– Christopher O’Malley, President, Compuware, says:

While the IT hype machine focuses its attention on mobile and the cloud, little attention is being given one of the most important challenges facing today’s CIOs: extending the life of market-critical mainframe apps.

Make no mistake about it.  These applications are critical not only to the enterprises that run them—but also to entire markets.  Google, Facebook and Twitter could all disappear tomorrow without any real discernible impact on global commerce.  But the failure of even one of the mainframes executing transactions for the world’s largest financial institutions would be catastrophic.  So it’s essential to ensure the continued viability of these powerhouse systems.

This effort is not just a “holding action.”  Enterprises running mainframes must evolve and extend their mainframe application business logic in order to keep pace with ever-changing market conditions.  Effective mainframe application lifecycle management is therefore a requirement for the continued relevance of the enterprise itself.

But with the impending retirement of our most experienced mainframe professionals, mainframe owners are facing severe staffing deficits.  And it is those deficits that they must address to maintain the viability of their operations.

What’s the best course of action?

Mainframe owners can take a variety of approaches to re-staffing the mainframe.  One approach is to promote the mainframe as a career path to younger IT professionals.  Another is to aggressively get mainframe veterans to transfer their knowledge to assigned “heirs” within their organizations.

These may be worthwhile efforts, but they don’t address the root of the problem.  After all, depending on an individual who could leave your company at any time doesn’t mitigate your risk—even if that individual is 20 years younger than the individual you depend on now.  And trying to make the mainframe platform appeal to a Millennial economically misses the point.  Money alone doesn’t motivate Millennials.  They want to be part of something that does more than just pay well.

That’s why the key to connecting the next generation of IT pros to the mainframe is modernization of the toolkit.  You have to put younger technicians in front of a screen that looks and feels like the technology they’ve grown up with.  And you have to insulate them from the underlying complexities of COBOL code in the same way that their other tools insulate them from the underlying complexities of JavaScript.  That’s how they engage with applications—and if you try to change that, you’ll lose.

In other words, you shouldn’t waste your time trying to change people.  You have to change the tools.

Is this even possible?

Many mainframe owners are skeptical about the modernization of mainframe tools.  Their mainframe vendors-of-choice have generally failed to deliver the tools necessary for surviving the coming generational shift.  And, in many cases, the ability of those vendors to invest in the creation of new mainframe tools has been undermined by the priority they’ve given their non-mainframe lines of business.

To these owners we make a suggestion: Keep your eyes peeled.  The necessity of the retiring mainframe workforce is about to become the mother of some very compelling invention.  We believe the mainframe market is about to witness a wave of innovation unlike anything it has seen before.  That innovation may not come from your incumbent vendors.  And it may not get much attention in the mainstream press.  But it’s coming.  So you’d be well-advised to take advantage of it.  Your business—and your market—may well depend on you doing so.