[Originally Published April 15, 2016 InformationWeek.com]
Mainframe systems are still the backbone of much of today's IT infrastructure. Yet, finding IT talent to maintain these systems, and the COBOL and Fortran languages that support them, is becoming increasingly difficult. Knowledge transfer expert Steve Trautman, founder of The Steve Trautman Co., offers real-world advice on how IT leaders can cultivate the talent needed to run these crucial systems.
IT executives are starting to say something out loud that everyone has known for a long time: Despite decades of IT transformation, mainframe systems are still the backbone of much of today's IT infrastructure. One obvious reason is that, in many cases, they work fine. Replacing all that horsepower could cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, let alone the cost of disruption to the business.
The trouble is that all of the people who know how to maintain these systems -- while preparing to bolt on next-gen apps -- are aging out of the workforce, and there are no Millennials eagerly lining up to take their spots. Mainframes require knowledge of COBOL and Fortran, languages that are not considered particularly sexy these days. It's not hard to see why no one wants to learn these languages. Mainframe is dead. Long live the cloud. Right?
If CIOs don't change the narrative right away, the challenge of keeping up with the legacy applications running on mainframes is going to soon be untenable. Hiring back retirees won't work much longer. Then what will you do?
Here's a solution. If you're the CIO, I want you to handpick six to ten hotshots who are up-and-coming leaders in your organization. These are people who have the technical skills as well as the potential to be influencers among their peers.
Ideally, they'd enjoy working with each other, so you can shape them into a well-oiled machine and enable them to have fun while doing something you think is important. Think A-team in the making. You're going to grow yourself a solution to this problem.
Pull these people into a room, buy them lunch, look them in the eye, and then give them this message:
"I've hand-selected you to do something for me that is going to help you shape the future of IT at our company. It may sound wacky at first, but hear me out. Our mainframe systems are the backbone of more than half of our technical capacity, and the brain trust that keeps them relevant and stable is fast leaving our company. This puts our business at risk. I want you to take a lead on the solution. I want you to work as a team to learn the history, value, and unique role of these foundational systems so that we can springboard off of that capacity into a future that continues to shape the course of our company.
"Yes, I'm asking you to become experts in our legacy systems, but do not be afraid. This is the opposite of you being banished to the basement to work on the mainframe. Instead, you are going to be building a skill set that is truly unique in your generation. You'll learn more about how our business actually works from this experience than you can get anywhere else. You'll set yourself up to be a thoughtful and trusted advisor to our line-of-business executives and to me. For the rest of your career, you will leverage this foundation as you help plot a way forward."
Let your team know that if your organization doesn't get this right, it risks disruptions to its revenue stream, potentially in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.
Since this is so critical, commit to your team members that you will give them the very best resources available to make this plan work quickly. Make it clear that the organization has already waited too long, and every hour counts.
Easy to say, right? So, how do you get there?
Here are two key steps you can take to make this work. The guidance below is based on a knowledge transfer process we've developed in my consulting practice, The Steve Trautman Co. I'll be sharing more of my work during the Leadership Summit at Interop in Las Vegas, May 2-6. (Editor's note: Interop is produced by UBM, InformationWeek's parent company.)
The first step is to create what we call a Knowledge Silo Matrix, which breaks the systems down into areas of expertise, and maps what is already being done by existing experts. Your team members need to know who is already doing this work the right way, so they can learn from the appropriate experts with a focus on the highest risk, highest priority knowledge. You and your teams will use this matrix to divide and conquer. Everyone doesn't need to learn everything, but everything needs to be known by someone so you have sufficient capacity going forward.
The second step involves deconstructing the work in each knowledge silo using what we call Skill Development Plans. In this process, you and your team will list out every single task, and all of the "secret sauce" that your current experts have. These plans will allow each member of your handpicked team to drive their own learning, rather than waiting to be taught. Each person's role will be to learn enough about mainframes to ensure they are maintained and ready for anything new your organization wants to throw at them.
Let your team know that, as soon as they collaborate to build this knowledge transfer machine, you'll be able to cycle others through the role so they can take over and allow the original team members to move on to new assignments with this foundation.
Make sure your handpicked team members know that they are the pioneers, and you'll have others follow behind them, so you never have this talent shortfall again.
As part of this process, they'll get special training in Talent Risk Management and Knowledge Transfer that will help them advance in their careers, whether they want to continue along the path of technical expertise, or work their way along a management track. In this way, you're helping them to be unique among their peers.
Carve out between 25% and 50% of each team member's time to focus on this initiative, so that they can continue some of their current projects. Based on our experience, it will take a year or so to fully get this system in place, but you'll be able to make the risks clear and prioritized by the end of your first quarter by using this process. That way, your team will know it's on the right track fairly quickly.
Along the way, meet regularly with your team to check in and ensure they have all the support they need.
If you follow these guidelines, you will make your legacy systems sexy again. You'll build a team that understands the business from the ground up and so can be better advisors to you as you migrate to next-generation technology in a thoughtful, pragmatic way. You'll be solving an intractable problem and creating a system so the problem does not recur.
If you don't make this bold move to reduce your talent risks, what are your other options?
Tell us what you think in the comments section below. Can this approach work in your organization? How mainframe-dependent are you? What methods have you used to make mainframe computing appealing to your Millennial tech workers?