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Big Data Demands Big Iron Skills

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:23 PM


Editor’s note: This article is based on content initially published in the SHARE President's Corner blog.

With all the attention paid to unemployment rates in recent years, it’s easy to overlook that some IT jobs go unfilled on a regular basis because of a lack of skills. That’s right, even at the height of the Great Recession, some IT positions remained vacant. One area where it’s particularly difficult to find the requisite skills is mainframe computing. Mainframers have warned for years that a disproportionate number in their ranks is nearing retirement age and the industry hasn’t minted enough new mainframe experts to fill the vacuum.

A 2012 Computerworld survey found that 22 percent of COBOL programmers are 55 and older, while half are between 45 and 55. Presumably, most will retire in the next two decades, taking with them large amounts of institutional knowledge. That is unless they get a chance to transfer that know-how to the next generation of workers. That knowledge includes:

• Underlying strategies behind projects when they were implemented
• Understanding and methodologies developed over decades
• Technical management skills

The effects of a mass exodus from the mainframe ranks could affect a number of computing trends, not the least of which is big data. The potential impact on big data has received little attention—at least no one seems to be talking about it publicly. While IT professionals recognize the mainframe skills shortage and its potential deleterious effects on enterprise computing, few seem to be making the link to big data.

With enterprises placing big data at or near the top of their IT priorities in study after study, little guesswork is needed to figure out what is driving this investment. As enterprises look to extract value from the mindboggling volumes of data they collect, many will leverage the mainframe for its processing power, scalability, availability and security.

Big data is important because it might hold the key to corporate success in the future. If companies can figure out how to unlock the trends, revelations and obvious courses of action hidden in largely amorphous mountains of data, they stand to realize significant benefits. Big data insights will guide them toward building better products and services, improve customer service and—ultimately—boost the bottom line.

But big data poses volume and organization challenges. Companies can no longer rely entirely on relational databases for all their data, now that so much of it comes from inherently chaotic sources such as social media sites and mobile devices. And this, of course, is where the mainframe comes in. It provides more computing power and reliability than the typical server farms that run distributed environments while requiring less power, cooling and floor space.

Of course, for big data to provide the desired benefits, it will require the tools, specifically the analytics software and hardware to handle the work. But it will also require the skills to run the tools. And that is why grooming mainframe talent is a priority for a growing number of enterprises.

The IBM Academic Initiative has been forging partnerships with high schools and universities to attract young talent to the mainframe. Its Master the Mainframe contest, invites students worldwide to learn and demonstrate their mainframe skills. Enterprises have a role as well, by partnering with vendors and colleges to promote mainframe learning. Big data, and all of the business value that can be derived from it, may depend on these combined efforts.

Pedro Pereira is a veteran tech journalist. Follow him on Twitter @EditPedro.