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Retiring greybeards force firms to retrain Java, .NET bods as mainframe sysadmins

Desperate CIOs respond to old buggers, er, buggering off

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New IT grads and Java and .NET jockies are being re-trained to run mainframes by big companies desperate to replace a generation of IT staff giving up work.

That’s according to Compuware, who has released a study that says CIOs are growing concerned about the looming skills shortage in their mainframe rooms.

They are concerned because they believe that the mainframe will remain critical to businesses’ operations for at least another decade.

The issue is especially critical in retail banking, where the majority of the big names have mainframes at the centre of their operations.

It’s the mainframe that often holds customer accounts – it’s literally where the money sits.

Worse, these systems are now on the front-line of new wave of IT development, as banks compete for new customers with services such as mobile banking.

Banks are being pitched on new services, too. Startups, ISVs and SIs want banks to integrate their apps into these customer account systems to do things like suck in eBay or Amazon purchases, so the customer’s becomes a central hub that lets them view all their transactions.

Others are going further: Standard Chartered bank has begun an internal pilot of BitCoin using a service from nine-month old start-up Switchless.

Switchless claims its online services lets users buy, sell and spend BitCoin, but neither the company nor Standard Chartered would discuss the pilot. Yet, despite all this, Compuware reckons that those same CIOs concerned about losing their mainframe people also lack a proper plan to pick up the shortfall.

The data is from Compuware’s survey of 350 CIOs from large companies around the world in different sectors and updates its last report in 2011. Compuware reckons 81 per cent of CIOs believe that the mainframe will remain a key business asset for another 10 years.

Sixty six per cent fear that the impending retirement of the mainframe workforce after 30 years in the job will hurt their business.

By “hurt”, chiefs are worried about their inability to support legacy mainframe applications. Of most concern is that the lack of experienced bodies will put key applications at risk, leading to reduced productivity and new IT projects running late.

Despite all of this, 40 per cent have no formal plans in place for dealing with the crisis.

Neil Richards, director of Compuware’s EMEA mainframe business, told The Register he’s noticed customers are starting to draft in techies from other parts.

“In customer meetings we’ve noticed a new generation of mainframe workers - a lot of businesses are bringing in new people and trying to train them up,” he said.

Those are the IT hires fresh off the job market and .NET and Java devs already inside the companies.

But training up these staff won’t automatically pay off, as there’s a lead time on getting up to speed on the mainframe and getting to understand how it actually works with the business. That’s an especial problem in banking, as companies roll out new services like mobile banking that must access customer accounts on mainframes.

New services are creating two problems: making the applications more complicated, while the issue of performance has become critical.

“'Poor performance' is now being viewed as a defect,” Richards reckoned.

He cited the mobile banking apps in one financial institution that he said spins up 10 different mainframe transactions just for the user to log in.

The growing complexity of the apps combined with the loss of those who actually know in detail how the mainframe works is causing a problem when things go wrong, as nobody can quickly pinpoint the problem. Richards reckoned he’s seen an upsurge in the number of “war rooms” inside banks when things have gone wrong.

He described meetings of up to 50 people from IT business areas within the bank, such as database, network, application and server, who have been drafted in to find the source of the problem and to fix it quickly.

Of course, banks in particular have thought nothing of hiving off qualified and experienced IT staff over the last 10 years and shipping their jobs to India.

NatWest, RBS and Ulster Bank suffered a catastrophic mainframe outage in summer 2012, when customers couldn’t get their money or make payments. The problem was traced to a mis-applied software patch from a team in India, and came after the bank had cut hundreds of IT staff to help cut costs.

But the retirement wave hitting mainframe staff, combined with the demand for new services like mobile, are different, according to Richards. Banks are waking up to the need to do more than simply cut costs.

“The thing driving this is the introduction of mobile banking. IT’s making things even more complex,” Richards said.

What does Richards suggest CIOs should do to address the shortage in a more coordinated manner? First, profile your IT people by age, skills and the applications and systems they are responsible for. Next, capture and record their knowledge so it can be passed on to new people - such as those new grads and those Java and .Net code slingers.

“If I was the CIO in any bank, I’d want to quantify the problem and have a plan in place to fix it,” Richards said. ®

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