The mainframe skills crunch; an outsider vs insider perspective

During my career, I’ve worked hands-on with a great many operating systems, programming languages, mainstream database engines and countless generations of different hardware and application platforms. I’ve enjoyed the success of delivering big software projects and learned the hard lessons when things haven’t gone so well. Yep, I’m at the older end of the scale and nothing in IT phases me anymore, except…

Here be dragons

Whenever I stray into the world of IBM mainframes, I always feel a bit inadequate. It’s not just lack of direct experience, it’s also that mainframers seem to have different conversations about different things with different points of reference. When they talk about security, scalability and resilience, for example, this is against the backdrop of the platform’s 60 year history of handling the biggest, baddest and most scary requirements in IT. So much of the stuff that keeps x86 admins up at night just isn’t a concern for mainframe operators. 

That said, the mainframe – or ‘IBM Z’ to give it its proper name – is often associated with legacy. It’s not unusual for these machines to be the home of decades-old applications written by long-gone engineers using methods that would be totally alien to today’s up-and-coming developers. And when you delve into the systems side of things, you can be left scratching your head as mainframe operators matter-of-factly talk about LPARs, Sysplex, JCL, RACF, VTAM, SMF, ISPF, WLM, RMF, and SDSF. No, I don’t know what most of these mean either!

Against this background, it’s not surprising that the views of IT leaders and practitioners with little or no experience of IBM Z are often defined by words like ‘different’, ‘legacy’ and ‘ageing’, and an assumption that ‘here be dragons’.

Dispelling the myth, then running into a real concern

The truth is that IBM Z represents one of the most advanced and cutting edge platforms that exists today. Support for the latest delivery techniques, standards-based interoperability, and even integrated cross-domain observability means you can legitimately view it as an extremely high-scale, bullet-proof and super secure cloud platform. Add optimised hardware-level support for cloud and AI workloads, plus the traditional scalability, resilience and security attributes, and the modern mainframe should, in theory, be the go-to platform for many of today’s more demanding requirements.

The proof points are there to corroborate this view, and if you can get a sceptic to pay attention for even a relatively short period, it’s usually quite easy to make the case. But unfortunately this only gets you so far.

Even if you convince someone of the platform’s merits, you are then likely to run into a legitimate concern about skills. There’s no getting away from the fact that a good number of mainframe professionals are approaching retirement, and a common assumption is that younger IT pros wouldn’t be interested in filling their shoes. 

Getting a more experienced perspective

In order to get a better handle on this mainframe skills discussion, my colleague Tony Lock and I spoke with the team responsible for this area at Broadcom. The meeting came about after we’d expressed an interest in arranging a drill-down session when skills-related programs were mentioned in passing during a product presentation. We were intrigued and wanted to know more.

As we got into this follow-on discussion, it quickly became clear that the Broadcom team not only had extensive first-hand experience, but were also highly motivated to help customers get onto a firmer footing in this area. 

Vikas Sinha, Global Vice President for Customer Experience and Strategic Alliances, highlighted that while skills shortages are often cited as a reason for moving away from the mainframe, it’s important to have a deeper conversation about the factors driving this perception. He noted that many organisations neglect to invest in mainframe skills until it’s too late, waiting until experienced professionals retire before attempting to bring in new talent. 

Based on his own experience, Sinha explained: “A lot of CIOs I speak with nowadays don’t have a mainframe background, and they tell me there’s a limit to how much they can invest in an ageing platform, particularly when they can’t find skills to support it”. He went on to say: “So yes, the skills issue is an integral part of the decision-making process, and we need to help our customers get away from pointing at it as a reason to choose other platforms, especially in situations where the mainframe is genuinely the better option”.

New blood

The Broadcom team also highlighted the need to challenge the perception that younger professionals aren’t interested in mainframe careers. Lauren Valenti, Executive in charge of Education and Customer Engagement at Broadcom, shared examples of successful outreach efforts at university career fairs. She said: ”I’ve seen so many examples where students were initially unaware of the mainframe’s relevance but became enthusiastic once they learned about its critical role in industries like banking, insurance, and government.” 

Sinha reinforced this, adding: “Think about it. Agile development and DevOps, AIOps with anomaly detection based on machine learning, a platform practically built from the ground up for zero trust, right? These are all the topics that the young minds are thinking about. Add the opportunity to potentially work with some of the most prestigious brands on the planet, who are almost all mainframe users, and it starts to look pretty attractive.”

He went on to highlight other pools of talent: “There are lots of people out there looking for second careers. They have life experience and a professional track record in other areas. The opportunity to move into IT is often very interesting for them, and the same is true of armed forces personnel returning from overseas deployments, mothers returning from taking time off to raise kids, and so on”.  

The argument was made that there’s actually no shortage of people that could potentially join the ranks of mainframe professionals if you had the right mechanisms in place to recruit and cross-train them effectively.

Broadcom’s Approach to Mainframe Skills Development

To address the mainframe skills challenge/opportunity, Broadcom has developed a comprehensive set of programs designed to build a new generation of mainframe professionals and help customers bridge the skills gap. The centrepiece of these efforts is the Vitality Residency Program, which combines training, mentorship, and financial support to develop mainframe talent.

Under the Vitality Program, Broadcom hires, trains, and mentors new mainframe professionals for up to 12 months before they join the customer’s organisation. Customers can either send current employees for upskilling or have Broadcom source new talent for them. This overcomes the barrier of customers finding it hard to justify the cost of recruitment and training to support their succession plans, which can mean carrying the cost of unproductive or duplicated skills for extended periods.

In addition to the Vitality Program, Broadcom offers a range of no-cost online education resources, including self-paced learning and instructor-led training covering a wide range of topics. The company has seen a 31-fold increase in consumption of these resources since making them available at no cost, with 85% of customers likely to recommend the training. Resources like these are not only useful for skills development within the mainframe domain, but also for raising the level of knowledge and awareness among non-mainframe stakeholders and decision makers.

If all this sounds too good to be true, Sinha explained the rationale behind the company spending so much time, effort and money supporting its skills programs: “The healthier the mainframe ecosystem, the more durable and sustainable our own business remains. Broadcom is in this for the long-term and overcoming the current skills-related challenges, whether real or perceived, is in our own interests, as well as those of our customers and the new talent coming into the IBM Z world.”

Looking ahead

While the mainframe skills challenge may seem daunting, programs like Broadcom’s demonstrate that proactive investment and innovative approaches can help organisations get ahead of the problem and avoid a crisis situation. By combining training, mentorship, and financial support, these initiatives are creating a new generation of mainframe professionals who are equipped to leverage the platform’s cutting-edge capabilities.

If you are a mainframe customer reading this, the key message is that the cost and distraction of developing a succession plan and acquiring skills to support mainframe expansion and growth may not be as hard as you think it is. Whether it’s Broadcom or other major players in this space, help from your partners can significantly ease the path to exploiting modern mainframe capabilities and taking your hybrid cloud strategy to the next level. 

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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.