For more than 40 years, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise, the mainframe has survived. In fact, it has thrived. Today, around 70% of all business data still resides on what many call the dinosaur of server technology.
Mainframes still are critical to the mission of many businesses. That's why many business-technology managers are raising warning flags. One of the biggest concerns is the dwindling number of skilled personnel who can program and maintain mainframe systems as the baby-boom generation of IT pros--those most familiar with mainframes--begins to reach retirement age.
"There was a huge boom in creating mainframe systems in the '60s and '70s, and we always felt they would be replaced," says Robert Stanley, board member at Share, a mainframe-user organization with about 20,000 members, and director of research at Air Traffic Software Architecture Inc. "Much to our horror in some cases, today we've got 30-year-old systems that we thought would have outlived their useful life."
According to Share, the "graying" of skilled mainframe programmers and managers is increasingly creating a "brain drain" that isn't being adequately addressed. For every two mainframe workers reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce, only one new mainframe worker is being added, Stanley says.
"There is a growing concern we are rapidly losing qualified people who understand mainframes, and we are subsequently losing the capability to use the systems, which means ultimately if you can't use them, they'll be left to rust," he says.
A perplexing combination of factors, however, is compounding the ability to add mainframe talent, including companies trying to reduce costs through outsourcing mainframe jobs to independent service organizations or offshore, an increasing but still inadequate infrastructure within universities to teach mainframe capabilities, and what some say is a lack of respect for mainframe talent that's leaving pay and job opportunities lagging behind their value to companies.
Ian Archbell, VP of product management for Micro Focus Ltd., which makes software to improve the deployment and automation of mainframe systems, says pay dynamics in the mainframe world indicate that the situation hasn't yet reached a crisis stage.
"If this were actually a killer issue, you'd find the average Cobol programmer's salary wouldn't be under $100,000, but would be $200,000 to $250,000," he says. "The problem isn't quite as bad as it seems. There are thousands of new Cobol programmers in India, China, and the Philippines."
Bruce "Bru" Tiss, who has worked on mainframes for 40 years, says he understands the competitive and capital pressures that lead companies to outsource mainframe talent. But outsourcing isn't a panacea and leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many being displaced, he says.
Tiss works for a California health-insurance company with 38,000 employees. This summer, the company plans to outsource its mainframe organization to IBM Global Services. "That's how companies are dealing with the brain drain--they're making it someone else's problem," he says. "In the last couple of years, we've outsourced a lot of jobs to India, and I spend a large amount of my time picking up after them because they just don't have the experience. It's a real attitude-buster to be training people to take our jobs."
At age 58, Tiss says he'll retire within the year. He had expected to begin getting other job offers as his tenure at his current company ended. But that hasn't proven true. "With such a shortage of people in this particular industry, why don't they just get gobbled up?" he asked. "They should have companies falling all over themselves to pick them up. Another indicator to me of just how tough this market is, is that over the past 18 months I've gotten zero calls from headhunters."
Historically, many mainframe applications have been tailored for a company to most efficiently complete necessary jobs, such as handling millions of transactions daily. With outsourced talent, companies will be forced to use "as-is" services or pay substantially more to have those apps fine-tuned for specific uses, Share's Stanley says.
But even if offshore outsourcing isn't the answer, domestic companies, including services organizations like IBM Global Services and EDS, are faced with a limited amount of mainframe-trained talent coming out of universities. Last year, IBM revealed a goal of helping put 20,000 new mainframe-educated students into the workplace by 2010 and has made a multimillion-dollar investment in an academic initiative to encourage mainframe studies, says Mike Bliss, director of zSeries technical support and marketing for IBM.
Over the past few years, Bliss has seen the number of universities offering mainframe courses increase from a couple dozen to around 150. IBM gives universities access to mainframes through "university hubs" around the world where multiple regional institutions can share resources. The company also offers training and complete curriculum modules to professors.
Convincing students to study mainframes in college, however, can prove difficult. Paul Horst, a software mainframe application developer for BMC Software Inc., heard a lot of other students question his career path while attending Northern Illinois University, a college with a full mainframe program, from 2000 to 2003.
"A lot of the focus in the academic world has gone away from the mainframe and toward object-oriented programming," Horst says. "I heard a lot of buzz from students attending other universities asking why I was going to NIU and studying mainframes. They'd say the mainframe was on its way out and I should really get getting into distributed applications and learning Java. But I could see where there will be a huge shortage of mainframe programmers within the next 10 years."
Joshua Smith, a mainframe programmer analyst at friction-management and ball-bearing maker Timken Co., found that even a little mainframe education can prove valuable. While attending Malone College in Canton, Ohio, he took the two mainframe courses as part of IBM's zScholars program.
"I didn't know anything about mainframes, and honestly I thought they were a dying breed," Smith says. "My fellow students said there wasn't much of a future to it."
After being laid off from his first job out of college, however, Smith was hired by Timken last year to work in the mainframe department with about 30 others, some with as many as 35 years of experience with mainframes.
"If I hadn't had the initial exposure to the mainframe, I wouldn't have even bothered applying for the job at Timken," he says. "Now I'm thinking mainframe will be a career because I don't see mainframes going away any time soon. This job is providing valuable experience whether I stay here for the long run or go somewhere else."