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Mainframe developers, especially those with COBOL skills, may not get as much attention as, say, app developers -- except from a number of employers. While the development community has been dazzled by opportunities in online and mobile environments, it seems to have forgotten that mainframes still run huge parts of the largest government agencies, financial institutions and even airlines. A sweeping survey commissioned by Micro Focus in 2009 found that 70 percent of the business and transaction systems around the world run on COBOL, and 90 percent of global financial transactions are processed in COBOL. The language supports over 30 billion transactions per day. The average American still interacts with a COBOL program 13 times a day.

Datasaab D22 mainframe computer

Industry Exodus

The problem is that experienced mainframe programmers are beginning to retire in droves. One industry expert estimates that 500 of the Social Security Administration's 1,000 COBOL-skilled programmers will be eligible to retire by 2015. Meanwhile, the number of tech professionals trained to replace them is inadequate. Without a proper supply, well: Who’s going to cut Social Security checks when no one’s around to troubleshoot the payment processing mainframe? Compuware and Wayne State University College of Engineering in Michigan are among the organizations that have developed training courses to address the looming talent shortage. Meanwhile, IBM has created a mainframe developers' training program that's now offered at 1,067 schools worldwide. Government consultant Robert Juch has seen the need first hand. “There’s a significant shortage of specialists right now. I'm working on a contract until the end of next June, but I’m still contacted by recruiters wanting COBOL, DB2, CICS and MQ programmers as well as tech support specialists.”

Damage Control

“There is a really big storm brewing, and we’ve known about it for years,” observes software consultant and contractor Robert Firestone. “If we don't have mainframe systems supported by people who can support them well, banks, insurance companies and many other large operations are going to continue to have problems. It is way past too late to get started to fix this. All that can happen now is damage control.” Still, some executives continue to be in the dark. Fred Tetterton, a director of resource management for a company specializing in banking technology solutions, has been stunned by the lack of knowledge. As an example, he cites one conference a couple of years ago where "(some) of the CEOs and top execs at companies I had contracted for as a mainframe expert asked why IBM was holding breakout sessions on COBOL and CICS," he recalls. "They didn’t even know their own companies were still heavily dependent on this technology." But maybe, says Doan James, a technical consultant with nearly 30 years experience, the talent is out there and being overlooked. “Mainframers with 20 years of experience are getting paid the same or less than Web/PC programmers with three to five years of experience," he says. “Right now there aren’t good incentives for young people to study mainframes. If businesses are really worried, they should hire programmers who are over 50 and attract them with reasonable demands and reasonable pay."

Make Your Argument

Whether employees are young, middle-aged or geriatric, organizations that use mainframe have to get on the stick. Someone is going to have to do the work that helps keep the government and big business running. And that, in effect, is what you have to convince potential employers if you've got the skills they'll need. In other words, on top of making the usual arguments about why they should hire you, you have to show them how the lack of people with your skills could impact their business, for the worse. That puts you in an somewhat awkward position, since critiquing a company you want to work for is a delicate thing. So, some advice:
  • When pointing out how neglected mainframes can harm critical business functions, don't point fingers at the company -- and especially not the managers you meet or their departments. Stay at a higher level. Talk about the overall trends, especially the growing number of retiring experts and the lack of new blood to replace them.
  • Research the industry, especially the role people with your skills play in both its day-to-day operations and long-term success.
  • Show you flexibility and commitment to learning. Like it or not, languages like COBOL get a bad rap. People think they're arcane and obsolete. So, while you argue for their importance, also demonstrate how you stay current. But be careful here. You don't want managers to think you're pitching yourself as a smart developer who happens to know COBOL, and who really just wants get in the door.
Do you work with mainframes? Have other suggestions? Share them in the comments below. Image: Wikimedia