Monday, 8 December 2008

Hello – is anybody there?

When I was a youngster and first learned how to operate a mainframe, first learned how to load tapes, and change removal disks, first learned how to stick paper tape together again after a ripping time, and first learned how to hold a deck of cards up my arm without dropping it, everyone else was similarly aged. And we had fun.

And then we stopped being operators and started being programmers, managers, trainers, and writers. And we still had fun – but not so much because we had mortgages and children, etc.

And then we became very senior personnel and started talking about pension plans and setting up trusts so the right people benefited from our hard-earned money and possessions.

And in the meantime, mainframes stopped being interesting to the rest of the world, who thought working on Unix and Solaris, or Linux and Windows was much more fun. And people trained in COBOL and Fortran started sitting together in the staff canteen because there were so few of them and everyone else wrote in Java, C++, Python, etc, etc.

But the mainframes continued improving, and large organizations continued making do with fewer staff, and ran their important business on the mainframes – confident in their continuing success.

However, for a long time now, those mainframers have begun to retire, or to get less demanding jobs that have reliable hours and a short commute.

So what reminded me of this skills shortage? CA recently released a study by InfoPro of 270 senior IT execs from Fortune 2000 companies. The study found that 80 percent had mainframe staff who were eligible for retirement now or over the next couple of years.

No great surprise there, but it does highlight quite a serious problem. So is there an answer? Unfortunately, there are lots of answers! First the good news, autonomic management of mainframes is getting better, which means that it’s easier to tell the mainframe how to perform and then the machine will reliably get on and perform according to the instructions given. This means that less-skilled people can be used to run the mainframe and its major components like IMS, CICS, DB2, etc. Also the interfaces are looking more Windows-like, which makes communicating with the mainframe easier for “the youngsters” than in the “green screen” days.

There have also been moves by IBM to train youngsters to be able to program mainframes – so well done to them any other organizations doing the same. And, perhaps as an aside, it might be a good idea for more organizations to retrain their own IT staff to understand the workings of a mainframe.

The third alternative is the not so good news. It is to get rid of the mainframes altogether and migrate applications and data to mid-range machines.

So, from a blogger’s point of view: option one means that there will be fewer people reading this; option two means that youngsters will be able to read this but won’t because it’s not on Facebook or I should have made a video of me saying the words and put it on Youtube; and option three means that no-one at all will be reading it. So, depressingly, none of them are very positive from my perspective!

Anyway, if you are still using a mainframe, make sure you fill in the user survey at - time is running out. The Arcati Mainframe Yearbook 2009 will be out in early January.


Manju said...

i am a mainframe applications developer, been so for the past 5 years and would continue to be so for the foreseable future, i have been reading many articles over the past year about the skills shortage in this area. it suprises me about how the organizations who have mainframe shops din't look at resource pipeline to take on once the old guys retire... 80% of the mainframe workforce on the vergeof retirement looks a bit exaggerated as it almost sounds like the mainframe shops will have to be closed soon.. or the mainframe is so advanced that 20% of the remaining staff is enough to maintain them!!..

Dennis Decker Jensen said...

Hello - I am here. I have never used mainframes (only once, and very shortly), but I am one of the few showing increasing interest. I am 34 years old - does that count as a youngster? Not quite I guess, but close enough, since I only know microcomputers (since 9 years old).

The options do not look good, yes, but take a couple of prolific bloggers among those oldies you are talking about, and let them tell why the mainframe can be such an attractive, fun beast to harness, and the young will come. Stories about mainframe like that are hard to come by, if at all. I am still searching.

YouTube? Not my first choice, but it might be a good way to actually show something. Nearly nobody has easy access to try out things on a mainframe, and that is a serious entry barrier.

If I could download a VM tomorrow with z/OS and a darn good simulation of a mainframe, including tutorials, just run it on a BSD, Unix, Linux, Mac OS X, Windows Vista or what ever, and play with it like a reborn kid, O, yes, options would be way better, and it would certainly be fun! After that I bet more would be joining the herd of dragon masters! :-) Story telling is a keyword here.