Careers: Big Iron's Catch-22

Are mainframe pros the victims of their platform’s strongest selling points?

Big Iron boosters like to cite the mainframe’s up, down, and up again story as proof positive that mainframe skills will always be a hot commodity.

There’s a lot to be said for this argument—large organizations with Big Iron capacity in excess of 1,000 MIPS will almost certainly stay the course, experts say—but it may be too optimistic by far.

That’s because mainframe skills are also among those most likely to be outsourced, in some cases to offshore locales. It may be because the mainframe is the victim of its own, strongest selling points. Thanks to unrivaled security, stability, and continuity, much of the “work” of mainframe systems operation or systems programming consists of maintenance activities, such as operating system or application upgrades or implementing new feature requests.

“The bulk of the [programming] activity would be described as maintenance,” agrees Tyler Allman, a product manager with software tools vendor Compuware Corp. “Because in most cases the large number of mainframe legacy applications that have been written are happily ticking over in production. We have a large insurance company that recently did a $500 million commitment to new application development, which shows [the mainframe is] still a significant player, but that would be an anomaly.”

There’s another reason, too. Big Iron skills come at a premium. Some mainframe pros have been plying their trades for three decades or more. They expect to be paid accordingly. The mainframe isn’t exactly a can’t-miss destination for new college grads (nor for jaded IT pros from other disciplines, for that matter), which means that it’s a seller’s market. Some cost-conscious organizations are increasingly unwilling to pay the price.

That’s true even for IBM Corp., which has established mainframe outsourcing centers in the Far East and other offshore locales. A software engineer with IBM Global Services (IGS) who spoke on condition of anonymity told Enterprise Strategies that the mainframe software assets of the client site to which he’s now attached (a prominent telecommunications company that signed a multi-year, multi-billion dollar deal with IGS) were among the first IT resources to go offshore. The reason? The mainframe application in question was perceived as mature. It wasn’t likely to be a destination platform for new or enhanced services, and it was perceived as—in a word—outsourceable.

To the extent that many Big Iron applications fit this description, isn’t there a possibility that the livelihoods of some mainframe pros—at least in environments that haven’t beefed up their Big Iron investments—could be endangered? It’s a possibility that even mainframe optimists concede.

“That’s definitely something that is on the minds of a lot of people, and it’s definitely something that is happening. I know quite a bit about what countries like China and India are doing in terms of the skills they’re building and where they’re going in the next decades and how they’re going to be utilized. And in large numbers of cases, they’re going to be utilized by the businesses that tend to outsource their computing, but that’s still a pretty small percentage of businesses,” says Mike Bliss, director of IBM System z9 and zSeries.

“There is still a large percentage of customers who are keeping [their mainframe resources] in-house. They’re outsourcing an application or two, or they’re outsourcing some of their biggest cost centers, but keeping that in mind, there’s still ample opportunities and job opportunities for folks to do application development on the platform. I don’t think that need is going to go away.”

Mike Smith, vice-president of development with Computer Associates International Inc. (CA), makes the point even more bluntly. “When it makes sense economically to put an application into standard maintenance mode, you’re going to look for your best cost performance to do that, and in a lot of cases, you get your best cost performance by outsourcing it.”

Smith, who’s in charge of product marketing for CA’s AllFusion Gen mainframe application development tool, doesn’t think this is necessarily bad for mainframe IT pros, however. “If I have some real mainframe wizards in-house, for example, I would rather have them working on whatever my hottest requirement is at the time, instead of being bogged down with this [standard maintenance] stuff. I think they would probably feel the same way, too.”

Isn’t the point that an organization that’s mulling a mainframe outsourcing move doesn’t have any Big Iron “hot” requirements? Smith and other industry watchers don’t think so. After all, outsourcing standard maintenance on a mainframe application isn’t outsourcing one’s entire mainframe resources. Service enablement is a very requirement in many large organizations, Big-Iron optimists say. Given the investments that most Global 2000 companies have in mainframe hardware and software, exposing these resources to other service-enabled applications is fast becoming their top priority.

“They are taking existing applications and extending these things so they can be called outside the mainframe environment, trying to effectively introduce an SOA into these [existing mainframe] applications,” says Compuware’s Allman. In many cases, organizations are tapping integration middleware—such as Big Blue’s CICS Transaction Gateway, or WebSphere Business Integration suite offerings—but in others, Allman says, they’re actually writing new COBOL code to service-enable existing mainframe applications.

In the final analysis, he says, mainframe jobs might move offshore because many potential job-seekers in the U.S. and other regions just aren’t interested. This is in spite of IBM's launch of an ambitious effort to raise the mainframe’s profile among college students and other potential (i.e., cross-over) technologists.

“I think the reality is you’re going to see more and more of this stuff going offshore, simply because it’s not that attractive any more to computer science grads coming out of these [North American and EU] countries,” he observes. “They see it as a thing of the past. You can go overseas, to South America or Southeast Asia, and folks just see it as a nice paying job. It’s just kind of inevitable.” In any case, Allman asserts, “the viability of the mainframe isn’t in doubt.”

Related Articles:

Who Benefits from Outsourcing? Not the Line of Business
http://www.esj.com/news/article.aspx?EditorialsID=1390

Careers: Big Iron Pros Sticking Around
http://www.esj.com/Enterprise/article.aspx?EditorialsID=1470

About the Author

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