Since the much heralded passing of Steve Jobs, time has ambled along at a brisk pace. Facebook went public, HP announced it is eliminating 27,000 jobs and Apple is rumored to be releasing the iPhone 5 this fall. The list goes on. As these events unfold around us, one wonders if there will be another visionary like Mr. Jobs, who will elegantly advance technology as he did to give people what they never even dreamed they wanted. Or, whether our century will see the likes of another Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the U.S. Naval Officer and pioneering computer scientist who co-created COBOL. We don’t know. But, the field is wide open, and as IT professionals who help shape technology, we should care.
As a long-time mainframe professional and manager for Compuware, I am responsible for leading a team that develops solutions for a computing platform (EF) that does not evolve as rapidly as other technologies. Still, mainframe applications have changed substantially in the past couple of decades. When I started my career back in the 80s, a programmer who was able to find a problem by navigating hundreds of pages of the mainframe system “dumps” was considered an expert in the field. Today’s programmers must be well versed in a multitude of technologies, as mainframe application paths are increasingly extending out to the Web and mobile devices. There, they serve not only corporations, but also tens of millions of consumers who bank, shop online and make travel reservations.
Despite the powerful role the mainframe plays in the day-to-day business of our lives, the mainframe isn’t widely understood and celebrated like its more popular cousins mobile and cloud. Our industry is facing major challenges in the next decade. We anticipate that roughly 40 percent of the world’s 2 million COBOL programmers will retire. At the same time, the mainframe profession isn’t attracting students graduating from our universities with a computer science degree. The growing importance of mainframe coupled with this impending mainframe skill shortage has CIOs worldwide very nervous, according to an independent research study commissioned by Compuware and conducted by Vanson Bourne. Overwhelmingly, CIOs are concerned about the business risks and costs associated with a retiring mainframe workforce. The study revealed that 71 percent of CIOs worry that the anticipated mainframe skills shortage will hurt their business. Further, 79 percent confirmed that a mainframe application outage poses a significatbusiness risk, and yet 78 stated that mainframe applications will remain a key business asset over the next decade.
Here at Compuware, we face a similar challenge. Some of our best and most experienced mainframe software developers will consider retiring in the next five to 10 years. While we are working to foster a diverse team of developers with a mixture of skill sets, we must take into account the possible loss of our more experienced architects and developers as we hatch long-term plans for our product line, including enhancing the Compuware Workbench, which has modernized the mainframe development environment and made it easier for new developers to work more efficiently.
What can we do, as mainframe managers, to help curb the skills shortage trend and attract top developers into our ranks? For starters, we can be ambassadors for the mainframe and talk to students and up-and-coming technology professionals at college career fairs, and even local high schools, about the advantages of working on the mainframe – and more importantly, dispel the misperception that working within the mainframe environment is a career limiter. With the creation of the Workbench as well as other modern tools, new programmers can work productively and efficiently in a mainframe development environment, while at the same time, benefit from a knowledge transfer from their more experienced colleagues.
Does your company have a relationship with area schools? Inviting students into your company to job shadow your developers is a great way to introduce young people to a career in mainframe. Even better, developing a summer internship program as Compuware has done enables students to get a real taste of what it feels like to work on a mainframe project and allows your company to help groom future employees. For its part, Compuware is taking steps to support mainframe education in Michigan’s universities to attract top talent to our company, keeping the best and brightest in Michigan.
It’s a transformative time in our industry – and as mainframe professionals we are not relegated to the sidelines of that transformation. On the contrary, the role of the mainframe is more important than ever as millions and millions of consumers – though they are unaware of it – depend so much on our work in their daily lives. As we look to the future, we can thank Mr. Jobs for pushing the envelope, for setting an example for us all about what can be accomplished as long as we open our minds to the possibilities. In the meantime, be ambassadors, evangelists, informants about mainframe computing. It’s a noble profession and worthy of the attention of talented minds.