Are we potentially facing a shortage of mainframe talent?
“Three of us set up this tool in 1989. One is retired, and the other person is somewhere in heaven!”
That was the remark of Alf (name changed), the senior mainframe architect at a large European enterprise, as he pointed toward the ceiling of the meeting room. Everyone else in the room let out a half-nervous smile, unsure how to react to the statement and hoping for some visual cues from Alf. We were all talking about a specific version control and packaging tool on the mainframes, which was heavily customized to suit this particular enterprise. The attendees were a mix of DevOps enthusiasts and mainframe architects and engineers with the purpose of re-evaluating the existing tooling stack on mainframes with a view to modernize them as part of a wider agile/DevOps initiative. Alf’s remark in the meeting has stayed with me ever since.
The reality is that 96 of the world’s top 100 banks, 23 of the 25 top U.S. retailers and 9 out of 10 of the world’s largest insurance companies run IBM’s System z mainframes. Most digital transformations have barely scratched the surface of the legacy stack.
Like many other enterprises, this enterprise had outsourced most of its application estate to IT service providers. In few years’ time, Alf will move to a well-deserved, retirement phase of his life and take his mammoth knowledge base that the enterprise had always taken for granted. There are many more Alfs across various enterprises today with significant mainframe know-how who are set to disappear from workplace over the next few years, making these enterprises entirely dependent on external service providers—so much for those bold visionary statements for the CXOs such as, “Technology is business and business is technology.”
Most enterprises today have ambitious digital transformation agendas, investing millions on various initiatives ranging from digital, DevOps, agile, UX and blockchain. This will manage to “DevOpsify” the enterprise skin (aka front end, customer experience layer, or mode 2 apps) and, in many cases, possibly, their non-legacy middle-end system as well. However, the majority of the back-end stack, especially in financial services, remains in the legacy world (zSeries or iSeries).
One might argue with a seemingly coherent logic that, “Well, we won’t have mainframes in a few years as we will move to newer platforms soon.” But it helps to remember Mark Twain’s quip, “The rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated,” applies so well to the mainframe world!
In simple terms, your enterprise most likely will adopt a combination of the following strategies to deal with the legacy challenge:
- Retire mainframe app, in some cases.
- Extract business logic and move it to distributed platforms.
- Componentize the monolithic mainframe code and hook them to APIs for external consumption.
- Build new platforms to replace legacy apps.
There is one least common denominator for any of the above strategic direction that your enterprises take: ever-diminishing mainframe knowledge! So, I ask again: Where is the next generation of mainframe talent?