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Consultants work around mainframe staffing limitations

Specialized service providers aim to offset labor constraints with a mix of education programs, on-the-job experience and tools such as robotic process automation.

Digital transformation and cloud-native applications receive top billing as strategic initiatives, but many customers continue to run legacy systems -- mainframes included.

While the technology continues to drive demand for mainframe skills, retirements have left enterprises with a dearth of in-house expertise. Specialized partners aim to fill that talent gap, helping clients optimize and integrate their mainframes or, alternatively, migrate off the platforms. Getting the mainframe strategy right is important for such companies, given legacy systems' potential to frustrate clients' cloud transformation initiatives. An Accenture study published in 2020 cited legacy infrastructure and application sprawl as among the top three barriers to cloud adoption.

But service providers, much like their customers, must cope with a shrinking supply of big-iron know-how. Partners that offer mainframe services as part of their portfolios use a mix of training, recruitment and automation to work around the labor market's constraints.

Mainframes endure, but knowledge dwindles

"People have been trying to 'get off the mainframe' for 25 years," said Marc Capri, president of Ensono, a hybrid IT services provider based in Downers Grove, Ill.

Marc Capri, president of EnsonoMarc Capri

"Mainframes are perfectly good platforms for the right types of workloads, as long as you can optimize the cost and you have the right talent to support them," he said.

And there's the rub. Most clients running mainframe environments must deal with aging workforces and retirements, which creates risk, Capri said.

For Alex Heublein, president of GT Software, a digital transformation and IT modernization company based in Atlanta, the disappearance of company-specific mainframe expertise presents the main problem.

Mainframes are perfectly good platforms for the right types of workloads, as long as you can optimize the cost and you have the right talent to support them.
Marc CapriPresident, Ensono

"I think it's actually less of a skill shortage issue and more of an institutional knowledge issue," Heublein said. "Many organizations are finding that it isn't so much of an issue finding COBOL programmers as it is an issue of the people who have maintained their very specific mainframe applications retiring, and losing the knowledge of how all of the complex parts and pieces work together."

The continued need for mainframes, coupled with the threat of experience deficits, opens opportunities for service providers. Ensono works with companies to get the most out of their machines, Capri noted. The company's insurance industry clients provide one example.

"Most of them are saying, 'We're not looking to get off the mainframe, but we'd love to optimize the software stack,' or, 'We'd love to find ways to use the mainframe to do other work, when it's not busy, in a cost-efficient way,'" he said.

Alex Heublein, GT SoftwareAlex Heublein

GT Software helps customers with mainframe-to-cloud migrations. An enterprise's decision to pursue such efforts pivots on risk, Heublein said.

"For a lot of organizations, it comes down to one question: Is the risk of staying on the mainframe, knowing that key personnel that my applications depend upon are retiring, greater than the risk of migrating and potentially impacting the business by doing so?" he said.

GT Software encourages phased migrations and the integration of an abstraction layer to mitigate risk, Heublein said. The latter serves as a buffer, shielding a customer's modern applications from mainframe complexity.

Mainframe staffing workarounds

Service providers use various methods to cultivate expertise and address customers' mainframe staffing and technology challenges.

Employee training is one approach. Ensono four years ago launched its Mainframe Academy, which operates in the U.S., Europe and India. The program educates the company's associates, including people early in their IT careers, on managing critical infrastructure. Capri likened the academy to bootcamps that companies such as Accenture and Deloitte offer to get new consultants up to speed and billable.

"You take someone who's got very little skills in the legacy environment and teach them through a curriculum that has been jointly created within Ensono and some of the other big providers in the space, like IBM," Capri said. "Once they've graduated, they are launched into the entry level of actual live client support."

Capri expressed some surprise at the degree to which younger employees have taken to Ensono's mainframe education. "It's almost opposite of what you would think would happen, where a person who's just entering the workforce [would] want to learn only the most modern technology," he said.

The exposure to different technology platforms, however, differentiates academy graduates. "They can see a career path," he added.

Mainframe learning continues after Ensono assigns newly trained associates to billable projects, Capri said.

Brandon Edenfield, Advanced Brandon Edenfield

Advanced, an application modernization services provider based in Atlanta, recruits mainframe talent and offers employees mainframe training to maintain its pool of legacy systems personnel. Brandon Edenfield, global managing director of application modernization at Advanced, also emphasized hands-on work as an important teacher.

"Most of the time, the most valuable experience is in the act of modernizing -- 'the school of hard knocks,' as we say -- and the pitfalls that come from these extremely complex, cross-functional, multiyear projects," Edenfield said.

GT Software, meanwhile, uses a combination of experienced staff and subcontractor specialists to meet clients' mainframe needs. "Mainframe skill sets are definitely getting harder, but not too difficult, to find," Heublein said.

The company also uses and produces technologies to help mitigate the growing mainframe skills shortage.

"It's all about simplifying and automating the environment," he said. "If I can make integrating with the mainframe a seamless and easily adaptable experience, without having to write a lot of specialty code to do it, then I've taken a big load off of my mainframe staff. Similarly, if I can employ technologies like robotic process automation to quickly automate manual sysadmin tasks, then I can redeploy those resources to higher-value efforts."

No-code integration and RPA platforms can mitigate some of the skill shortages GT Software encounters in the market, Heublein added.

Advanced doesn't specifically use low-code/no-code tools or RPA to work around the limited supply of mainframe skills. "But one might argue that our automated refactoring tools are a form of RPA," Edenfield noted.

Low-code/no-code tools typically find a role when a customer runs a modern ecosystem, because such an environment gives them more management options, he said.

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