A Recipe for Success

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Addressing the generational transition in IT

It is feared that workforce consolidation, attrition, retirement, hiring freezes and new IT staff less interested in working with infrastructure elements may lead to skill shortages in many companies that rely on business-critical systems on the mainframe. Fortunately, you don’t need to let a shift in generational workforce skills leave you unprepared. There are actions you can take now to shore up your staffing and talent pool.

Issue 2, 2018 Download PDF

Several customers of Adabas & Natural have figured out how to keep their core applications going for the long term by successfully managing the generational change of talent within their team—they attract and retain young developers, as well as engage all generations to work together, share skills and knowledge, and innovate. Here is their recipe for successfully managing the generational change of the workforce.

Find new talent

First and foremost, new talent must be brought in to replace the retiring workforce. Look for eager individuals who want to make a difference and achieve self-actualization by working in a modern environment—yes, I said modern environment in the context of mainframe and legacy systems. With the rapid adoption of the open source Eclipse™ platform, there are Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) and platforms for nearly every language and architecture including Java® IDE, C/C++, and the 4th Generation Language (4GL) Natural. These extensible platforms have an extensive collection of add-on tools and can be used for creating desktop, web and cloud applications.

Amarish Pathak, the Chief Information Officer of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association (AAFMAA), noted the increased success in recruiting now that NaturalONE, the Eclipse- based IDE for Natural, is available. “NaturalONE has opened the door for AAFMAA to recruit developers, right out of college," he said. "Since most universities teach with Eclipse, students already know the NaturalONE environment. We have been able to staff up our team to provide continuity for the long run.”

With influential leadership and peer training, you can expect new hires to move up the learning curve quickly. Here is a great quote that is a very useful guide from Stefan Macke, a Software Architect for Alte Oldenburger: “To manage the generational change of the workforce, you need a leader with the personality to spark creativity; someone who is passionate, convincing and has the ability to pull others along.”

While finding already skilled programmers may be desired, it may be even more beneficial to find people who fit into your team’s culture and are willing to learn. Development is a team sport today so it is even more important to find people who are a good fit with your organization and train them yourself.

Train new talent yourself

Don´t worry about finding people who already know the programming language behind your mission-critical application— learning is easy. With the proliferation of online educational services offered by software vendors, the ability to train your own talent is less expensive and requires less travel than ever before. Supplement this with creative mentorship programs and your new talent will also learn your industry and organizations nuances that make you competitive in your marketplace.

Apprenticeships are extremely popular in Europe to train the new generation of developers. Whether it is teaching interns or taking in work-study students, if you make a clear commitment that apprentices/trainees will be offered long-term employment, you will develop a promising recruitment pipeline with tried and true prospects.

Make sure all developers have skin in the game by making it obligatory that every developer must know every language supported in your IT infrastructure. This will help eliminate jockeying among peers for positions to work on the perceived “coolest” projects. It will also ensure that all developers are skilled at working on all your applications, giving management more freedom to shift resources on demand. The more that new employees understand that a programming language is only a means to an end; the less they will be hung up on what “language” they are using and will focus on the more important skill of problem solving.

A well-known European insurance company attracts and retains young developers—medium age is 34 with half in their 20s— through a robust training program that teaches C#, Ruby, Java®, and predominantly Natural, the language of its core system. Eight of the company’s 20 developers joined in just the past five years.

Retain your new staff

Now that you have invested in hiring and training, it is of utmost importance to retain your new staff. Give your young developers the chance to develop new ideas and present to a larger audience—let them have bottom-up strategic influence and a chance to shape IT. Be open to new ideas and also allow creativity to flourish. This may require a change in mindset for you and your staff. We all often fall into “that’s been tried before” or “that’s not how we do it here” when we’ve been in the same environment for a very long time. While a new idea may or may not work, it empowers your new employees to seek solutions, be creative and feel appreciated. A new employee who knows he has a voice in the team is more likely to stay.

Ensure that every employee works on both traditional projects and innovative projects. You will only attract and retain new talent if you have a modern approach to DevOps, tools on modern infrastructure with next-generation architectures and priority one projects contributing to the business strategy. Provide state-of-the art Agile development tools and methodologies. Many software vendors currently offer modern DevOps tools and best practices, which can easily be leveraged.

Even for businesses that have been around for more than 50 years, there does not need to be anything old about how you do business. By using modernization technology, the logic hidden in core systems can be unlocked and used in new applications on mobile devices, the web, the cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Bring generations together

And finally, foster a corporate culture that respects the contributions of both experienced and younger generations toward a common goal. This can be achieved by implementing programs that facilitate the active engagement of all generations.

Introduce mentoring programs to help facilitate the passing on of institutional knowledge and skills. One of the biggest threats to your operations is your application subject matter experts retire before documenting and passing on their knowledge to the future workforce responsible for maintaining and modernizing your business-critical applications. You can also flip the mentoring paradigm and have new hires help challenge your experienced employees to learn a new development processes and tools.

A new hire at a European company attested: “Learning from my older colleagues was a huge help especially at the beginning. They not only supported me in matters regarding the health insurance sector, every colleague was always ready to help me and answer my questions when familiarizing myself with Natural.”

Another great recommendation shared by our customers is to implement pair programming—an Agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. The two developers collaborate on the same design, algorithm, code or test—often swapping roles of navigator and driver. Your new developers are likely already familiar with this popular methodology.

“Recently I had the opportunity to present a pairing program to the IT department,” noted a new hire at a European company. “The team liked it. I like that I have a voice as a trainee and my colleagues listen to me. Pair programming triggered lively conversation between trainees and other team members. It really helped both generations work together as a team.”

When even new hires are given respect for new ideas as well as opportunities for influence and creativity, you will go a long way to building a staff for the long haul.

Fig.1: Hear how Software AG customer Alte Oldenburger successfully addressed its skills transition in this video.

The recipe in action

Josh, a millennial programmer at a U.S. state agency, can speak firsthand about how modern platforms are simplifying development, testing and integration—making it easier than ever to support mainframe systems. When this programmer started working at the agency, he had a big learning curve to climb in order to learn how to support the mainframe. As Josh noted, “If there was a problem, you just can’t Google® the answer. I have to rely on the seasoned developers around me to bridge the gap.” Fortunately, he received great mentoring because of his enthusiasm and willingness to learn. This millennial programmer also fit in well with the organization’s culture and fostered respectful relationships with his experienced colleagues.

Thanks to “old” products now running on “new” products, like Eclipse, every task for developing, testing and operating the mainframe is so much easier to accomplish. No longer do developers need to write detailed programs to test buffers and input/output functions. Eclipse and other modern platforms take care of all those little details with built-in functions.

Josh looks forward to the agency hiring new programmers to support the agencies core systems and doesn’t think it will be hard to recruit, train and retain those programmers. “The learning curve for new IT professionals won’t be as steep as mine thanks to all these new tools,” he reflected.

Today, this millennial programmer sees a lucrative career path ahead by staying with the organization that trained him. Not only does he feel better compensated for his skills than his friends who write Java at other companies, but he sees a future with job stability and a satisfying career path.

Obviously, this is also a win for the agency which has now ensured that their mission-critical applications will continue to play a vital role in their business well into the future. New digital opportunities brought on by the web, mobile, big data, cloud and the IoT can also be taken advantage of because the agency has obtained, trained and retained the talent needed to address the generational transition in IT.