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October 29, 2015updated 30 Aug 2016 11:26am

Back the mainframe – address the skills shortage

Opinion: Chris O’Malley, CEO of Compuware, looks at the looming skills shortage and how the mainframe is 'far from becoming an 80s throw-back'.

By Ellie Burns

"Hack the mainframe" is a phrase commonly used by spies of the silver screen, as they try, in earnest, to access top secret information. Hollywood’s fascination with the mainframe revolves around the operating system being the most reliable, secure and permanent platform available.

This holds true today, as far from becoming an 80s throw-back, the mainframe is actually being used more than ever.

A recent survey showed that 88% of CIOs said the mainframe will be a key business asset over the next decade. While mainframes have been in use for 50 years, they have adapted and changed to meet today’s business needs.

This is evidenced by the fact 81% of CIOs said that the mainframe is now running more new and different workloads compared to five years ago. Mobile banking, for example, relies on complex applications that draw data from the mainframe. Similarly, the infinite scalability of the mainframe means it is the perfect platform to deliver Big Data projects. The list goes on.

However, there may be trouble on the horizon. Mainframe developers are quickly reaching retirement age and nearly 40% of CIOs have no plans for addressing mainframe developer shortages. When you consider that three quarters of CIOs admit that their application developers have little understanding of the mainframe, this workforce transition issue needs to be front of mind now; otherwise organisations will suffer in the long-run.

The looming skills shortage

A large proportion of mainframe developers are the baby-boomers that created the original applications, which now form the DNA for many business-critical processes. Despite the rising retirement age, these individuals can’t work forever. When they retire they’ll take their knowledge and skills with them. As mainframe developers work in silos independent of others, the newer generations of developers remain largely unfamiliar with the mainframe and more importantly, with the application’s logic

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To maintain and nurture innovations that rely on the mainframe, businesses need to find a way to bridge the skills gap. To do this, they’re increasingly looking to facilitate the transferral of skills between mainframe and distributed application developers.

This test is aggravated by the independent silos in which mainframe developers traditionally work. By working independently, away from distributed application developers, the next generation of IT workers have had little opportunity to gain experience in understanding mainframe dynamics.

For example, skilled developers are often unaware that the way in which they have coded their application, although optimised for the distributed environment, can result in inefficient mainframe usage. This is important as mainframe costs are largely dictated by Million Instructions Per Second (MIPS) usage – the more requests, the higher the MIPS and overall cost of operation.

If applications aren’t developed with the mainframe in mind, code inefficiencies will not only drive costs up, but increase the risk of technical failure. Poor digital performance can tarnish a brand’s reputation and damage revenue, with the average mainframe outage costing a business £2.98m. As a result, protecting mainframe performance is critical.

What’s currently happening?

Of those that do have a plan to address the skills shortage, a common strategy is to deploy solutions that help operations teams troubleshoot problems on the mainframe, as and when they occur. While tools to find and fix problems quickly are a necessity, relying solely on this reactive approach is incredibly risky, and costly, considering the financial implications of mainframe outages.

Another strategy is to poach mainframe developers from elsewhere, but this only serves to prolong the skills shortage. As skills in the job market become increasingly scarce, the costs of hiring developers will invariably rise. As a result, the strategy of headhunting developers might not be financially viable in the long-term.

Some companies plan to outsource projects as needed. While outsourcing is an option, similar knowledge transfer issues exist. Organizations must be particular about choosing a good outsourcer, one that understands the environment and languages, follows agile processes and has access to tools that enable them to deliver well-tested, quality applications. Choosing the wrong outsourcers can create even further risk.

What should be happening?

When addressing the skills shortage, as with most things in life, preparation is essential. To ensure the mainframe torch continues to burn brightly, IT leaders need to install a transition plan to address the skills shortage and support new developers.

This transition plan should include an inventory of a company’s existing mainframe applications. This will help them identify how the skills shortage will impact different parts of the business. With this information, companies will be able to assess the urgency of the skills shortages and then can establish a realistic timeframe to bridge the skills gap

To maximise the mainframe’s potential in the future, companies need to deploy tools that provide a modernised development environment for the next generation. Businesses that roll out intuitive and easy-to-use tools that streamline mainframe tasks and increase mainframe usability, stand themselves in good stead to bridge the skills gap.

To enable the next generation of developers to collaborate across platforms, which will be increasingly important as the lines between the mainframe and distributed application worlds blur, companies need to identify how the skills shortage will impact them. They can then deploy tools that promote productivity by giving developers the ability to edit and analyse codes; compile programs and test applications.

The widespread retirement of mainframe developers doesn’t have to cause CIOs panic, but they do need to act now, before it’s too late. As soon as companies recognise the skills shortage and how the skills shortage will impact the business, they can employ a transition plan to deploy solutions that increase mainframe usability. By enhancing mainframe usability for the next generation of developers, businesses well be better positioned to maintain mainframe innovation in the future.


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