Mainframe skills can remain relevant in 'cross-skilling'

Demand for mainframe skills dependent on market but to secure future employability, IT undergrads shouldn't prioritize or rule out learning such skills and should instead obtain basic know-how for cross- and up-skill.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

To safeguard their future employability, today's IT undergraduates need not rule out or restrict themselves entirely to mainframe skills, and should instead focus on being adaptable with all core technical know-how. This will allow them to better "cross-skill" in an industry where the technology is always progressing and whether mainframe skills will remain relevant or eventually die out will be dependent on external market forces.

Stanley Kwan, managing consultant at IT recruitment agency Greythorn, said the need for mainframe skills is driven by market demand which is ultimately dependent on IT vendors and organizations that still use mainframes in their business.

"As long as that market exists, there are job opportunities [for mainframes skills]," Kwan said.

Should they migrate or mainframes become obsolete in the future, these companies would still value the experience of IT professionals who had upgraded their technical skillsets, he added.

According to Kwan, any technical skillset--be it mainframe or otherwise--would become obsolete due to market development. "Hence, it is about continual education and training on newer technologies to create value for all parties [and], thereby, creating future employability," he said.

Peter Noblet, senior regional director at recruitment agency Hays Information Technology, concurred, noting that because technology progresses at a rapid pace, even within specific system areas, one version of a product can be completely obsolete within a few years.

He noted that mainframes are not completely obsolete today, but said there has been declining demand overall for mainframes and the associated skills over the last 5 to 10 years.

Noblet attributed this to enterprises that have been migrating core critical systems from mainframe to x86 architectures, due to rising costs of hardware, application and support maintenance contracts, as well as the difficulty of finding required skilled manpower.

In light of this, any new IT undergrad should not make mainframe skills their topmost priority, but instead should gain an understanding of mainframe environments while keeping in mind that the adoption of mainframes is shifting.

Noblet said: "In most businesses, there will always be the dusty system sitting in the corner which cannot be migrated to newer platforms for one reason or another… But with most modern IT infrastructure, mainframes are fast becoming a thing of the past.

"We would not advise IT undergrads to specialize exclusively [in mainframes] in today's fast-moving IT market. [Instead], we recommend cross-skilling into more current areas to ensure a smooth career transition when demand ultimately runs out."

Have foundation to gain flexibility
While industry observers remained divided over the future of mainframes, recruiters agreed that undergraduates should not stake their employability solely on these skills. They also underscored the need for students to know the technical basics so they can stay adaptable to the fast-pace IT world.

Associate professor Wong Weng Fai, computer science department, School of Computing (SOC) at the National University of Singapore, said there are still companies today that carry out a lot of backend processing using mainframes, and noted that this will continue for some time.

These companies have invested heavily in the infrastructure and on building customized software to meet their needs, as well as getting continued support from mainframe vendors, Wong explained. "[So there is] little reason for them to fix what works," he said.

Furthermore, the IT market is large enough to accommodate a very broad range of applications and platforms, he noted.

SOC emphasizes teaching its students the fundamentals while using a variety of platforms to provide hands-on exposure to realize these fundamental computing principles, he said.

"As such, we have never focused on teaching students skills in any particular platform or even programming language--they pick it up along the way as they learn the core architectures, algorithms, and programming paradigms," he added.

According to Wong, this "teach fundamentals, use diverse platforms" philosophy has proven effective.

He explained that even though its students had not been exposed to mainframes as a working platform, as the last mainframe in NUS was phased out in the 1990s, those who did internships in companies that used mainframes had no particular difficulties in generating report analysis and generation-software for these companies' mainframe systems.

Chris Wilson, Asia-Pacific vice president of mainframes at CA Technologies, said the crux of the matter is enterprise computing--and not whether it is a mainframe or distributed system.

He noted that acquiring mainframe skills instills a firmer understanding of the principles, which is equally applicable to distributed systems.

"So, it isn't a competence in mainframes as it is a competence in computer science. And the pinnacle of that competence comes in mainframe systems," Wilson explained.

If IT students want a "backup plan", it should be about having an understanding of all systems that access the mainframe, he said, adding that this necessitates mainframe competency.

"[That way,] it will be simple to refocus on one of the many other systems and become an expert in it. Because when the big picture is clear, the smaller picture can rapidly be expanded," Wilson pointed out. "Becoming proficient in the mainframe does require talent, but that talent is just as relevant to other systems as it encompasses analytical ability, comprehension of complex systems where all the behavior is not known, and the ability to reverse engineer the interaction of components."

About adaptability, attitude
Hays' Noblet concluded that the bottom line for IT professionals is to continually upskill themselves on top of foundational skills. This will provide more options for IT students to move to other areas outside of mainframes [should the technology become redundant] for future employment prospects.

For instance, individuals with mainframe skills can progress into areas such as datacenter operations and systems administration, or procedural oriented programming languages and development if they prefer software engineering, he noted.

Wong said rather than fret over which technical skills would safeguard their future employability, IT students should learn sound fundamentals while continuously pick up new skills and adapt to changing platforms.

"The basics of good software engineering, databases, networking and algorithms are not going to change overnight. They just evolve and adapt to new technologies, imposing new constraints while easing others.

"The one important attitude for a person working in the fast changing IT field is not to view new technology with disdain and frustration, but rather with excitement and enthusiasm," he highlighted.

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