7 Ways to Protect Legacy Systems When Boomers Retire

By Deborah Perelman  |  Posted 08-03-2007
CIOs need to conduct a reality check as baby boomers head into retirement. True, the fact that a generation of some of IT's most experienced and knowledgeable professionals will be leaving over the next decade has been discussed for years. Yet, most organizations have done little to prepare for this exodus of talent, especially as it concerns maintaining all-too-important legacy systems. The clock is ticking, and CIOs must act now.

The approaching retirement of boomers is but one cell of a brewing perfect storm that threatens a CIO's capacity to keep crucial systems running on trusted mainframe computers. Other elements colliding to create this storm include a dearth of qualified people seeking IT jobs, especially those with Cobol and other mainframe skills, with the scarcity of college graduates wanting to a career in IT.

"We've manufactured a crisis here," says Phil Murphy, principal analyst at Forrester Research, which issued a paper this week suggesting ways CIOs can take to mitigate the loss of the boomers.

The storm isn't imminent, Murphy says; the legacy skills supply and demand appears in balance with an ample supply of Cobol-skilled pros in North America. Still, Forrester suggests several steps companies should take now to address the pending loss of brainpower. If not, Murphy says, the boomer retirements will drive the issue of legacy skills from a minor annoyance in IT to the level of a skills-management issue that will plague the entire organization. But with the right management action, he says, the problems can be contained. Inaction will most certainly lead to crisis.

Here are seven steps Forrester suggests CIOs to take:

1. Determine if senior corporate executives knows this threat exists. Find out if a corporate or enterprise-wide program addressing boomer retirements exist? If so, leverage it. If not, lobby for one. Either way, IT should be the one that gets the ball rolling.

2. Ascertain who is at the highest risk in IT. It is likely to be the programmers because they are most familiar with how the business rules are coded and because they are closest to retirement age.

3. Figure out the employee age threat. Chart the age of employees in key roles and their tenure on key applications. Average their ages. If this average is above 50, as is the case in many organizations with pension plans, worry now.

4. Determine when employees who deal with these key applications are likely to retire. Identify the most important applications and who knows the most about them. Consider an application mining tool or application portfolio management to help regain lost knowledge.

5. Tap vendor initiative programs. IBM, MicroFocus and other Cobol vendors have invested millions to revive mainframe training programs at universities, and they also can be a resource to CIOs at risk.

6. Institute a formal program to regain intellectual property; technology and IT training is comparatively easy. IT must guard against the loss of business knowledge accumulated over years by these retiring workers.

7. Ramp up contingency planning, consider the whole ecosystem. Adding an extra level of contingency planning will help ensure normal operational continuity if indirect impacts wreck havoc.

One alternative Murphy says most large companies should avoid is porting mainframe applications to new servers and systems. Mainframes have proven to be one of the most reliable computer technologies, with up times far outdistancing those of Unix and Wintel boxes. No wonder major corporations are reluctant of moving critical transaction systems off mainframes.

Still, if all else fails, CIOs might turn to foreign workers with mainframe experience for help. Don't count on outsourcing to India or China; IT workers there have plenty expertise in enterprise resource planning systems, such as SAP, but few offer legacy skills. Look to the old Soviet bloc, though Murphy raises a few red flags.

"There are some Eastern European countries where there is a ton of older mainframe technology," he says. "They either can't afford upgrades, or they might have bootleg copies and therefore can't admit that they have it, but it exists, and they have trained folks with deep, deep skills in these areas. There are resources in Eastern Europe that we haven't begun to tap yet."