Don't lose your legacy staff

Mainframe IT support is causing concern as the staff who do that job are reaching retirement age. The suppliers felt the cold...

Mainframe IT support is causing concern as the staff who do that job are reaching retirement age. The suppliers felt the cold wind first as they pored over strategies and now for users, the issue has reached the boardroom. It is realised most keenly by those whose businesses rely on the mainframe's mission-critical attributes.

Peter Whitfield


We need to produce more people with the right big-tin skills, perhaps by changing the education systems of the IT-using nations. Then we need the raw material motivated. We need to get IT suppliers to change marketing policies and to present careers in mainframes as exciting.

For too long, the dreams of graduates have been dominated by the personalised font and colour of the desktop. What hope is there of changing the aspirations of a generation? There isn't going to be one, easy panacea. But there is plenty that astute firms can do in response.

The problem threatens all mainframe suppliers. What can these companies do. They can:

  • Make mainframe technologies more accessible. The mainframe on a laptop or as a software-only package is here. Accessibility creates interest and opportunity that drives experience and ultimately skills development

  • Make the mainframe easier to operate and maintain

  • Ensure the skills required to run mainframes are open. Partly, this is a response to the Windows/Unix alternative, but mainly it's because of the business requirement to integrate complex systems.

    Once integrated into an enterprise-wide system management solution, the mainframe becomes another box with no special requirements.

    The need to interoperate and integrate systems with others has always driven the less dominant mainframe suppliers. They have realised that architectural arrogance isn't a winning strategy and their products have now developed into sophisticated architectural chameleons ready to interoperate with anything.

    Then there is the use of open development environments. Java or Linux require ubiquitous skills. Developers never need to know the delivery engine is a mainframe. Disconnecting development from choice of deployment platform means there isn't an overhead.

    Finally, enterprise middleware can be used to hide system complexity. If any client system can access the mainframe through middleware, then who needs mechanics?

    The better suppliers have the skills chasm cracked. But that's not enough for the users.

    It is possible to build your strategy on mainframe benefits while reducing dependence on these skills.

    Make those legacy developers you have on your workforce feel valued and purposeful.

    Don't mothball people in a corner: they'll leave. Let them cross-train onto newer technologies. Cultivate them as mentors for others building enterprise-class systems on non-mainframe platforms. Show them a purpose and a future.

    All this won't work unless we tackle the fallacy that is endemic in our industry: the value of mainframe people is not what they know but the way they think. Perhaps that's where the IT skills building engine has most failed us.

    Peter Whitfield is ClearPath marketing director at Unisys

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