Oh! They Have Put Me On Mainframes. But, Why!

Oh! They Have Put Me On Mainframes. But, Why!

“What have I done to deserve this? I passed my engineering with a first class and have joined this big MNC with dreams of working on the latest innovative IT technologies. But alas, I have been assigned on a mainframe project. Mainframes – the technology of the early 70s – the technology of my grandparents era. My career is ruined!”

This is a typical reaction of a fresher who is new to the IT world and has been put on a mainframe project.

Why are we still with Mainframe technologies?

Most freshers and junior IT professionals do not like the idea of working on mainframes simply because it’s not the ‘in thing’. There is no glamour in mainframe technologies. Many fear mainframe jobs will vanish soon thereby leaving them jobless. Now let’s face the facts. Today, almost all the American and European banking and finance, airline reservations, insurance, health care and many other government and private industries run their core IT on mainframes.

Somewhere or the other, a transaction that appears to originate and end on a flashy looking windows, web or mobile screen hits the mainframe in the background. For example, in case of a simple account balance enquiry on a mobile banking app, there is an 80% chance that the transaction has passed thru a mainframe application.

If java, .net, web, Hadoop, big data, cloud and other ‘latest’ and ‘glamorous’ technologies are so good, then why aren’t these giant corporations simply not replacing their old mainframe stuff with these new technologies? Why aren’t they getting rid of their mainframe data centres are replacing them with web servers or the cloud? Why are they still hiring mainframe professionals and keeping these old mainframe applications written in old languages like Cobol?

There are many answers! To begin with, why would a CEO/CIO/CTO get rid of something that is running perfectly fine and has been running fine for the last 40-50 years? Even today in 2017, there is no technology that is as reliable, secure, and stable as mainframes when it comes to super-large volume of data processing. Everyone who has used a web based or client-server application has heard of the term “server down”.

But in the mainframe world the term “server down” does not exist. Mainframes never go “down” meaning applications are always up and running 24/7. Applications running on mainframes – I mean the actual code, are very large and complex, simply because the businesses that they support is super complex. To replace it would be too much of an effort in terms of cost and resources. Migrating live data sitting on mainframe databases to some non-mainframe database is another gigantic task. The risk of something going wrong in the replacement process is too high, something that the business simply cannot afford. And even after spending a fortune on the replacement, there is no great guaranteed advantage to the business. See the picture?

Of course, there are advantages of new technology over these old mainframe applications. That’s why, over the years, the industry has learnt to build non-mainframe applications using the latest technologies and integrate them with mainframe applications to deliver better value. As an example, 40 years ago, all user interfaces were on the mainframe black and white CICS (a mainframe based transaction processing front end system) screens. The CICS screens were cryptic with no GUI and were unfriendly to the user. In the last 15 years, all those unfriendly mainframe screens have been replaced by easy to use windows/browser based front-end applications.

The user interacts with a flashy looking user-friendly screen with GUI. But the transaction is still processed at the backend on mainframes and this is not visible to the user. The industry has realized that replacing mainframes is no good solution, but instead, leveraging the advantages of mainframes and latest technologies is the best way forward. That’s why we will see new applications built on latest technology being interfaced with the old but reliable mainframe applications giving the best of both the worlds. All this means mainframe professionals will always remain in demand for years to come.

But hey, what is it for me to work in mainframes? What do I get?

A simple answer is ‘job stability’. As a mainframe developer, tester, production support specialist, database administrator or even a mainframe project manager, jobs are stable. Why are mainframes jobs stable? Simply because mainframe technologies like Cobol, JCL, DB2, VSAM, CICS etc. do not change over time unlike their non-mainframe counterparts. E.g. a java programmer simply cannot survive a full career on java alone. S/he must keep learning new languages/tools/technologies and even different versions of the same language/tool constantly in order to survive in the industry. New technologies vanish quickly from the market making you outdated and irrelevant. On the other hand, the Cobol language (used in mainframes) of 40 years ago, has remained the same even today and is not replaced by anything else and nor has it had many “versions”. The same holds true for mainframe databases (DB2, IMS, IDMS) and other mainframe technologies. What a stability advantage!

What should I do to make my mainframe career super stable and grow? The answer is to become a ‘subject matter expert’ of the mainframe application you are working on. The biggest challenge the mainframe software industry is facing today both in India and abroad is that people have little knowledge of the applications they are working on. People may be good at various mainframe technologies and tools, but with little application knowledge, it becomes difficult for mainframe professionals to implement business changes in the code, which typically runs into tens of thousands of lines. To add to the woes, there is not much of documentation available on mainframe applications in most companies. Attrition in India and retirement of old senior experienced mainframe employees who are SMEs themselves at the client site make the problem worse. So, folks, become an SME on as many mainframe applications as you can in your company and trust me, your career is not just safe and secure but will be growing as ever.

Everything that shines isn’t gold. And anything that does not shine isn’t a stone either. Mainframes is that non-shining star.

So, Mr/Ms. Fresher, for the reasons described above, you will feel privileged to be a mainframe professional a couple of years in your career journey.


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