials may best find a home.  These are in addition to the 4 measures Chris O'Malley recommends be employed in order to maximize business value during the changing of the guard.

The Solutions

Chris O'Malley recommend that the following four steps be employed during the mainframe generational transition from Baby Boomer to Millenial:

  1. Diligently Cast the Vision. With this measure Chris O'Malley is acknowledging that many people still view the mainframe as old, legacy technology.  His admonition is to continuously show how the mainframe is being used today with new technologies such as mobile and cloud.
  2. Provide Millenials with Digital Workplaces that match their work style and have a contemporary feel and function.  Loose the Dilbert cubicles.
  3. Give Millenials tools that are the accumulation of mainframe expertise acquired by their predecessors.  This also translates to keep them away from the code.  My October 13, 2014 post, COBOL Development Environments, highlights several GUI-like interfaces which can be use in-lieu of 3270 monochromatic terminals.  These GUIs are more contemporary in the sense that many are similar to the Java, PHP  and web designer toolkits which employ drop-and-drag, in-line syntax checking, and syntax completion capabilities.
  4. Continuously update the tools to take advantage of improvement and innovation in various methodologies, Agile, for example.

I think these are good solutions.  I also think they are not enough and would not recommend hedging a bet that they will end in the desired result.  It might be better to also supplement these measures with document-rich objectified code written by Baby Boomer mainframe personnel who have either written them or are familiar with the various mainframe applications.  This code would then be included in code libraries for later use.  This activity could be achieved on pay-as-you-go basis for applications and would most likely have appeal to Baby Boomers after retirement.

A further option would be to work with IBM Watson to discern the logic and business rules underling the code for documentation purposes.  The results could then be produced in a universal format such as XML and fed into a software utility which would then reproduce the code in the desired programming language.

Bye for now,

Brenda J. Christie