Continuity and the Mainframe Ecosystem
IBM Champion Reg Harbeck dives into the mainframe skills gap and offers approaches for bringing up new talent
During our conversation, I mentioned the “Mainframe Continuity Planning” white paper I’d written in 2004 about the need to get a new generation of technologists on the mainframe, which I’d subsequently gone around the world presenting about, and how slow its impact seemed to be.
In fact, by 2005, other activities such as the IBM Academic Initiative and the SHARE z/NextGen project were also beginning to spin up. People at the heart of the mainframe ecosystem were waking up to the need for investment in a new generation of mainframers and trying to get the word out and make it happen. I was even interviewed at SHARE in Anaheim by Jim Michael, who was on the SHARE Board of Directors at the time, about some of the thinking I’d been working with.
Fast forward 19 years, and we’re still just getting started in bringing a new generation on board and have not gotten our enthusiasm for the platform’s potential in gear compared to other platforms, let alone the uniquely spectacular capabilities that the mainframe and its ecosystem offer.
But I haven’t given up—and many of my mainframe colleagues also continue to try to get the word out.
The Tipping (Boiling?) PointBut some days it feels like the proverbial “watched pot” that never boils. So, we work and wait for the world to wake up to the platform that has been running the world economy all along, with definitive strengths that are unique among all platforms.
But what will be the nature of our mainframe tipping—or boiling—point, when organizations wake up to the value of building their investment in the platform? And what can we do to both hasten and guide it?
After all, no one wants a free-for-all on the mainframe…and this is probably one of the reasons we’ve so studiously avoided a headlong rush into our platform.
Another reason is implicit in the previous sentence: “we.” Who are we? We are the keepers of the mainframe, often superannuated. We don’t really want to retire—we like it here, and a mainframe career doesn’t use you up like hard physical work. It’s hard to find any pastime outside of work as satisfying and challenging as keeping the mainframe running.
But the problem is we also like it the way we’ve always done it, with 3270 terminals, ISPF, JCL, SMP/E and a healthy dose of COBOL, Assembler, REXX and other established languages. And they all work great. It ain’t broke—why fix it?
But we won’t be around forever, and a new generation is going to want to work with technology that feels right to them, including taking advantage of modern interfaces and approaches and exploiting the amazing technical advances that IBM and other mainframe ecosystem members have made. And when enough of us retire, and enough new people arrive, that boiling point is going to hit, leaving many experienced mainframers feeling steamed rather than esteemed.
Mass Exodus, Delayed…And still we stay. In my case, for decades more if I have anything to say about it. But my peers and those who have been around even longer are beginning to depart more and more rapidly, while mainframe shops are doing emergency hiring (or outsourcing) when they discover, too late, that they hadn’t hired new people in time for them to be properly mentored, nor undertaken any of the more strategic elements of succession planning.
We’re also leaving in more capricious and boat-rocking circumstances. People may remain at their mainframe jobs well past retirement age just because they like the job and their coworkers. But that just creates a more and more precarious circumstance if no succession planning has been done. If a new management regime comes along and treats the mainframe team as unworthy of respect, sudden group mass retirements have proven to be a possible outcome.
Yet, for those organizations that are hit by such a disaster, if they can recover (and that’s a big “if”), rebuilding with a new generation can position them for a brilliant future, once a new generation has spun up and is solidly in place—sometime in the consequent 5 or 10 years.
“Prodicting” What Can’t Be ForestalledIn the book “Introduction to Enterprise Systems,” which I co-authored with Dr. Cameron Seay, David Boyes and Karl-Erik Stenfors, I describe the concept of “prodicting” as proactively predicting by choosing and actualizing the future, because, as so many futurists have pointed out, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
When I wrote my white paper in 2004, I suggested four possible responses to the coming mass retirement:
- Try to move off the platform, which has been tried with a spectacular lack of success by organizations large enough to need a mainframe.
- Outsource, which requires a very conscious engagement, not an attitude of giving someone else your problems and hoping they’ll go away.
- Hire experienced people, which relies on a dwindling supply of expertise.
- Hire and train a new cohort, which requires, again, deliberate and proactive engagement.
In other words, take advantage of the fact that some established mainframers haven’t retired yet, and give them people to mentor who already understand your corporate culture. Then, the already steep mainframe learning curve isn’t exacerbated. Instead, it creates an opportunity for building relationships of mutual respect. As a bonus, your new inside mentees will still have a fresh memory of what they’ve learned when your organization finally starts hiring new people who will need mentoring.
That last ingredient should have been the first—it’s time to sell your established mainframers on a feasible future that they can help create rather than forestall before moving on.
Respecting MainframersAfter all, respect was the essential gap all along. If the mainframe platform and people were treated with respect and seen as an investment opportunity (which has happened at some of the largest mainframe shops, with spectacular benefits), new cohorts of mainframers would have been a constant aspect of your environment.
But disrespect creates entrenchment and resistance to change, as established mainframers see the arrival of new people as an excuse to remove the experienced ones.
By instead enlisting the experienced people in identifying, planning, building and mentoring new people into the future of your mainframe environment, beginning with the insiders who are learning mainframe on the job, you can build a bright future instead of just deprecating the past.
After all, the mainframe is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Success is “prodictable!”
About the author
Reg Harbeck is a mainframe enthusiast who has worked IT and mainframes for over three decades. He's the chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics ltd.
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