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Loss of Intellectual Knowledge

First, let's cover the basics of the intellectual knowledge issue. As computers became part of the business landscape, the mainframe was the de facto standard for financial institutions, government agencies, and insurance companies. These entities continue to rely on these fast and stable workhorses to keep their operations running. Software developers programmed mainframes using a language called COBOL (common business-oriented language).

Half a century later, COBOL is still going strong, because mainframes are still the backbone of 75 percent of businesses and government agencies according to industry analysts at Datamonitor.4 Of that 75 percent, 90 percent of global financial transactions are processed in COBOL. Yet as different and more modern languages were introduced to reflect the evolution of technology, there was less emphasis and, frankly, less incentive for the next generation to learn COBOL.

As the lines of COBOL code continued to grow over the years, the number of skilled programmers has steadily declined. It's difficult to quantify the number of active COBOL programmers currently employed. In 2004, the last time Gartner tried to count COBOL programmers, the consultancy estimated that there were approximately two million worldwide and the number was declining at 5 percent annually.5

The greatest impact of COBOL programmers leaving the workforce will be felt from 2015 through 2029. This makes sense when you realize that the oldest of the baby boomer generation are those born between 1946 and 1950 and that this generation will approach the traditional retirement age of 65 between the years 2011 and 2015.6

As these workers prepare for retirement or are part of a generation that doesn't stay at one company for their entire career, last-minute scrambles to capture a career's worth of programming expertise and how it's been applied to companyspecific applications are challenging.

However, efforts are under way to address this issue. They include IBM's Academic Initiative and the Academic Connection (ACTION) program from Micro Focus International plc, a software company that helps modernize COBOL applications. Both programs are actively involved in teaching COBOL skills at colleges and universities worldwide. However, very little was done to document the knowledge of these skilled workers in the real world while they were on the job.

The COBOL Skills Debate

It's debatable whether a COBOL skills shortage actually exists. To some degree, the impact of the dearth of skilled workers will depend on how many of a company's applications rely on COBOL.

For companies that will be affected, industry analysts at Gartner published a report in 2010 titled "Ensuring You Have Mainframe Skills Through 2020."7 In the report, Gartner analysts advise companies that depend on mainframes how to prepare for the impending skills shortage. The report says companies should work closely with human resources professionals to put a comprehensive plan in place that will help guide them through the next decade, when the mainframe skills shortage will be more prominent.

Mike Chuba, a vice president at Gartner and author of the report, wrote, "Many organizations have specialists with years of deep knowledge—a formal plan to capture and pass on that knowledge via cross-training or mentoring of existing personnel is critical."

From a day-to-day perspective, the inability to sufficiently support the mainframe could have a significant impact on the economy. Micro Focus International plc has found that COBOL applications are involved in transporting up to 72,000 shipping containers, caring for 60 million patients, processing 80 percent of point-of-sale transactions, and connecting 500 million mobile phone users.8

According to Kim Kazmaier, a senior IT architect with over 30 years of industry experience, this skills challenge is the result of a combination of factors: "The demographics have changed. You are unlikely to find many people who remain in one company, industry, or technology focus for long periods of time, unlike previous generations of IT professionals. Also, the sheer volume and complexity of technology make it virtually impossible for any individual to master the information about all the technology that's in use within a large IT organization. It used to be that an IT professional would literally study manuals cover to cover, but those days have been replaced by justin-time learning."

"To be fair, the information that once filled a bookcase would now fill entire rooms. We simply don't have the luxury to master that much information individually, so we rely on information mash-ups provided by collaboration, search engines, metadata repositories, and often overstretched subject-matter experts."

How to Prepare for Any Pending Skills Drought

This issue adds up to fewer skilled IT workers to handle the increasing issues of developing and managing software, which results in the proliferation of glitches.

How can organizations address this issue in a logical and realistic way? The most practical approach—and one that can be applied to nearly any challenge of this nature—is to first fully understand the business issue, and then figure out how your people can help address it through technology.

The first step is to conduct an IT audit by invoking a comprehensive inventory of all the technology in the infrastructure. Along with tracking all the COBOL-specific applications, you should understand which non-COBOL applications intersect with COBOL applications. Given that we are more connected every day, applications are no longer relegated to specific departments or companies. Because COBOL is behind a significant number of business transactions, there is a strong likelihood that the non-COBOL applications being created today will also pass through a mainframe. The inventory process is actually not as arduous as it may initially seem, given the amount of available technology resources that can accelerate this step.

The next step is to get an update on the percentage of COBOL expertise in your company versus other technologies, as well as tenure and retirement dates. Based on an IT audit and staff evaluation, you can get a clear picture of just how much of a risk the COBOL situation is to your organization.

If you determine that your company is at risk due to a lack of COBOL expertise, consider the following recommendations:

  • Be realistic about knowledge transfer
  • Cross-train staff
  • Automate as much as possible

Be Realistic About Knowledge Transfer

A logical course of action would be to suggest knowledge transfer, but that won't completely resolve the situation because of two significant issues. The first is that the applications that were put in place decades ago have been consistently tweaked, updated, and enhanced through the years. It would be impossible to review every change made along the way to pick up exactly where a COBOL expert with 30 years of experience left off. This won't be a showstopper, but it can result in longer-than-expected cycles to identify the source of a glitch.

This leads to the second issue—experience. It's simply not possible to do a Vulcan mind meld with the retiring workforce and expect a new team of developers to be as conversant in COBOL as people who have dedicated their careers to it. Although knowledge transfer is important, companies should be realistic in their expectations.

Cross-Train Staff

There's no reason that the IT job of the future couldn't or shouldn't be a hybrid of various kinds of technology expertise. For example, you could offer positions that mix different skill sets such as Flash programming and COBOL and offer additional salary and benefits to the cross-trained developers. This would result in greater expertise across the company and would help you avoid creating knowledge silos.

Automate Where Possible

If your company is facing a skills shortage, consider using technology to automate as many tasks as possible. You can never fully replace intellectual knowledge, but this step can help alleviate the time-consuming and less-strategic functions that still need to happen on a regular basis.

Computer Science Is Cool Again

Whether or not you believe that a pending COBOL skills drought is imminent, you can't deny that there is a demand for IT skills across the board. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that by 2018, the information sector will create more than one million jobs. The BLS includes the following areas in this category: data processing, web and application hosting, streaming services, Internet publishing, broadcasting, and software publishing.9 Although this represents great opportunities for the next generation, we will face a supply-anddemand issue when it comes to building and maintaining the technology that runs our businesses.

This is due to the fact that the number of students studying computer science and related disciplines at the college and university level is just now on the upswing after steadily declining from 2000 to 2007, largely as a result of the dotcom collapse. In March 2009, The New York Times 10 reported on the Computing Research Association Taulbee Survey. It found that as of 2008, enrollment in computer science programs increased for the first time in six years, by 6.2 percent.11 But the gap will still exist from nearly a decade of students who opted out of studying the fundamentals associated with software design, development, and programming. Adding to this is the evidence that students studying computer science today are more interested in working with "cooler" front-end application technologies—the more visible and lucrative aspects in the industry. They're not as interested in the seemingly lessexciting opportunities associated with the mainframe. The Taulbee Survey found that part of the resurgence in studying computer science is due to the excitement surrounding social media and mobile technologies.

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