Finding mainframe skills you never knew about

IBM's recent efforts to help companies cope with an aging workforce weren't aimed directly at mainframe pros, but they are a big part of that graying population. What skills do young IT pros need that they're not going to learn in college?

Recently, IBM announced it would formally help companies figure out how many of their employees are on the verge of retirement and how those retirements would affect organizations. IBM also plans to use cultural anthropologists to try to glean the connections and hidden knowledge from aging workers before that intangible knowledge is lost forever.

Big Blue launched the service last month, just before the oldest baby boomers turn 60 in January, 2006. And in the IT world, no group of workers is closer to retirement age on average than mainframe pros.

In fact, IBM has been extremely proactive in promoting mainframe education to younger IT generation. But what are some of the intangibles that IT courses can't teach? What's a cultural anthropologist going to turn up that a COBOL course can't?

According to Robert Rosen, president of the mainframe user group SHARE, any project that captures knowledge walking out the door is a good thing, and he can list a number of things a young IT pro wouldn't know.

For example, understanding the priorities of your customer base.

"If someone says, 'Drop everything you're doing and fix my problem,' you have to learn that you can't stop working on the CEO's problem to work on this guy's issue," Rosen said.

IT pros would like to meet everyone's demands, but they have limited resources. A manual doesn't offer advice on prioritization.

"What's the most important job you run?" Rosen asked. "People say different things, but the most important job is payroll. If people don't get paid, you cannot believe what comes down on your head."

Mike Kahn, managing director at Wellesley, Mass.-based Clipper Group, agreed that there is no doubt that a large portion of the mainframe workforce is about to retire and IT culture will need to be dealt with.

"When you look at the gap that might be created in the changing of the guard, there is going to need to be some cultural accommodation for veteran employees to talk to their replacements," Kahn said. "The approach to large scale systems is lacking in college curriculums. In 40 years of computing, there have been a lot of changes. Some of it can be taught, and IBM has a lot going on in [educational] programs. But a lot of the cultural issues will need to be addressed."

IBM said this service is not all about the mainframe. It's a horizontal offering for all kinds of companies. Many skilled employees from mining engineers to utilities technicians are readying to retire. But the mainframe workforce is a classic example, according to Edward Vitalos, an associate partner in IBM Business Consulting Services' human capital management group.

"These skills have been in place for 20 to 30 years. But IBM has been very proactive in this area, aiming for 20,000 new programmers. As a provider of this technology, it's in our interest for customers to stick with the platform," Vitalos said. "There are a lot of older workers in the IT world that know how to get things done. You can't outsource those processes. It would take five to six years to implement a new process."

According to Vitalos, talent is not often identified in an organization. But those people are the lubricant, human sprockets that get things done and meet business objectives. IBM is offering the workforce diagnostic to tell employers who is going to retire when and what they should do about it.

One thing companies might do is make some changes to the infrastructure.

Vitalos said many in the current workforce learned their mainframe skills on the job. New workers would have less inertia against technical evolution. They won't have a "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" attitude. As a result, younger workers might be more willing to usher in newer technologies, like packaged applications and service-oriented architectures.

But Vitalos warned, "If you try to jump into these changes without knowing your requirements first, you might be in trouble."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, News Editor

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