June 10, 2015 Workforce

Too Many CIOs Still Without Plan To Address Mainframe Skills Shortage

31099_ITT_CIO_WP_230x300_baIn April 2012 Compuware sponsored a study that showed 71% of CIOs were worried about the looming mainframe skills shortage. This wasn’t surprising given that the first set of Boomers reached age 65 in 2011 and were expected to continue to retire in droves for the next 15-20 years. And, according to a census report, the majority of those workers will in fact retire by the time they turn 65.

What was surprising was that the study revealed that 54% of those same CIOs were not doing something about it. CIOs are typically known to be planners, setting vision and direction for their organizations. They tend not to have a “just wing it” attitude. For example, when faced with the Y2K crisis, they thwarted major miscalculations in IT processing with heroic preparedness. Why did CIOs plan so well for Y2K but many seem to be winging it when planning for a major skills shortage of their most valuable resources? I wrote about this difference in preparedness in 2012 here.

What progress has been made?

A subsequent study conducted in 2014 showed the percent of CIOs with no plan fell to 40% so a little progress was being made. And we just checked in with 350 CIOs again. The new study covering this topic along with others, shows that CIOs are still worried: 70% are concerned that a lack of mainframe documentation will hinder knowledge transfer and create risk.

So how are the plans for addressing the mainframe shortage coming along? The needle has only been moved a smidge – 39% still have not put a plan in place!

This wouldn’t be a problem if IT leaders saw the mainframe as irrelevant. To the contrary, the survey also showed:

  • 88% believe their mainframe would remain a key business asset for at least the next ten years
  • 81% see their mainframe running new and different workloads driven heavily by distributed applications
  • 78% see the mainframe enabling innovation

Supporting these findings, a separate 2014 study from BMC showed only 6-7% of respondents saw their organization leaving the platform.

And it’s true, we are not getting any younger. 2015 marks the year that the millennial generation will surpass the Baby Boomer generation as the U.S.’s largest living generation according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the U.S. is not the only country with an aging population. Canada, Japan and most of Europe has an even older population than the U.S.

The sky isn’t falling, but there is a major disconnect here.

Reasons then, reasons now

Three years ago, these were the reasons I offered for the lack of planning:

  1. Other skills taking priority. Perhaps Recruiting departments are overwhelmed looking for expertise in areas such as virtualization, network administration and security.
  2. Taking workers for granted. Companies may believe that since many of their mainframe-savvy employees have worked for them for years, they’re likely to work past 65.
  3. Underestimating skill sets. Some IT Management may believe “parts are parts,” thinking they’ll just take a developer from here and put him/her over there.
  4. Underestimating the role of z/OS applications. In a recent conversation with an industry analyst about the role of the mainframe, he said, “There is a global misunderstanding of how computers work.”
  5. “If it ain’t broke” mentality. Perhaps businesses and their IT leaders simply think they should wait until something breaks.

Today, I would emphasize reasons #2 and #4. We continue to see IT Management take advantage of Boomer loyalty and underestimate the role of the mainframe. Many new-age CIOs rose up the ranks when there was unsubstantiated hype that the mainframe was dying a slow death. They likely bought into that perception and it became their reality. What they didn’t understand they pushed aside and tried to ignore it.

A new market dynamic

While the reasons for resistance to replace mainframe talent haven’t dramatically changed in three years, there is a new dynamic at play: the rising impact of mobility. In the white paper, “The Technology Economics of the Mainframe, Part 3: New Metrics and Insights for a Mobile World,” Dr. Howard Rubin reported that in 2004, there was less than 1 mobile transaction per day per mobile user. By 2014, that number grew to at least 37 transactions per day per mobile user. Dr. Rubin estimates that by 2025, that number will approach 5X that level – in excess of 200 mobile transactions per day per user – and with 2 billion mobile users that is a total of 400 billion user transactions per day globally.

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Rubin graph

Source: Rubin Worldwide


What does that have to do with the mainframe brain drain? The explosive growth in mobility has a direct impact on mainframe code and mainframe transaction load.  For the mobile enabled “systems of engagement” to really meet the expectations of customers, they must integrate with the mostly mainframe “systems of record” where 80% of the world’s enterprise data lives. For the 39% without a plan for replacing the IT staff that best understand these applications, this will be extremely problematic.

It’s not too late

There is still time to hire and incorporate Peer Programming into your processes. I think that mainframe developers really will stick around well into their 60s. They are a loyal crew. And, recent college graduates can be hired and trained to take the torch. After all, many, including myself, didn’t learn Assembler, COBOL or JCL in college. We learned them in house, on-the-job. Additionally, products like Compuware Topaz are modernizing “green-screen” tools and most importantly, providing new capabilities to help new hires quickly understand the application logic and enterprise data that keep the world’s economy running in full force.

So yes it’s not too late, but it would be best to hurry.

Download the full white paper, “’The New World of Mainframes’ CIO Survey: Mapping the Platform’s Future In a Mobile, Big Data World” here.