Careers: Big Iron Pros Sticking Around

Mainframe brain drain doesn't worry many old mainframe hands, who don’t see themselves going anywhere anytime soon

As mainframe operators and system programmers age, to what extent are they contemplating, much less looking forward to, retirement?

It’s a critical question, given the graying demographics of the mainframe technology pool. There’s concern in some quarters that organizations will find it difficult (if not impossible) to fill jobs left vacant by retiring mainframe technologists. It’s an issue to which IBM Corp., BMC Software Corp., Computer Associates International Inc. (CA), and others have devoted substantial resources (see

It’s also an issue to which mainframe technologists themselves appear to have given a lot of thought. To the extent that the mainframe is in the midst of a sustained resurgence and Big Iron skills are highly sought across the country (and globe), it’s a dilemma they don’t seem worried about. Simply put: many mainframe technologists—some with three decades or more of mainframe experience—don’t see themselves going anywhere.

Not, at least, of their own volition. Bob Richards, a mainframe system programmer with a prominent financial institution based in the Southeast, has been plying his trade for the better part of 30 years. He draws a distinction between one kind of brain drain—the exodus of technologists who programmed the seminal System 360 mainframes of the 1960’s—and the long-anticipated departure of MVS, S/390, and zSeries professionals.

“Most system programmers from those early days have, or plan to be, retired. The second wave is the system programmer that entered into this field in the 1970s. I belong to this group of individuals in their fifties and I have no immediate plans to retire. I am still having too much fun participating in the evolution of this platform,” Richards comments.

Besides, says Ken Sharpe, an information systems operating system specialist with the Department of Human Services in a southwestern state, brain drain isn’t an issue in some environments. In his own organization, for example, mainframe gray hairs are in the minority—and capable IT pros like his younger colleague Chris Little, a mainframe technologist at 35, are more than picking up the slack.

“Chris is the baby around here, but … we can't [help but] notice [that] he is good at what he does. [He’s] just more gung-ho that us gray hairs, so [he] could use some aging,” Sharpe says. “I am the old gray hair left here, except that we just hired another one—his previous company went bankrupt—which was fortunate for us since he is good at the job, too. This gives us two experienced expert MVS system programmers again.”

In fact, Sharpe says, he and his gray-haired colleague are negotiating new challenges of their own: off-setting a distributed systems brain drain—triggered by tighter IT budgets—by getting up to speed on platforms other than MVS.

“The challenge these days for us old folks is to become experts at more than MVS which we are up to—just very, very busy though.”

The environment isn't positive everywhere. Joe Poole, a mainframe technologist with a prominent retailer, says his organization has been particularly hard-hit by brain drain.

“[W]e've had five retirements in the last five years, and only two of those positions filled. The average age of our z/OS staff is 51. Even with good pay and good benefits and enjoyable challenges, these people will not be here forever,” says Poole, who is 61. “I expect that in the next five years our 10-person mainframe staff will see a 50 percent attrition [rate] due to retirement.”

Poole does see an upside to the downside, however. “While the z/OS presence here is on a sunset trajectory, Linux on the z/Series is just starting to rise. That seems to be the case for many z/Series shops. I think that will drive the adoption of z/VM skills, and to some degree z/OS skills of the 20-something set.”

Linux and Unix in the Mix

Not surprisingly, many mainframe technologists don’t plan to go anywhere—in large part because they’re dealing with the same kinds of issues (financial and otherwise) that beset their colleagues in the distributed space.

Take Richard Pinion, a mainframe system programmer with a not-for-profit healthcare system based in Tennessee.

“If the decision is left up to me, I'm not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. I've been working with IBM mainframes since I graduated from college in 1980, [with a] B.S. in Computer Science. I have been a [systems programmer] since 1983. I'll continue to work on the mainframe platform as long as I can find employment in the mainframe field,” he explains. “I just turned 46 and I'm not planning on retirement anytime soon. A couple of reasons are [that] my son is starting college this fall and will be attending Boston University and [that] I've grown accustomed to the luxuries in life such as eating and shelter.”

Big-Iron enthusiasts tend to care deeply about the future of their chosen platform, but few mainframe technologists seem to be sweating the brain drain phenomenon. Many point to modern innovations, such as zLinux and J2EE, which are widely credited with bringing workloads back to the mainframe.

Mainframer Poole, for example, sees increasing zLinux usage as one of the few bright spots in his company’s own mainframe technology roadmap. System programmer Richards thinks the next generation of zSeries technologists will cut their teeth on Unix and Linux. “The next generation of system programmers is already starting to arrive, and the platform is growing with the advent of Linux on zSeries. The Unix [systems administrators] have been learning of mainframe concepts in recent years such as partitioning, workload management, and virtualization. Some are floating between platforms, gaining an appreciation for both.”

In addition, says Poole, organizations must be able to cultivate their own Big-Iron talent. To some extent, he notes, his employer is already doing so. “We're going to be doing cross-pollination to a degree. If anything the future z/Series support personnel are likely to be home grown. I certainly don't see an overwhelming number of educational institutions offering courses that teach the skill sets that I and my fellow 'mainframers' have and use on a daily basis.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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