With many experts in legacy systems approaching retirement age, users must retain IT know-how and identify which skills need to be handed on.
It has often been suggested that there is an impending skills crisis as the staff needed to maintain ageing legacy systems are themselves approaching retirement. The first thing to consider is precisely which skills are at risk.
Only after they have been identified can we provide a coherent statement about whether there is indeed a crisis looming. This may seem obvious, but to say there will be a legacy or mainframe skills shortage is of limited usefulness until we are more specific about which particular applications and languages, or systems software and operating environments, we are referring to.
There is a world of difference between the skills required to manage a legacy platform and those required to maintain the applications that run on it.
Mainframe systems administrators, for example, who are responsible for job schedules, systems security, operating system upgrades and the like, have different skills to the application developers creating the company's business logic in languages like Cobol, PL/I and Fortran.
Some of these skills are essential to ensure business continuity. Others are less so, depending on IT's strategy. Knowing which is which is the next step in understanding whether you have a skills crisis within your organisation.
This is especially true when you consider that each skill is responsible for its own piece of business. Ignore them or confuse them, at your peril.
Only when a company undertakes an enterprise-wide application audit, highlighting the respective cost:value performance of each, can it recognise which legacy systems deserve to be taken forward and which will continue to need for the skills that support it.
An audit of this kind will also help to identify which applications can be extended within their existing environments and which ones will find new life, and deliver greater value, on a more contemporary platform such as Windows, Unix or Linux.
Much of the concern at the heart of the legacy skills dilemma is in regard to the age of the workforce. The popular view is that many of the staff with appropriate skills will soon be retiring, taking with them, as they leave, not only the systems expertise they have accumulated, but also much of the business knowledge they acquired through years spent moulding information technology to the ever-changing contours of the corporation.
This certainly is an issue, with the average age of US federal government workers just under 50, and a recent survey across Cobol programmers in the US finding the average age to be between 42 and 49.
However, given that most of these workers still have a decade or more of regular employment ahead of them, the concern is less one of replacing their technical skills, important though these might be and more about preserving the business knowledge that they possess.
Organisations must act now to map out their legacy applications portfolios in order to achieve a greater awareness of just how significant any loss of knowledge might be when staff members leave.
Separating strategic business knowledge from commodity IT skills, or indeed the skills associated with applications for which there is no strategic requirement, is a vital step in creating the appropriate skills initiatives.
Another legitimate area of concern is the ability of organisations to recruit and retain the talented staff required to bridge the gap between the legacy world and the newer worlds of web services, Java and .net.
Not only has the number of university courses providing tuition on core legacy skills been falling, but also in some areas the levels of attendance on computer-related courses in general is in decline, with the UK IT attendance levels, for example, reportedly about 30% lower than three years ago.
Where courses are still available for legacy skills, both the business and academic worlds acknowledge that teaching a language in isolation is no longer a priority. The requirement is for interoperability. This is reflected both in the shape of courses appearing on the academic curriculum, and in the fact that systems integrators are retraining legacy workers with more contemporary skills. EDS, for example, has recently embarked on a retraining exercise for thousands of its mainframe veterans, updating them with the latest Java and .net web services skills.
With students receiving, in many cases, the most basic level of education on legacy systems, the onus falls heavily on industry to put its own house in order. The expectations and aspirations of the developers now entering IT departments for the first time are quite different to those of previous decades.
Organisations must acknowledge this and offer career opportunities in a way which appeals to new recruits, eager to populate their CVs with IT's more fashionable offerings. They must then ensure that career development opportunities continue to reflect those attitudes.
Today's new IT professionals, typically, do not aspire to linear career paths, aligned around a single piece of technology, but rather relish the chance to swap roles more frequently.
Organisations can use this to their advantage as they introduce pockets of legacy technology on a project-by-project basis, building the services and business components required of an agile, process-orientated IT infrastructure.
The technology with which analysts and programmers work on legacy applications has moved on. Regardless of deployment platform (mainframe, Windows, Linux or Unix) legacy applications can be developed using the rich, graphical functionality of the Microsoft Windows environment, supporting all language variants, databases and OLTP features, and automating the creation of web services for integration with Java and .net.
Organisations looking to encourage the uptake of legacy skills by the new breed of IT staff passing through their doors must destroy the myth that the language is as antiquated as the green-screen and batch-orientated tools once used to code it.
Furthermore, with Cobol sitting alongside Visual Basic, C# and Asp.net within the Microsoft Visual Studio environment there is no need for organisations to base their investment decisions on techno-religious debates about which programming language is the best for the job.
Legacy languages like Cobol have proven their value to the business. Legacy services become simply another piece of the heterogeneous landscape of the IT world.
Contemporary platforms are putting increasing pressure on the mainframe, and the mainframe world itself is embracing Linux, Java and web services, constantly eroding the divide between the old and the new.
With retirement of key legacy workers still some way off, there is plenty of time for IT directors to ensure a smooth transition of skills, but they can only do this by embracing the cultural needs of today's recruits, and ensuring that existing staff have every opportunity to impart their knowledge of the legacy systems and the business processes they encapsulate.
Mike Gilbert is director of product strategy at legacy development tools company Micro Focus
This was first published in July 2005