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Hunting down the mainframe unicorn

Mainframes are still an essential part of the enterprise computing infrastructure, but staff with the skills can be hard to find - here's how one company solved the puzzle.

Mainframes might not be enormously fashionable in an era of cloud computing but they still loom large in the enterprise computing world, as they tend to be home to essential applications and data.

But as the generations with mainframe skills age, finding ways to replace them has been increasingly tricky.

That goes for IT vendors as well as end user organisations – for example it's been an issue for CA Technologies as mainframe management is still a big part of its business (accounting for half of its revenue and three-quarters of its profit).

Adam Elster, CA's executive VP of mainframe told TechRepublic that for many companies that had them, the mainframe still makes sense.

"We are seeing that the big mainframe sites that are the backbones for these organisations those are getting bigger. There's no really compelling event for them to migrate off the platform – there's no return on investment," he said, speaking at the company's CA World customer event in Las Vegas.

He said that because mainframes can sit - for example - at the back of banking systems, adding internet and mobile banking can mean mainframe transaction volumes are going up, not down.

But Elster said one of the big challenges is finding software engineers with the right skills. He said CA spent several years trying to search for a 25 year-old who had five years experience of the main frame - and didn't find very many of them.

"It's like looking for a unicorn," he said.

"So we started a very aggressive associate mainframe software developer programme with college graduates and we train them and we mentor them and right now my largest mainframe development centre is in Prague and the average age is under 30."

In contrast, the average age of engineers at one of its US sites is closer to 50.

"We hire six, 12 at a time and after several years we think that's going to help us build out the next generation and protect our future as well," he said.

TechRepublic attended CA World as a guest of CA Technologies.

About

Steve Ranger is the UK editor of TechRepublic, and has been writing about the impact of technology on people, business and culture for more than a decade. Before joining TechRepublic he was the editor of silicon.com.

49 comments
hampljiri
hampljiri

Hello,

I fully agree with Tony Hopkinson. (I have about 30 years of IT experience, about 10 years in mainframe).

(cz.linkedin.com/in/hampl/en)


I found a nice comment about the IT age:


I am not 54, I am 18 with 36 years experience  :-)




Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

So they finished full time education at 20 then, and then walked straight into a junior mainframe role, and stayed? I suggests an immediate remedial class in basic arithmetic. The UK, leave school at 16, 2 years higher education, 4 year degree, (you won't look at "unqualified" people will you ?) That after taking off my shoes and using some other fleshy salients comes to 22. So lets say you've some sort of genius who did it two years quicker. Why in Cthulhu's name would someone with that level of ability go into IT? At the salary you are offering? You lot dumbed down the job the get people cheaper. Getting what you paid for aren't you. Best will in the world five years solid mainframe experience (whatever that means) you'd be looking at 30+. Given tech and the market, and the stupid games you keep playing, reality will probably bite at 45, with any main frame experience at all, and anybody with some one that "young" is not going to be in a hurry to see them go. I'm coming up 50, and the nearest I've come to mainframe is a mini, and I haven't touched one of them for 8 years. Even if you considered me suitable, well you aren't getting me for the same cost as a 25 year old, I've been in the job longer than that. Sort yourself out. There no official retirement age in the UK, so why are you looking at someone young, You could get 15 - 20 years out of me, you'll just have to try harder.

stamford55
stamford55

The problem is you're looking in the wrong age "bin". There are more mainframe programmers available than you can ever need. The problem is corporate retired them and put them out to pasture, because they were too old. Its time for corporate to change their attitude about the older generation. When it comes to mainframes we can kick any young upstarts #$!@$%.

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

Over a decade ago, HP was having a crisis: They needed to reduce their expenditures -- what to do, what to do. They hired an outside firm. They took a survey of their employees. Shortly thereafter, HP employees started to disappear. And you know, nobody really noticed or really seemed to care. Why? The employees RIFfed from HP were all older white guys who were taking home money at the top of their pay grade -- not to far from retirement, but far enough that they wouldn't be able to take a full amount. The consultants figured out that if an old white guy who was making top dollar sued over discrimination, he wouldn't have a case. And you know what? It worked. Now everybody is doing it, but you wouldn't know it because the world just doesn't care about old white guys making a lot of money being RIFfed in favor of younger workers who fit in with politically correct agendas (and the new employees are paid a LOT less). Heck, we don't have to be in IT for that, they're doing that currently at Puget Sound Transit....

kwickset
kwickset

I freely admit to practicing, much to everyone's disgust, age discrimination by never employing anyone under 45. These "old" people have the experience and common sense required in my business. Below this age they generally know everything better, turn up irregularly, can't make it on time, have better things to do, perform poorly and treat me (being over 70) with a considerable degree of contempt. I know it is supposed to be illegal, but waiting to be challenged. One of the reasons why you can't teach an old dog new tricks is because he knows them all.

TOA-Gannzter
TOA-Gannzter

Yes, the US has a whole act dedicated to protecting people over the age of 40 who have faced employment discrimination. And yes, it does look like people who applied to CA over the age of 40 during the period of this period might have some helpful evidence in this article. That said, CA would probably argue that its search for 25 year olds and under was a bona fide occupational qualification merely out of business necessity. See http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/age.html

tomfafard
tomfafard

unfortunitely "mainframe" is not taught in colleges anymore and most inhouse training programs (yes they used to exist) do not offer any of those classes anymore. The "modern" company wants to pay less for something we have worked hard for for a great number of years (1978). It seems that the mainframe is not "hip" so no young programmer wants to learn it. When I am 100 they will still be asking me to come code something because it is never going to go away. I just wish the powers-that-be would recognize the value in intigrating a mainframe into your overall solution instead of constantly trying to get rid of the legacy systems. They are called legacy because they have grown into what they are today, not because they are OLD.

sysdev
sysdev

It's very simple you ar limiting your search t people who are too young. A 25 year old will not have graduated from college soon enough to have 5 years of experience. A 30 year old will have concentrated on other platforms because the mainframe wanted 5 years of experience when college was completed. Widen your search. There are millions of people who have the skillset you want and they are eager to get back to work. People in their 50s and 60s have done it before and can do it again. Open your eyes. They are available.

premiertechnologist
premiertechnologist

As an IBM Systems Programmer with many, many, many years of experience, having done amazing things with little resources, it is doubtful that any company would ever hire me: I have too broad and deep experience, since I was the ONLY Systems Programmer to maintain the IBM Mainframe where I worked. This means that I had to know z/OS intimately and install system upgrades -- not a trivial task (but try to explain why it takes months to upgrade a system when you have antsy clients who have the PC reboot mentality). I also had to maintain and upgrade DB2. I was in charge of maintaining and upgrading CICS and a whole host of other software, much of which was third party. Then there was HSM and rmm -- these had implications for operations, so I also was the operations support. I had to make sure that RACF was working (maintaining RACF and having superuser type privileges over everything else when Payroll and Accounting are involved is sort of a no-no). In all of this I was also supposed to be a lead in a supervisory capacity -- after all, if you manage someone, you don't rate the salary these days. This added to the fact that I wrote applications in COBOL and HLASM to provide a scheduling system for Operations to use. What company would hire someone who did EVERYTHING? Not too many, I suspect. Anyway, I was the last IBM Systems Programmer anywhere in the County where the business had the only IBM Mainframe in the entire County region. So my question is, how do managers and HR even know how to hire, let alone deal with the excruciatingly complex technological expertise right up there with the most technologically advanced skill sets beyond anything server system admins could ever imagine? And is it just me, or is it that really, anyone who is over 50 these days -- their career is toast? Age discrimination? It's surprising what the excuses are. My advice: Unless you really really love the job (and I did), if you have the skills, learn HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript, F# and Server Administration (that's what I'm doing). You'll have a more fun time with people who will value your skills more and you'll fit right in. Because, after all that is said and done, it's doubtful that an IBM Systems Programmer is going to fit in with ANY corporate culture today. Besides, it's going away. It just is. It will be around for awhile as a legacy, but you can't really fight the impressions of management and management thinks mainframes are old and need to be replaced with something more up to date, like, you know, cloud computing or something because they have all the intellectual sophistication of a tranquilized gnat, which is fine if you are playing politics, but if you need the technologies to work, it's pretty worthless. Well, back to planning disaster recovery....

Jim Johnson
Jim Johnson

...and many of them either can't find jobs, or they end up working as contract employees with no benefits. Corporations still hire like they are looking for employees who will work with the same company for 30+ years then retire within a defined benefit program. The reality is these same corporations tend to hustle employees out the door in ten years and hopefully the employee contributed to a 401k that s/he can role over into an IRA. When these employees hit their late 40's it becomes increasingly hard to find the next gig in this cycle. It's no wonder current American high school students are shying away from paying to obtain these skills. Mainframes aren't just about programmers and old high-level languages. There are OS engineers, networking and security types, database managers, and hardware types.

sabula
sabula

...that's a Quadricorn.

sysop-dr
sysop-dr

OK define mainframe skills please. do you mean COBOL programmers, and FORTRAN? What do you mean? We do clusters, and we include in that all kinds of programming and we have people doing Cobol and FORTRAN all the time. Are you lumping clusters in with mainframes?

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

What are you implying that companies have to train their own staff and not just buy them as required? Since when was it possible to buy a Experienced Software Engineer that has First Hand Experience with your Business? They may exist but it's far more likely that you head hunt from the competition and try to steal the staff that they trained up to do the job and you get someone who thinks the way that the company who trained them wants them to think and behave. The Supposed Job is exactly the same as a Building Contractor advertizing in a Preschool Magazine asking for a 18 year old plumber with 5 years experience. Sure they may exist in very small numbers but the reality is you are going to have to go out of your way to find them and even then they are going to cost you a lot to lure to your company and not work the way that the company wants. The moment that Hiring Managers started to believe that they could save money by buying experienced staff they cut their own throughs and killed their business. They need to train the people that they need and then provide an environment and conditions where those people stay put or they are going to find out very quickly that they don't have a functioning business for very long. It costs far more to hire cheap staff than it costs to hire experienced workers who can do the job the way it is required to be done by that business. Col

Slats2011
Slats2011

The article is very true, many companies are still using them. My problem is finding them and someone who is looking for people. Unemployed and having a hard time finding a position with just such a company. Anyone know someone who can employ my skills. I have been working with mainframes for 25 years. Thanks.

cweisert
cweisert

"But Elster said one of the big challenges is finding software engineers with the right skills. He said CA spent several years trying to search for a 25 year-old who had five years experience of the main frame - and didn’t find very many of them." We assume that comment was meant as a joke, but age discrimination in recruiting is a serious business.

PhilM
PhilM

Why not train people who are in the USA?

tony
tony

a 25 year old with 5 years mainframe experience. I hope they weren't expecting a college degree as well. If they were, it is hardly surprising it was like looking for a unicorn - not many people have a college degree by the age of 20 And yes - age discrimination is illegal in Europe. The problem with mainframe is also partly the employers (as a collective). I have a friend who works on this stuff with 4 decades experience. Every couple of years, the bank cuts back to save costs and kicks him out because he is working on an obsolete system that will be replaced. Then 3 months down the line, they hire him back as a contractor to carry on where he left off. This behaviour is hardly going to encourage people earlier in their careers to work on anything legacy.

b.bloksma
b.bloksma

Technomom, the problem they were trying to solve is that in a few years many current mainframe experts will retire. So age discrimination was fundamental in this case. They want to have a running business 5 to 10 years from now. Now of course they were looking for young persons but the "25 year-old with 5 years experience" was probably just a statement to indicate that in these days young professionals are ignoring the mainframe when they leave school, so it was nearly impossibible to find any.

technomom_z
technomom_z

Is age discrimination as illegal in Europe as it is in the USA? If so, CA admitted to it in the article. "He said CA spent several years trying to search for a 25 year-old who had five years experience of the main frame - and didn’t find very many of them."

Imprecator
Imprecator

I've been in this business since 1978, and have lost count of how many times "new technologies" were going to get rid of Mainframes, the hoopla has been so big and pervasive that nobody even thinks of it anymore, so it's not surprising that there are few software engineers that have experience on such beasts. Besides, good skills at managing mainframes are expensive, nobody wants to pay for it, ergo nobody bothers to train for it either.

PamTen
PamTen

The above topic is very good to understand what exactly.Thanks, Pamten Team IT consulting services

kwickset
kwickset

When the odd client complains about my charges I have a simple answer for them: "If you want to pay peanuts you should hire a monkey." Frequently they come back and engage me regardless.

Imprecator
Imprecator

The suits don't want to hire Tech people over 50. Not only because they cost more and their insurance is more expensive but also because they take less bullcrap from upstairs. The suits in charge these days have very fragile egos, they think they can browbeat the young ones to do as they want, which is: They expect you to do the Apollo space program with a two cups, a piece of string and a firecracker. The young ones, since they haven't been kicked in the head enough, will try (and of course fail) to do as the suits want. The old timers will look at the suits and tell them that they're full of crap.

raspark
raspark

I emphasize with you, I really do.

Imprecator
Imprecator

"Because, after all that is said and done, it's doubtful that an IBM Systems Programmer is going to fit in with ANY corporate culture today." Meh, the way things are, a Unix Systems Administrator doesn't fit any corporate culture these days.

boomchuck1
boomchuck1

Sounds like your employer was taking advantage of you. Pretty crazy that they were giving you a workload that should have gone to 3 or 4 people instead of just one. Like I say often, if we keep working smarter and not harder pretty soon we'll all be geniuses!

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Hierarchical databases? Languages, Real multi user OS's, knowing how networking actually works. It's probably some buzzword bingo list, knowing these numpties.

DesD
DesD

your examples are just developer languages, which don't necessarily have to be used or deployed on mainframes. The CA person would probably only want Assembler H , along with Rexx, JCL, ISPF, Clists (maybe) and perhaps PL/I. But he's probably after systems programming experience - PR/SM, MDF or MLPF , then HCD and SMPE, DFS, DF/DSS, WLM, RACF /Top Secret/ ACF2, VTAM and NCPs, CICS or IMS/DC, DB2 or IMS/DB, and then all those fine CA products that help keep the show on the road.

jsargent
jsargent

Tell them that you have been working with mainframes since you were born and you'll get a job with CA.

jsargent
jsargent

Because the teachers are in India.

kfilius
kfilius

Probably scarcity, so if Moses won't go to the mountain....

jsargent
jsargent

In Europe most have one by 22 since a 3 year degree starts at 18 normally. But since the new level is a masters degree add an extra year on to that. A 25 year old is the youngest that you would expect to be an IT administrator since the first 2 years is junior level grunt and the next normal employee. Unless someone was lucky or unlucky enough to find a position administrating mainframes as a first job ,a 25 year old mainframe admin might be like a unicorn but not entirely impossible to find.

SKDTech
SKDTech

Companies should always be thinking about the long term and that includes finding talent that will likely remain employed for 5, 10, or 15 years. And while they were looking for 20-somethings they were most likely considering all qualified applicants regardless of age and hiring personnel in their 30's, 40's, etc. in the meantime. As an aside, there are jobs where it is appropriate to prefer younger workers over older ones whenever possible, often due to liability issues. I'd much rather hire a 20- or 30-something young'un to schlep heavy equipment around between buildings and across tarmac in Florida than a 60-odd y/o. Age is not an automatic disqualifier, as I know several older folk who can and do work rings around people much younger than them, but if it is a case of a job which requires a lot of manual labor and the candidates are otherwise equally qualified I would rather hire the person less likely to get injured and who will bounce back quicker.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

were mainframe skills. You learn something new every day. :)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

have gone haven't they. 25 year old mainframe admin, probably means the guy who was doing it just died..

aidemzo_adanac
aidemzo_adanac

You went from comparing 20-30 something to those in their 40's and 50's, to then comparing people in their 20's and 30's to a 60 year old in a pathetic attempt to solidify your point. I have worked in HEAVY industrial shops, where the fittest and most able men were well into their 50's, hardened, working men. The local tough-guys were always looking for dock work and machine shop work but couldn't stand up to the intensive labour, nor did they have the mental strength to get through the days. So perhaps a 20 year old would be more apt to carry a load up a flight of stairs than a 60 year old CFO who had never worked a hard day in his life, but your generalisation falls flat on it's face in any other application. Also, a younger employee is more ap tto move on after a few years, lookign for bigger and brighter opportunities, whereas someone in their 40's, or 50's would generally be a LOT more reliable and a more stable employee overall. They aren't dealing with young family problems, have a lot more experience mentally making it through the week and have seen the unreliability of a younger generation enough to know better. Then again, you actually feel that if you hire young and train them that they stick around, which is a false conclusion in any industry I've seen. Hire seasoned experts and you are right they will bore easily, but seasoned experts can be young too, not just the older crowd you allude to. Once you train a young guy and he gets bored or feels complacent, he too will be working for your competitor in a short while, and their competitor a short while later and so on until he reaches maturity and decides he wants to stay somewhere for the duration, being a far more loyal employee as he ages then when young.

adornoe
adornoe

The exact opposite of what you believe might be the results of looking for the younger and more "durable" employee. When one looks at the job markets currently, an employer might be able to afford to wait for the "right candidate", and that might be somebody with the skills-set, and the right age. However, in prior years, experience mattered more, and that could be true again in the future. A young person might have more stamina than an older one, but, a young person is also one that won't be sticking around for more than one or two years, and they're actually expected to move around to build a wider set of experience in a wider variety of organizations. So, that nonsense about a young worker expected to stick around longer than an older one, is more about not having to pay the higher salaries that the more experience and older folks expect. It's not about a young one expected to stick around 10 or 20 years, because, most don't stay for long. On the other hand, a worker with experience and older (40yrs old and more), won't be moving around as much as in his/her younger years, and the "stick-around" expectations would be more true for an older person than for a younger one. A person into his 40s or 50s, can be expected to have at least 10 or 20 more productive years ahead of them. A young person might still have 30 or 40 years of productive work, but, they won't be sticking around as long as an older person in a single job. Young people tend to move to new jobs more often than older workers, and that is expected. Older folks, for the most part, will have settled down and won't be actively moving around as much. Thus, the opposite of what you believe, is true. Young people get hired for their lower expectations for compensation, and older workers won't get hired as quickly because of their experience and higher expectations. Age discrimination is real, and as long as it's no blatantly practiced, an employer can get away with it. Adam Elster above, is openly and blatantly demonstrating age discrimination, and it matters a lot.

SKDTech
SKDTech

plenty of hate but no one who actually wants to engage in debate.... Probably as much due to the way i ramble as the point I was trying to make. To rephrase: Hire young and train and they will likely be around for many years, saving the company the cost of hiring and training new employees every few years. Hire seasoned experts for junior positions and they will be unsatisfied and looking for a better opportunity.may be around for 2-5 years but depending on the situation I wouldn't expect to get ten+ yrs.

Imprecator
Imprecator

We are supposed to be a commodity. After all, teenagers these days have more skills than us at this, didn't you get the memo?

DesD
DesD

I was giving sysop-dr some examples of the software that he/she would need to be familiar with, to qualify as having mainframe skills. It was only a few items, and only in the MVS / z/OS area;mainframes also run z/VM , Linux and ACP

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

adverts that asked for that sort of mixture. You assume they missed out a few ors, or maybe not...

DesD
DesD

there are 3 hypervisors in that list, also 3 security products (2 of which are now CA-owned). As well as 2 TP monitors and 2 very different database systems. And I didn't mention the JES2 or 3. Plus I forgot that Assembler H was renamed to HLASM a while ago. There's even a Unix in there somewhere - a subsystem of TSO.

raspark
raspark

And said much better than I could have put it. After spending 30 years in the mainframe world, I was unceremoniously dumped 2 years ago. Now, the jobs just are not there and the ones that do come onto the market are being taken by those same move-every-couple-years twenty-somethings. I have had some fantastic interviews and then been turned down. The standard form (while we are impressed, yadda, yadda), we have chosen to go with another (read younger, cheaper and does not have the experience) candidate. Working part-time at Home Depot and running out my unemployment is not a good use of my skills.