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Susan Dineen on the Future of the Mainframe Workforce

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Reg Harbeck talks with Susan Dineen about keeping the mainframe alive and well despite age or skills gaps, reframing the mainframe in a new way to attract young talent and the demographic opportunities behind building a new generation of mainframers

Reg Harbeck: Hi, this is Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with Susan Dineen, who is the CEO of Legacy Next Strategies in Toronto. Susan has been working with the mainframe for some time and became aware that there was a real demographic opportunity to help build a new generation and has done a lot of really interesting learning. So Susan, maybe rather than telling the world so much about you, if I can get you to introduce yourself to us. How did you end up on the mainframe?

Susan Dineen: Hi Reg. Well, I've been a business technologist for most of my career. I actually started out in sales and marketing and then had an opportunity to work on technology projects. From there, I found out that I really loved working with technical people. I just found the whole area was very creative and I loved the concept of problem solving, so the majority of my career has really been in senior management roles within technology. How I actually got started and interested in terms of the mainframe was, a number of years ago I started to get phone calls from colleagues of mine asking me, “Well I'm looking for this skill or that skill.” In many cases, it was related to COBOL and mainframe skills. They said, “Well do you know people that are available that I can call?” As I researched it, I started to realize that a lot of the people that I knew had actually retired. That got me thinking. I wonder what's really going on here. I wonder if this is an issue which is just related to the mainframe, or in fact is there an issue that is broader than this? So that led me to starting to really research and investigate what was going on with the mainframe. Of course the more I did this, the more I began to realize that there was a significant issue and that there had been several articles written about it but there was also this feeling that it's very much like Y2K, and having gone through Y2K, I understood what they were saying, which was this isn't really an issue. But the more that I researched it, Reg, the more that I found out that, you know what? You can bury your head in the sand and you can think it is like Y2K, but guess what? It isn't. It's very different than Y2K in as much as we're not only dealing with a skills gap in terms of the skills not being there, but we're also dealing with the fact that a large majority of IT mainframe staff are in the 50 year-old range. I've read studies that said it is around 40% of IT mainframe staff are 50 years of age and that means that they will be eligible for retirement in five to seven years. That brings up all kinds of different issues in terms of what is being done, and then of course there is the fact that not all shops are moving off the mainframe. Many of the Fortune 500 companies around the world are still on mainframe and find that is a very acceptable platform for their business. If we look at what's going on around the world, 96% of the top 100 banks in the world still have mainframes in their portfolio. US retail, 23 out of 25, and some of the largest insurance companies are also still using mainframes within their portfolio, not to say that they have not got other technology, but that at the core, they still have a mainframe.

Reg: Yeah, there's nothing that works like it, right?

Susan: Uh-huh. Yup. Very much.

Reg: Go ahead. You were saying?

Susan: I was going to say then there is probably about 30 billion business transactions that are processed every day on mainframes, and that goes for major credit card transactions, stock trades, money transfers and even manufacturing processes. So for a while, for quite a long while, the demise of the mainframe was talked about but I think if you look at the reality of the situation, there's been a lot of money put into the mainframe systems by IBM to update them and a lot of businesses are still operating very successfully on the mainframe. So what does that all mean and how does it tie into the skills gap? Well it means that your staff become very important to you because as they start to retire, you still need to run that environment. Some of the challenges that can happen in a mainframe environment are that these systems were built in the 60s, 70s and 80s and frequently they were undocumented, so therefore you have that as a risk. As your mainframe staff approach retirement, they are taking their system knowledge and expertise with them.

Reg: Yeah.

Susan: Then, if you couple that with the fact that few schools are still teaching mainframe skills and COBOL, the languages that these programs were written in, it compounds the complexity of the problem. Then you add on top of that the fact that fewer young people are choosing to go into ICT careers and those that are coming out of ICT or STEM programs, they are not interested in working on the mainframe. There are lots and lots of choices, because as I said to you earlier, this issue, this challenge of the skills gap, it is multifaceted, and it isn't only mainframe shops that are facing it now. It is affecting just about every part of technology and it's also affecting just about every other part of the economy. My research, the calls that I get and people that I talk to, they have challenges that are in manufacturing, that are in construction, that are in healthcare. You name it. The fact that baby boomers are retiring in records numbers is impacting their ability to get qualified people. In the mainframe, of course, you have the fact that the skills are not being taught in schools and people are not particularly interested because there has been all this press that, oh, the mainframes are going away. I actually had a colleague say to me, “Well why would you be even looking at this because mainframe is just simply going to disappear.” Well guess what? It's not going to disappear and mainframe shops really do need to think about their people challenge in a new way because there are a lot of different things that they can do in order to close that gap.

Reg: So I found it really interesting since 2004 I have been flying the flag as well of course. You know I focus especially on the mainframe, and every so often I would have somebody say, “Yeah, but this demographic issue is affecting other areas as well.” You know, my thinking was always, yeah, but it's not just the demographics. It's also the fact that organizations thought the mainframe was going away so they weren't planning long-term and preemptively hiring. But what I hear you saying is that is just one dimension of the issue and there are some other things that are industry and world wide. What are some of these other factors in addition to just the failure to plan for the future that are impacting the mainframe and other spaces?

Susan: Well, in other spaces it's new technologies that come along. So the skills gap is a combination of things. In some areas, it means that the skills are not there that a business needs in order to be successful, whether that be cyber security skills or a particular language. In other areas, it can be simply that there aren't enough people, period, or it could be that technology is moving so fast that the schools have not been able to produce the skills that are required in that particular segment. I'm working on an initiative right now, Reg, and it involves the construction sector. You may think, “Oh, technology and construction?” Well, let me tell you. Technology is everywhere today. Technology is not just in technology companies and not just in businesses that run their business on technology. It is everywhere, and there are gaps, for example, in automotive whereby you used to take shop in school. Well, shop is no longer available in many schools so you've got skilled trade shortage and it all goes back to technology today, because if you were buying a new car, that car has many, many different aspects that are run on technology so it's a very, very interesting and complex challenge. Today's HR professionals have a lot on their plate and developing a strategy around this has not been a top priority. But in the future, in order to be able to reduce your business risk, you really do need to think about the skills gap on the mainframe or in any other technology area, really as a strategic opportunity, and you need to put talent first because if you do not have talent in your business to run your business, if people don't understand the applications and the environment, then their risk of a business outage can increase. Then there are several other impacts to the business. Salaries can go up. Time to hire can go up and of course, your cost of hire can go up.

Reg: Oh yeah.

Susan: Morale can be impacted because if you don't have people in place to do the jobs that you require to have done, then someone else has to pick up the slack. Employees will get burnt out and they will get disenchanted. All of those are negative things for your business.

Reg: Well, these are really important points and it is refreshing for me to hear this from somebody who is not in the middle of the core group that I've been dealing with. But you are building a whole business about helping the mainframe get staffed to get up to speed. During our last couple of seconds on this interview, just before I ask for your final thoughts, can I maybe also ask you what one, two or three things would you tell everybody listening to this they can and should be doing to get the mainframe staffed up for the future properly?

Susan: Well, I think the first thing that you can do is you can understand the risk and do a risk assessment of your legacy staff. That is as simple as looking at the people that are on your mainframe teams and how long they've been with you, and what their expected retirement date is. Then, do an assessment of your portfolio, systems and hardware and determine what has been documented and what hasn't. You can then develop a risk response plan in terms of what your priorities are, particularly in the area of people that may be retiring. Reg, I was in a meeting about a year ago and they were talking about the skills gap and the need to have a plan in place, etc. There was a phone call that came in. That phone call to the vice-president was her director of mainframe saying, “Oh, by the way. My magic number is up and I'm due to retire within six weeks.”

Reg: Ohhhh boy.

Susan: That sort of changed the complexity of the conversation, so the first thing you can do and the best thing you can do for yourself as a mainframe shop is do an assessment, just as simple as that.

Reg: Well this has been outstanding Susan. Any final thoughts you wanted to leave us with just as we think about the future of the mainframe workforce?

Susan: Well, one of the most important things that an organization can do in terms of their recruiting is think about this in terms of marketing. You have young people that are going through ICT. They are coming out and they're not interested, but mainframe shops normally are larger organizations and they go out and they do campus recruiting. Well, one of the simple things that you can do is you can tie into your early talent programs that you have within your business. Instead of saying people don't want to work on the mainframe, reframe it so that the mainframe is a positive place for individuals to work and encourage them to come in on internships and partner with your early talent leaders so that you've got a pipeline. I think that if you reframe it and you think about it in terms of marketing, then you could be quite successful in terms of accessing future talent.

Reg: Well this has been outstanding. Thank you very much, Susan.

Susan: You're welcome, Reg.



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