Accessing skills and resources

Once upon a time, senior management believed the mainframe was a dying platform, and far too expensive to run. So investments in the platform (and the people running it) slowed and stalled. Today, we see the impact of those decisions. In an era of mainframe modernization, we’re still dealing with the fallout. 

I’ve worked in mainframe software, services, managed services, and resourcing for over 25 years. 15 or more years ago, many organizations decided they wanted to get off this “legacy platform”, but that never happened. Instead, IBM invested time, effort and money modernizing the z platform. I’ve worked with at least 10 clients who regularly said they were coming off the mainframe and guess what… It never happened. Seven upgraded, three moved mainframe operations to the cloud and the rest outsourced to MSPs.

The mainframe still rules in many parts of corporate computing, an important part of the glue that keeps our economy together. It’s arguably, now more “core” than ever, running critical applications for banks, retailers, and utilities. People only really acknowledge the vital role a mainframe plays when it goes down. We’ve experienced that before, in the UK banking sector for example, affecting millions of people.

While the technology was updated, the human element, “the people” who were needed to run and maintain the systems—was increasingly ignored. The talent pool reduced over time, with no one looking to move to the mainframe team as they had been increasingly told it was a legacy platform. Leading us to where we are today…. around 80% of the people running mainframes today have grey or no hair. Because those investments weren’t made, we continue to face a huge shortfall in skills globally. As people retire, the business loses their skills. Not only do companies lose the skills in the mainframe technology but also lose the years of accumulated knowledge these people have gathered about the organization’s unique set-up and requirements, how the business transacts with the mainframe, how every application interacts. 

The people retiring often have skills and experience that go beyond z/OS. They may have cross-system skills such as RACF, ACF2 security skills, knowledge of Db2, of networks, and so on. The organization realizes that replacing this one person now means finding four or more people with those individual skill sets. Most younger people today specialize in one area, and simply don’t have that broad system experience. 

So what are the options open to mainframe organizations? You could move your applications to another platform in-house, which is not an easy task, particularly in the face of that continued skills shortage. Where are you going to find the staff to do that? 

Another option is to engage a third party with the skills and resources that you need, to support your own teams in running the systems. This isn’t the same as outsourcing—it’s using external expertise and experience to augment your existing team. A growing number of clients are asking us to precisely do that, in terms of staff augmentation, out-tasking, a form of managed services. In this way, they can deal with short-, medium- and longer-term gaps in personnel and resources, whether that’s for BAU or project driven work, or holiday and illness cover. This service is working well in many organizations today as it mitigates the risk of single points of failures within the team.

Of course, you should also be investing in the next generation of mainframers: building a succession plan that might include training new staff, as well as cross-skilling members of other teams internally to work with mainframes. Some organizations have done this with varying degrees of success, and we’ve seen developments in some parts of academia. Our own ‘New To Z’ (NTZ) initiative identifies potential talent, provides them with three months of prep, followed by up to nine months of mentoring and on-the-job experience. After 12 months, we can place these NTZs with clients in roles where they can deliver what their employers need and start to build their own careers. 

Depending on your own situation, where you are now and what you want to achieve, one or more of these options may be right for you. And in terms of meeting the immediate demand for skills and resources, the quickest, easiest and least risk option is staff augmentation.

Vertali account director Linda McGrath has worked in mainframe software and services for over 25 years, supporting top FTSE 100 companies. She’s passionate about helping organizations to meet their pressing operational requirements, address skills shortages, and benefit from customized solutions.