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We need to talk about mainframe recruitment, urgently!

In the UK we are now more than 9 weeks in to a national lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, a global crisis which has affected every country in the world to a greater or lesser extent. For some the Covid-19 virus itself has infected the population causing the most widespread public healthcare emergency for a century. In others still, precautions to prevent the spread of the virus have disrupted daily life; with work, education and social interaction postponed in unprecedented ways.

Moreover, in response to these extreme challenges, governments around the world have suspended their economies with only essential services to keep society functioning. Even where the effects of the virus have not been so extreme, it is predicted that global trade may be affected for many years to come. In such an environment, why would we wish to talk about recruitment on the mainframe? And why urgently?

In many ways the crisis has illustrated the strength and resilience of mainframe teams and their ability to deliver. The almost seamless scaling of on-line payments is a good example here; Mainframers are Cinderella at the ball, previously unappreciated but now enjoying the spot light. However, while this narrative is believed, or sometimes even advanced, by Mainframers themselves it is not the only narrative in play.

On the 4th of April Governor of New Jersey, Philip Murphy gave a press conference to explain the poor response of the State’s infrastructure to the demands of the crisis. Among other requests he called for volunteers in “Cobalt” (sic), by which he meant COBOL, as some of their computer systems were “40 years old” and appropriate skills no longer available. This prompted widespread discussion in the press about the adequacy of government information systems and the technology they are built on. While this of itself is nothing new it creates a worrying counter-narrative for Mainframe Cinderellas; that mainframe systems are both technical debt and operational risk, due to the scarce and aging workforce. Though initiatives such as the Open Mainframe Project’s “Calling ALL COBOL Programmers” aim to challenge this, it is unclear which narrative will win out in a Post-Pandemic world. When Governor Murphy says “There’ll be lots of post mortems and one of them on our list will be how did we get here where we literally needed COBOL programmers?” I’m not convinced he has investment in mind!

So this is why we need to talk about mainframe recruitment, and urgently! Planning for the Post-Pandemic world is already happening. In the C Suite, future investment in technology is being reconsidered. Unless Mainframers have a plan for bringing a new generation of people and ideas onto the platform, decline and obsolescence are our most serious risk. Arguably in each of the recent decades recruitment on the platform has been characterised by broad themes: In the 1990’s, despite the move to distributed technologies, new talent was rapidly brought on board to help repair the millennium bug (the so-called Bug Babies). In the 2000’s the theme was of hiring off-shore and near-shore. Many mainframe shops increased their head count but only in locations away from the main markets for their services. In the 2010’s despite the trend in austerity and favouring of ‘Lean management’ approaches, increased mobile and online payments and the replacement of retiring skills led to some good local hiring initiatives. The theme for mainframe recruitment in the 2020’s is yet to be determined, but arguably the lessons of the pandemic will have a lasting influence on future policy and initiatives.

The opportunities to win new talent are certainly there! A generation of university and college graduates expect to step out into, perhaps, the bleakest economy for sometime (for over a century by some measures). Simultaneously, many workers in technology roles are reconsidering their values and the kind of career they wish to pursue. For some of them mainframe may be the perfect fit and their new ideas and skills may well offer a fillip to teams too long in the shadow. More broadly there are various initiatives at the moment, rethinking the priorities of both society and business. Policy organisations such as the Royal Society of the Arts, Commerce and Manufactures (RSA) are leading these discussions. They emphasise the transition between new practices we wish to continue, those we wish to abandon, those we wish to increase and those we wish to revive. Some of these will relate to how we will get the economy going again, others about how we wish to live having experienced a significant period of isolation. There is much talk of sustainability and resilience; areas where the mainframe has a significant pedigree but may need to re-establish its relevance in order to win new projects and capitalise on its strengths. In terms of skills, a transition to revive recruitment and training is arguably both needed and long overdue.

So how do we move forward? In the first place joining the conversations about change that are already happening. All too often we have talked only among ourselves and then wondered why nobody heard us. Priorities are being considered, futures being mapped. Let us be part of those conversations! Working groups and planning meetings are probably taking place in your organisation at the moment. Participation in these is key. The second is to seek allies. These may be departments who traditionally compete for resources, however many of the most successful examples of renewal projects on the platform involve pooling the credibility of former rival teams. Moreover, to have real impact we need new allies with roles across the organisation – particularly in the C-Suite and in Human Resources. They will be the arbiters and implementors of the new priorities and in any event, we will need their understanding and support. The essential point then, in discussing the future of the platform, is to speak to the new priorities and demonstrate how they align with what the mainframe can deliver in each respect.

Models for engagement in a new generation of recruitment are still emerging. It may well be that the most effective solutions are incremental, providing proof of concept before wider implementation; A small programme for a team with particular and specialist needs for example. Internal recruitment events are often very effective, particularly during restructuring periods. They offer an opportunity to bring additional business knowledge and networks into the team. Either way it is important to be sensitive to issues of cost and risk. It is undoubtedly helpful to learn from others and specialists in the field such as universities, colleges and training companies who specialise in onboarding new talent. Most importantly, as we enter this new environment with events of the pandemic fresh in our minds, an openness to new initiatives and new ways of working is essential. One example is mentoring programmes for potential talent, supporting activities to help them learn about the platform. Another is Virtual Internships, working with talent to see how well they get on with the kinds of tasks that working with mainframe technology would require.

Regardless, we are in unprecedented times. The decisions made in this period may well affect (and effect) the next decade of our working lives. Without a renewal of skills, the ability to maintain mission critical functionality, and perhaps most importantly, win new applications onto the platform our future is, at best, desperately uncertain. Conversely, we have the strongest opportunity in decades to renew investment on the platform and deliver its characteristic security and resilience for years to come. The future is very much in our hands … and that’s why we need to talk about mainframe recruitment, urgently!

Dr Herb Daly is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Wolverhampton. An academic researcher in technical and socio-technical aspects of Enterprise Systems, he is a regular participant in GSE groups and conferences and actively engages with international initiatives such as the IBM Mainframe Summer School and the Open Mainframe Project


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