Legacy skills still in demand

Ross Bentley

The dwindling number of job advertisements for legacy skills belies the need for old-world skills in the brave new world of...

Ross Bentley

The dwindling number of job advertisements for legacy skills belies the need for old-world skills in the brave new world of e-commerce development.

Despite this month's SSP/Computer Weekly survey, which showed that demand for mainframe and AS/400 skills is at an all-time low, recruitment consultants and e-commerce project leaders say these skills still have value.

"As companies look to integrate their Web sites with back-end systems, they need people who understand legacy programs such as Cics, DB2, Cobol and Vax Powerhouse,"said David Bloxham, operations manager at IT recruitment firm GCS.

"We have clients, major bricks-and-mortar companies, who have invested three decades of development into back-end systems that work faultlessly. It is a waste to do away with all this. So many are linking these systems to the Web to extend their life and functionality."

Yet Mark Quinn, managing director at e-development firm Incase Consulting, believes the new breed of "e-legacy"IT professionals mix old skills with new Internet programming skills. "People who have legacy skills but have trained themselves in Internet skills are a precious commodity as they can work on both sides of the camp," he said.

Quinn suggested the ideal combination would be an understanding of Cobol and TCP/IP plus knowledge of Enterprise Java Beans and Web application servers, with the ability to design these systems and make them perform together.

"It is much easier for someone who has the old skills to get into the new world, rather than vice-versa," said Quinn. "Old skills such as DB2 and Oracle are hugely complex applications - you don't get to understand these in five minutes. They take years to really get to grips with.

"But it is still a major hurdle to make the transition and a shock for many of the old school. The object-orientated (O/O) approach requires a totally different way of thinking to the traditional, procedural way of working. Coders must learn Java as a language implementation of O/O. There are also many types of Web application servers to become familiar with."

David Pirrie, a veteran project leader of several e-commerce projects who is currently contracting as an e-architect at Deutsche Bank, said many older IT professionals also bring with them a host of complementary skills that have been mislaid in the O/O world.

"It is not so much their ability to code Cobol that is of value but their disciplined approach to IT. They are more likely to understand the business drivers and the need for configuration management, proper testing, adequate fall-back and error reports," he said.

"The new breed are into the buzz of what is possible with the new technologies but may not understand the need, for example, for audit trails and trace exceptions."

Pirrie said newcomers to O/O may find the pace of development a surprise. "Java programmers can churn code out at quite a rate while there is also a greater rate of change in the new world, with system upgrades happening every six months or so.

"This is in contrast to how it is done in the legacy world. If you apply the tight controls normal in the legacy world, this would be unacceptable today because of the time it takes. It is a case of getting the balance right between getting the job done on time and making sure the development is glitch-free. This is not easily achieved," he said.

Prior to joining Deutsche Bank three months ago, Pirrie was technical/project manager at British Airways contracting on an e-commerce project. BA was proactive in cross-training its legacy coders in Internet skills. He said, "It makes sense to do things this way, since it shows the company has a commitment to its staff. If you have a good employee who gets things done and understands the business you must try and hold onto them."

Old world meets brave new e-world

  • Legacy skills are still in demand as companies plan to integrate their back-end systems with their Web front ends

  • The most marketable personnel are those who have updated their knowledge with Java and Web application server expertise. Experts say it is much easier to move from the legacy world to the Internet world than vice versa

  • Companies who cross-train their mainframe programmers with Internet skills will reap the benefit of business know-how and staff loyalty
  • Read more on IT jobs and recruitment