Baby boomers out, millennials in: Securing the future of the mainframe

It is clear that the looming mass exodus of baby boomers due to retirement, coupled with lack of mainframe courses taught at universities across the globe, will leave a canyon in mainframe skills and expertise.

Indeed, 2017 has been heralded as the tipping point for baby boomer retirement, with the number of people leaving the workforce this year growing faster than the number in work. This is the first time this has happened outside of a recession since the 1980s, according to the Resolution Foundation think-tank.

>See also: The bigger picture: the right mainframe talent for the workplace

This presents a serious challenge to IT departments as senior mainframe technology experts leave the workforce along with their intellectual knowledge of the systems they support. When your mainframe talent retires, how do you replace the expertise they take with them? Does mainframe even matter when digital transformation is taking everything to the cloud?

Mainframe is dead, long live the mainframe

IT journalist Stewart Alsop will forever be known for predicting the end of mainframe. His crystal ball gazing led him to predict that the last mainframe would be unplugged on 15 March 1996.

21 years later and mainframe is still very much alive and kicking, celebrating its 52nd birthday this year and with Big Data, analytics, and ever-increasing transaction volumes across the globe, mainframe is not going away. For proof, look to IBM’s recent announcement that it will bring machine learning along with Pervasive Encryption to traditional mainframe customers

The core systems of thousands of banks, insurers, manufacturers – and hundreds of thousands of lines of COBOL code – are supporting the world economy. Indeed, mainframe accounts for 70% of the Fortune 500’s core systems.

>See also: The mainframe: mission-critical to operations

You could be forgiven for thinking that mainframe is becoming redundant due the continued rise and scale of cloud adoption. The truth is quite the opposite: enterprises are finding mainframe useful in the switch to cloud computing—turning ‘big iron’ into giant data servers that provide cloud applications with the information they need. Almost nine in 10 enterprise CIOs surveyed by Compuware said that legacy technologies will remain an important part of their business for at least the next decade.

The mainframe talent drain and its impact on business

We often hear about the very real problem of the IT skills gap, but nowhere else is it more pertinent than in mainframe. Forward-thinking enterprise IT leaders anticipate very real headaches in the form of increased application risk, lower productivity and more project overruns due to retiring mainframe talent.

Compounding the problem, millennial IT workers are coming up short on COBOL and other critical mainframe skills. Despite its rich relevance to today’s business operations, university courses have dropped mainframe and its supporting code, such as COBOL, from the curriculum.

This begs the question, who will train, and retain, the younger mainframe workforce? How will the younger generation learn about today’s mainframes, while also preparing for what is to come?

>See also: The mainframe is hindering application delivery

Those IT leaders that can answer these questions with real solutions, will be better placed to survive and thrive and one strategy would be turning to the up and coming millennial workforce and developing the next generation of mainframers.

Training the next-generation mainframers

The time is now to develop a mainframe on-boarding programme to recruit, hire, train and continue to develop recent graduates and seasoned hires on mainframe best practices. A successful training programme must properly rotate learning opportunities for mainframe responsibilities.

A detailed on-boarding guide must steer the trainees through the programme in a way that allows junior-level interns to quickly gain hands-on mainframe experience. In addition, a “Mainframe Mentor” should be assigned to assist with technical questions and peer transfer of how the mainframe environment supports the business.

Utilisation of the test environment “the lab”: Similar to how flight simulators train pilots, there are benefits to having dedicated, hands-on training sessions for mainframe. The apprentices should wrap up the programme with technical assignments that complement a step upward appropriate for their building experience level and allow them to be more productive.

>See also: The mainframe is most secure but the insider threat looms

It should be tailored completely to their growing skills and knowledge-base, making it effective and productive in order to set up the NextGen ‘mainframer’ in a position to succeed.

The two-phase approach

Any mainframe on-boarding programme is best structured into two major phases lasting approximately 24 weeks:

Phase I  The first phase should be developed for interns, new recruits and others with little to no mainframe experience, covered over the first twelve weeks of their training. In this phase, they can learn about basic mainframe constructs such as TSO, ISPF, z/OS and JCL. Phase I is most successful with the inclusion of courses, thrice-weekly WebEx demos and individual hands-on training and achievable milestones. As appropriate, trainees should be provided with access to a mainframe lab so they can experiment with tasks in real-time to reinforce what they learn through the online courses and begin a series of hands-on exercises.

Phase II – The second phase covers the remaining twelve weeks. This phase will be more technically advanced and geared towards seasoned hires and interns who have completed Phase I. They can learn about mainframe tools and core processes used by teams, including hands-on operations with IBM z/OS Management Facility (z/OSMF), which among other mainframe management functions, streamlines the process of downloading, registering and installing vendor software, and multiple support processes covering disaster recovery oversight, storage management, ISV software and authcode support.

>See also: The journey from mainframe to cloud in a changing IT landscape 

It’s important to ensure that any on-boarding programme is a living process that is updated periodically to maintain pace with an evolving industry. The programme should evolve based on feedback from past participants into a tool that secures the mainframe’s future for the organisation.

An alternative approach – plug the gap

Organisations can transition from mainframe before the business is ready, train the next generation of mainframers or explore Remote Infrastructure Management for mainframe.

Remote infrastructure management adds a secure managed service layer to the existing mainframe environment, allowing third party experts to manage the mainframe remotely, reducing migration work efforts and risks. Furthermore, this frees up employees to focus on their core business and delivering a better service to their own customers.

IT leaders must accept the impending mainframe skills gap and begin planning accordingly to maintain competitive advantage and continue to enjoy the benefits of ‘big iron’. The end is not quite here yet.


Sourced by Ken Harper – director, Mainframe Services at Ensono


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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