The bigger picture: the right mainframe talent for the workplace

Join the dots

In the digital world, everything is a connected. And that includes big back-office “systems of record” on mainframes, as much as the Internet of Things (IoT) or mobile devices. This hyper-connected world of unprecedented nodes and connections is proving harder and harder to manage: our connected world is a complex world.

The trouble with all that complexity, of course, is that you need a whole bunch of smart people to manage it. And this creates a major skills headache for each organisation.

>See also: Mainframe data is critical to enterprise-wide strategies

Skilfully done

A smart move might be to train staff on the emerging standard technologies to ensure you have enough technical staff to deal with all the innovation. However, even agreeing the right technical skills is tricky.

The right “standard” is a largely subjective view in an ever changing IT skills market. What’s popular, what’s growing, what is useful in academia versus business, what is enterprise scale, what’s for the hobbyist, what’s simple to learn, what’s intellectually challenging – these are all factors and indicators. Skills in demand include DevOps, IT security and AI, but more specifically IT languages such as Java, JS, C#, Ruby, Python, C and C++.

Does this matter in the mainframe world? It is more significant than on face value. Consider the wise words of IDC at the last SHARE summit –the mainframe needs to be truly connected.

It means Linux workload, Java, full-stack development featuring elements on z, integrated tool chains that work across all environments, the unifying force of cloud computing. This is what “The connected mainframe” offers the enterprise.

This is blurring the lines in IT. Over time, IT technology investment has produced a very complex picture, and enterprise organisations need to balance many combinations of technology simultaneously. For the mainframe to be the nucleus of the new corporate IT world, it cannot be managed in isolation. Nor can any technical skills.

>See also: Mainframe programmers can have beards too

In terms of how the industry is coping with the IT skills challenge, the underlying statistics are worrying. The number of computer science courses taken in UK universities fell 28% from 2005 to 2014 (Universities UK), the CBI says 39% of firms struggling to recruit workers with STEM skills (UK BCS), while according to Indeed Recruitment, 44% of the hardest-to-fill roles are application developers.

A practical approach

With such gloomy statistics, it is hard to see how anyone can see a long-term solution. But, as these examples show, there are some simple solutions out there.
Example 1 is about an intern.

As any good intern should, they were looking to expand their skills. This is a Microsoft intern whose skill-base is Visual Studio, C#, .NET. But they wanted to absorb other languages – and the opportunity came boarding a train ride in Canada.

They downloaded a free COBOL product, used the online tutorial, and learnt enough to build themselves a small application. Before the 6 hour journey was over, the new app was complete. For the intern, the COBOL skills challenge is a simple case of rolling sleeves up and figuring it out.

Example 2 is at the other end of the scale, in a large enterprise. The objective was to determine if the managed code app-dev team could be used to support some additional COBOL related activities, who were short on resources.

>See also: Legacy systems: the next financial crisis?

The senior developer put themselves through a COBOL self-learning activity. Within a few hours they were coding and debugging COBOL, using the same IDE they already had. This became the basis for an app-dev team unification which resolved the long term skills question and their short term bottleneck.

The third example is from IT services provider Sopra Steria. They were trying to find a way to provide a wider range of skills from their team of app dev consultants. Some knew Java, some COBOL, but there was no much overlap, which was inefficient in terms of placing consultants. They used the same IDE and technology to provide a single environment for all consultants and enabled cross training across all required languages. The average age of the consulting team is now under 30.

The fourth example surrounds the organisation IT-ology. Blue Cross of South Carolina established a mainframe and COBOL training organisation in response to a growing need for hard-to-find skilled IT talent.

IT-ology now has training centres around the country using IBM, Micro Focus and other technology to offer mainframe and COBOL courses to bridge the gap between what college kids are learning and what employers actually want.

>See also: Taking the IT departments pain away

A successful strategy

What did each of these examples illustrate? Very simply they each combined the right attitude, the right toolset, and the right levels of collaboration. The attitude to change and placement of skills as part of a strategic initiative helps leaders define and manage the issue correctly. “Skills are amongst 3 top priorities for CIO”, said the Redefining Connections paper, from IBM’s training team. They added, “91% of torchbearer CIOs are putting more effort into developing skills to support the IT of the future”

What’s more, the technology is available, today, to those who need it. Impressive tooling that supports modern era development techniques as well as all the traditional mainframe and COBOL subsystems is already available on the market.

With the many options of training programs, partners and the literally hundreds of academic institutions who provide mainframe and COBOL courses, the ecosystem to provide the right future supply of skilled talent is significant.

Organisations are resolving their skills challenge by working with vendors, academia and partners. The IT skills challenge exists but can be tackled with the right commitment and technology.


Sourced by Derek Britton, director of strategy and enablement at Micro Focus


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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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