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Recruiting Untapped Mainframe Talent

One of the biggest challenges in the world of legacy technology is the talent gap. While venerable systems such as mainframes still run the world, it is incredibly difficult to find people to run and manage them. This creates a precarious situation for CIOs and CTOs who are under constant pressure to help their teams keep up with today’s demands. Many companies dedicate significant resources to hire newly minted engineers and programmers and turn them into legacy systems gurus, but they’re missing a major source of talent sitting right in front of them: mid-career technologists looking for their next adventure.

Why the Mainframe Matters

Few industries are as mercurial as the IT sector. Yesterday’s groundbreaking innovations are literally sitting in parking lots and dumpsters because the shelf life of most tech is extremely limited. You can chalk it up to Moore’s Law or FOMO, but eventually just about every piece of technology will soon find itself replaced by the next bright, shiny object. That’s why the 60-plus-year run of the mainframe is so remarkable—and the only factor that can stop this juggernaut is a lack of qualified programmers and engineers to use and manage it. Unfortunately, it is harder and harder to find experts in legacy languages such as COBOL and assembler to run these systems.

One of the common misconceptions about mainframe machines is that they’re an ancient relic. In fact, the opposite is true; mainframe hardware and software continue to provide the most advanced technology in the world. Exhibit A is the new IBM z16 platform, which has built-in artificial intelligence and cyber-resiliency capabilities to support the hybrid cloud.

Just about every bank, government, airline and large enterprise relies on the mainframe to handle billions of transactions and calculations every day. Even newer technologies, including mobile apps, often have a mainframe running in the background. The major problem is that despite its unparalleled track record of success, the mainframe is often perceived as yesterday’s news. Mainframe classes are almost never taught at the university level, and newly minted graduates aren’t exactly clamoring to become mainframers.

The Recruitment Wars

The lack of mainframe experts isn’t exactly a new problem. The shortage was well understood 15 years ago, and the skills gap is growing. Companies are implementing aggressive recruiting campaigns (such as IBM’s “Master the Mainframe” challenge) to encourage younger technologists to work with legacy tools. But this approach overlooks an audience that is primed to make the shift: working technologists with 10-30 years of experience.

Mid-career professionals are essential to the future of the wider mainframe community because they fill in the critical gap between new graduates who are just starting their mainframe careers and industry veterans who are nearing retirement age. Adding to the mid-career skills pool not only helps build a diverse workforce, but it also helps to ensure the longevity of the mainframe talent pool by eliminating gaps and creating continuity.

For the last few decades, many developers haven’t even considered Big Iron because they are so focused on working in gaming or at FAANG companies (Meta/Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet/Google). But thanks to several developments in the last few months, working at one of the Silicon Valley giants suddenly doesn’t seem quite as appealing as it once did. Twitter just ousted thousands of engineers who refused to sign onto Elon Musk’s corporate manifesto. Amazon, Salesforce, Meta and other giants have announced significant layoffs. The soft economy is making it harder for startups to raise capital and hire staff. For the first time in a generation, the most desirable employers in the technology world aren’t looking so hot, even as legacy shops are actively hiring to fill gaps in their teams.

The trick, of course, is to connect job seekers with opportunities they may not know exist. Companies can post jobs all day, but it’s not an effective strategy if people aren’t looking for them. That’s why it is so important for companies to create outreach programs to let mid-career technologists know about openings.

Our company, which builds innovative tools for the mainframe, has been faced with the stark fact that nearly 40% of mainframers are in their retirement years—and the talent pool that has the skills to run these systems is also moving on. We decided not to just sit back and wait for the talent pool to erode over the next 3-5 years. Instead, we built an internal university in our Australia lab to create our own mainframers. Our approach is to hire highly qualified graduates and train them on how to program on the IBM Z platform. It’s been a great way to fill the funnel, but it’s not a comprehensive long-term solution because the mainframe universe needs more than just Generation Z to thrive. That is why we have extended this program to mid-career professionals who are looking for new opportunities and new career paths.

As part of this initiative, we developed a YouTube video about the opportunity and set a date for an interview day. The response was beyond our wildest dreams! The local news station in Perth, Australia, ran a news story about the announcement. We didn’t expect to find so many people looking to make this type of career change, and we were shocked by the response as our inboxes filled up with resumes from amazing professionals who wanted to do something different.

Why Be a Mainframer?

We’re often asked why anyone would want to work on a platform that has been around for decades. The simple answer is that there is no other innovation of the computer age that has lasted as long or been as dominant as the mainframe. In fact, it is so ubiquitous that many people forget its critical role in everything from booking a plane ticket, to sending a bank transfer, to making a credit card purchase. The mainframe is the foundation on which the entire modern technology world is built. The better question to ask is why someone looking for a stable and interesting career opportunity wouldn’t think about the mainframe.

Companies need to be creative and think about how to fill the ranks of mainframe jobs that will become open in the next few years as current programmers and engineers retire. Simply posting job openings isn’t enough: Companies must invest in innovative solutions for hiring that will allow them to replenish their ranks from the outside; provide a fun, collaborative working environment; and look for skilled and experienced technology professionals who are open to making a switch. Based on the response that we’ve gotten so far, it appears to be a winning strategy.