Mainframe Training – Myths and Realities
Why the boom?
The Human Factor
During the past couple of months, we are seeing a proliferation of training institutes, which offers mainframe training courses. You can see advertisements of at least a couple of new institutes that offer mainframe training in newspapers, computer magazines and other periodicals. Six months before there were only four or five institutes offering mainframe training. But the last few months have seen an unprecedented growth in this number. In Madras alone there are more than a dozen training institutes that offers mainframe training. I have been receiving a lot of letters and mails asking my advise as to which institute to join, will there be a job waiting in US, once the course is completed, etc. In this article I will try to unravel some of the mysteries that shrouds the mainframe boom and the hence the booming mainframe training industry.
Why the Boom?
India has been the single largest source of mainframe professionals for a long time. But now the demand for mainframe professionals has increased exponentially and will continue to do so for the next couple of years. This is because of the much hyped Year 2000 problem (also known as Y2K problem, Century Date Problem, etc.). I will not go into the details of the Y2K problem, because it has been getting more media attention than anything else in the recent past. But we will take a preview of the Y2K problem.
With the end of this century, many of our computer systems will no longer be able to differentiate one century from another. It all happened when, for simplicity of data entry and economy in storage space, IS groups allocated only two digits for the year part of the date format, thus making the date format mm/dd/yy rather than mm/dd/yyyy. This posed no problem so far, but come the next century, the ‘yy’ portion of the date will be ’00, 01, 02, …’. That would mean that a person born in 1973 would have his age calculated as -73 in the Year 2000.
According to IT pundits, the year 2000 poses the greatest threat to applications and computers in the world today. The effect of the Y2K on all date critical-applications will be catastrophic. These include payroll systems, hire purchase, leasing, insurance, loan assistance, banking, health care, etc., where calculations based on dates will produce wrong or no results. Most systems will terminate abnormally or produce incorrect results. If not corrected, this will leave many pensioners without pension, and drivers without licenses, or people with enormous credit bills to pay. In the US where computers are used for everything, the effect can paralyze the day-to-day life. According to Kevin Schick, a leading Y2K expert from the Gartner Group, it will cost $800 billion globally, to solve the problem.
The Y2K problem is very unique and one of its kind. We know that the problem exist. We know the cause of the problem. We also know how to solve it. Actually, to fix any one particular line of code is a trivial matter.
So what make people shudder at the thought of 01-01-2000. The trouble is that many companies have more than millions of lines of code. Consider a company with, say 50 million lines of code. If a programmer could change a line of code, test it, make it run, in a second, and if we assume that he/she works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and 50 weeks a year, the programmer will be working on this project for the next 7 years, that is, if he/she does not go mad before that. Also for correcting at a speed of 1 line/second, one will need supernatural powers. The problem is even more complex than that. The systems are interrelated. The accounting system feeds information to the inventory system and to the sales and sales forecasting systems. Inventory is tied to purchasing, sales to commissions and so on. So where do you start? This is without doubt the largest management challenge most people will face in their lifetimes. And it is unique, the deadline cannot be moved and the deadline is the same for all. This is not a technical issue. We know how to fix the line of code. It is an issue of coordinating and automating the job that spans across systems.
As said before the Y2K problem is more of a project management and coordination problem, rather than a technical one. May be its is the biggest project management challenge of this millennium. But I am very optimistic about we solving the Y2K problem, because we had completed more or equally difficult projects in the past. For example, projects like building the Pyramids, constructing the Hanging gardens of Babylon, creating an architectural masterpiece like Taj Mahal, etc. were huge projects which required considerable project management and coordination skills. Yes these projects had no resource constraints and there were no fixed deadline (the only exception that comes to my mind is the construction of Queen Cleopatra’s palace for Julis Cesar by Asterix and Obelix; but there they had the help of their druid and his magic potion! Refer ‘Asterix and Cleopatra by Goscinny and Uderzo for more details about this project!!!). But in those days, project management was still in its infancy and they didn’t have computers or project management tools that we have now. So one can safely assume that we will solve the problem before the deadline.
The Human Factor
Just changing the date fields alone cannot solve the problem. Each program has to be examined line by line for finding out the dates and then changes should be made. Although, there are many software vendors who claim to have 100% automated solutions, in reality, the level of automation is something of the order of 30% to 40%. According to the Y2K guru Peter de Jager, there are no silver bullets for solving the Y2K problem. Yes the tools can help in automating the process to a certain extent, but you need software professionals to do the actual conversion. In other words, tools are useless without people and the human content and intervention required in this process very high. So there is acute shortage of mainframe professionals (almost of 85% of the Y2K problem is on the mainframe platform). The demand-supply gap is so huge that the market value of the mainframe professionals has risen and will continue to rise in the coming years.
This increasing demand for mainframe professionals both in India and abroad has created a mainframe boom which can be evident form the rising number of mainframe training institutes.
Alexis Leon, DQ Week Madras, 30th June 1997.