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Modern Mainframe Skills

Simon Ratcliffe

Simon Ratcliffe
Principal Consultant, Advisory

I have written many times of the mainframe being the workhorse of business but never has this been a more pertinent comment than at present as many of us are locked down and relying more on web-based services than ever before.  Financial services, supply chains, logistics, government and healthcare are all reliant on these workhorses and they have delivered.  There are, however, some issues that have emerged because of the global impact of COVID-19.

Speaking to a bank recently, they were struggling because they had originally outsourced their mainframe development work to an Indian outsourcer who had, quite rightly, called their workers back from the UK to India.  This has left a big gap in that organisation’s mainframe skills base.  Mainframe skills have been an issue for years as fewer new entrants into the workplace choose the mainframe as their preferred pathway.

The current pandemic and its consequences have brought together the perfect storm of high dependence on mainframes and logistical issues associated with supplying the critical skills.  Although the current situation is clearly a crisis, it does provide us with an insight into the future and should drive a reformation of our thinking in this area.

Vital core technology

There has been much research in recent years that suggest two of the biggest blockers to digital transformation are the need to update legacy applications and a shortage of the relevant skills.  These two issues are interlinked but perhaps we should consider them in a different light.  Rather than racing to ‘update’ the legacy system, we should take the time to examine the value the legacy brings and invest in them for appropriate workloads.  The mainframe has been the mainstay of many IT environments for years and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, especially with the newer mainframe options for supporting todays software.  We need look no further than the global crisis today where many of our immediate needs are being delivered courtesy of mainframes.  Rather than treating it as legacy that needs to be replaced, we should regard it as a vital core technology that should be developed, and the skills associated with it should also be evolved.

It is true that the traditional mainframe workforce is older and, in many cases, close to retirement but not bringing in new skills because it is ‘legacy’ technology is ignoring the value it is bringing into organisations today.   Digital transformation needs to embrace the mainframe as a key component and bringing the right skills to operate these mission critical systems should be a core business objective.

Unfortunately, as the story at the head of this article shows, many organisations have taken a short-term cost-cutting approach to their mainframe rather than having a robust approach that can withstand a crisis and create a strong, long term approach.  Mainframe skills will be required for several generations, not only to operate current critical systems but also to modernise and evolve the mainframe as a key element of transformed organisations.

It is argued that mainframe skills are not appealing to the new generations of IT workers, but this is simply not true.  Far sighted organisations have operated mainframe academies for years and do so very successfully.  The most successful of these programmes have recognised that it is not the desire for skills that is in short supply but rather the way they are taught.  Too many training programmes have been operated using the same training and development approach for many years, but the new generations need to learn differently.  Creating more effective learning and development strategies is vitally important to attract new talent into the mainframe arena.

The so-called ‘modern skills’ such as agile development and DevOps have been core skills in mainframe for many years, but they have not been taught in the same way and have, therefore, become dated.  Updating these and incorporating key skills such as Linux in the mainframe education programme will ensure the appeal is broader and draw more people towards the technology.

 The mainframe has had an image problem since its (incorrect) demise was predicted in the late 90s and this is one of the key issues that needs to be addressed but when we look at how many of the COVID-19 created issues are being addressed by the steady reliable work of the mainframes we  really should revise that view.

Unparalleled reliable computing power

Mainframes were designed from the ground up to be remotely managed and remotely accessed, in the past 30 days Ensono has taken on managing three new mainframe clients, with all onboarding achieved remotely.  Their reliable computing power is unparalleled and because they are mission critical the governance around them is robust.  Many mainframes remain as the beating heart of government, logistics, finance and healthcare with access through a wide API ecosystem.  We need to keep this heart beating and to do this we need to keep developing the skills into the future.

Ensono have been managing mainframes for over forty years and have a long-established Mainframe Academy that is always over-subscribed by young candidates because the approach to learning and development is modern and fresh.  This approach has been replicated in several larger organisations with great success.  Rather than trying to constantly ‘remove the legacy’ and avoid the ‘legacy skills issue’ we should understand the position of the mainframe in the modern world and seek to build modern skills around it.

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