IT Management

If you regularly read tech news you’ve likely seen a host of complimentary articles, blog posts and retrospectives surrounding the 50th anniversary of the IBM mainframe. The positive recognition is well deserved—and long overdue. As the primary computing platform for financial institutions, insurance companies, government agencies and telecoms, mainframes help power our global economy. This fact alone should hush any lingering predictions about the mainframe’s demise once and for all—if it weren’t for one troublesome trend: the retiring mainframe workforce.

Behind every mainframe are talented and experienced developers who manage highly complex mainframe applications. Thousands of these baby boomer developers are expected to retire in the next five to 10 years, taking both their platform knowledge and their institutional knowledge with them. Fortunately, thus far the retiring mainframe workforce issue has proved to be a slow erosion over time rather than some type of drastic drop off.

No matter where your company sits in that continuum, here are three simple steps you can take to help reduce the impact moving forward:

Get Current. “When is the best time to buy a vacuum cleaner? When the vacuum cleaner salesman is here!” That was the last ditch effort sales line of a door-to-door salesman to my Mom when I was eight, and it stuck with me to this day. The demographics of mainframe systems programmers is the same as that of application programmers. Sure, they’re grumpy, but they’re good at what they do, and they won’t be here forever. Take this time to get as current as you dare with your operating systems and subsystems. As likely as not, your company runs one level, two levels or even three levels back. And if you’re not careful, your company could drift into unsupported territory without the safety net of experienced, proficient systems programming.

Exploit your ISVs. Anyone who has spent time as a starving college student knows the value of loose change in the sofa cushions. Your third-party software providers have likely been adding features release after release to specifically assist with the retiring work force. If not, demand that they do! However, a product feature is only as useful as the use you get out of it. If you continue to run the product the way you did the day you purchased it, then it doesn’t matter how many new features the ISV provider provides. So, check the release notes of your ISV products; there is some valuable loose change lurking there.

Processes are your friend. Why do schools practice fire drills? So that if a fire should ever occur, the muscle memory of process would take over. Take this time, while your mainframe knowledge base is still mostly intact, to tighten up your processes. How do you decide what programming changes to make? How do those changes make it from development to production? How do bugs get fixed? A close examination of these processes may expose internal short cuts that have evolved over the years to become a standard right-of-way. And shortcuts only work when everyone knows where the potholes are. Tightening those processes today will pay dividends tomorrow as less experienced people begin to assume positions of authority.

Now are these the do-all and end-all to ensure a safe transition—hardly. But they are the very low-hanging fruit to kick off your mainframe transition strategy. Truthfully, these are three best practices that would be beneficial above and beyond any retiring workforce issue.