Some Major Worries have Been Overlooked in the IT Boomer Exodus

As baby boomer IT employees retire, their employers will learn that the loss of legacy skills is the least of their concerns.

For the past few years, debate has raged in the pages of Computerworld and other IT publications on what will happen when the baby boom generation of IT workers retires. Will their departure lead to a debilitating IT skills shortage? Or will many companies end up viewing this the way many now perceive Y2k, as a case of IT vendors crying wolf in order to get paid plenty in consulting fees by fearful customers?

While the question remains unresolved on whether the baby boomer exodus will impact IT skills in general, many agree: Boomer retirements will significantly affect so-called legacy computer systems, especially those based on mainframe platforms. Why? Many, perhaps most, employees who work with mainframes honed their skills in the 1970s and 1980s. According to one recent study, nearly three-quarters of mainframe shops reported that at least one of their employees was already eligible for retirement.

Skills replacement? No problem

Many IT vendors would like CIOs to believe that, when the landslide of boomer retirements begins, mainframe systems will become useless because their legacy (Cobol, Assembler, PL/I) code will be gibberish to the remaining young Java and .Net programmers. Coincidentally, these same vendors would prefer that CIOs hurry to tear out all legacy systems and replace them with their own systems, built using Java and .Net.

Fortunately for companies that prefer the cost/value ratio of their current systems (legacy or not), skills replacement is far less risky and expensive than system replacement. And there are a lot of training options. For example, workers skilled in one programming language can fairly easily learn another. (A 2007 Forrester Consulting study commissioned by Software AG found that programmers proficient in Cobol could easily learn Software AG's Natural). Training is offered frequently by vendors and independent contractors, and many organizations already use in-house training to assure continuity among their programming staff. And then, of course, there are well-publicized initiatives, such as zNextGen, dedicated to partnering with colleges and universities to teach mainframe-oriented skills to aspiring IT professionals.

The larger issue is that loss of programming skills is actually the easiest outcome of the baby boomer exodus to address. Far more worrisome are the impending losses of mission-critical experience and organizational domain knowledge. These challenges cannot be solved by replacing skills or systems.

Major Worry No. 1: Loss of mission-critical experience

In the heyday of mainframe computing, aspiring programmers didn't learn their trade through do-it-yourself guides to Perl, Python or Java. Nor could they download freeware to a PC. (What PC?)

Rather, 20 or 30 years ago, a person likely needed a degree in computer science, was hired by a large enterprise and began an IT career by hanging storage tapes and stacking punch cards for the mainframe. This person probably attended extensive new-hire training and worked his way up the ladder through a mentoring program where he (almost never she) learned all the skills needed to operate and maintain a system expected to provide 24/7 service, bullet-proof security and robust performance. Bringing the system down was not at all a matter of Ctrl-Alt-Delete. (Not even close.) It was a serious event with career-threatening implications if done the wrong way or at the wrong time.

It was in this type of buttoned-down environment that IT boomers built up their mission-critical experience. Now these boomers are being replaced by a new generation that's accustomed to frequent reboots, system outages, lapses in performance and security gaps. The problem is that business expectations haven't changed. In fact, reliability, performance and security are more essential than ever. How will this service-level expectation gap be bridged?

Solution: Build mission-critical experience through mentoring

Mission-critical experience takes years to accumulate. As baby boomers retire, there will be fewer experienced systems analysts and systems programmers to hire away from other organizations. There may not even be contractors available in an emergency.

Many enterprises have discovered how to avoid this crisis: mentoring. For example, a large public college in the U.S. makes knowledge transfer part of its compensation package for soon-to-retire, seasoned IT employees. The college pairs wise IT professionals with young, career-minded employees for hands-on mentoring -- much like the journeyman/apprentice relationship required by many trades. There are clear and substantial benefits for all parties involved.

Major Worry No. 2: Loss of organizational domain knowledge

When seasoned IT veterans leave the organization, they take with them not only their considerable skills and experience but also a vast amount of organizational domain knowledge.

Because of their long-standing role in providing detailed support to various departmental and organizational functions, these experienced IT boomers often have acquired a unique overview and historical perspective on how the business really operates. For example, the person who developed, trained people on and maintains the custom-coded manufacturing support system -- and knows how IT supports every single job on the manufacturing line -- very likely has an extensive knowledge of the company's manufacturing processes.

Does this detailed process knowledge exist anywhere outside of this boomer's head? What will happen when this person retires and system changes are required? Who will know how any change affects the multitude of sub-processes? What is the business impact of losing this wealth of knowledge?

This seasoned boomer also is the keeper of vast knowledge of individual IT systems. No one knows quite like him how those systems operate, if they've been updated, how they integrate with other systems, which are vital and which are useless resource hogs, where the bugs were and where the patches are.

Yet for many IT organizations geared to respond quickly to ever-changing demands, documenting individual systems or entire processes has not been a priority, and so it never got done. Now what?

Solution: Transfer domain knowledge through documentation

How does an organization keep from losing vast amounts of business process knowledge and IT system knowledge when a veteran employee retires? Training courses won't help. And mentoring only passes the knowledge from one mind to another, extending the very same problem into another generation of employees ( who are likely to remain at a given organization for a far shorter time).

The only way to address the loss of vital domain knowledge is to transfer the information into a repository that stays with the organization -- regardless of who is employed. This can be hard-copy documentation, or better yet, some type of digital repository, such as a a target="new" href="http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9129566">wiki. Wikis are ideal because they can collect information on any given topic from multiple contributors and can be added to at any time. No special skills required!

Preferably, the boomer who is charged with working on this repository is still years from retirement and has time to document domain knowledge while still employed. In this case, the organization can work with the boomer to define a method of domain knowledge transfer that's both useful to the organization and mutually beneficial. It's better if the boomer doesn't perceive the employer as being similar to the Borg of Star Trek fame, sucking all the value from the individual to ensure the ongoing prosperity of the enterprise (excuse the pun).

A less-preferable situation is when the boomer has already left the organization or will retire before he can complete the documentation. In this case, it is a seller's market, and the organization needs to find a creative way to secure or retain the services of the boomer to finish that job.

Fortunately, there are more alternatives now than ever. Some employees can be persuaded (with proper incentives) to delay retirement. Others might accept a sabbatical in return for being rehired to complete documentation. Still others might be willing to accept a part-time, flextime or reduced salary arrangement that includes the extension of medical benefits. In fact, few projects are better suited to the retired lifestyle than project work such as documentation.

Where to begin?

Organizations can minimize the impact of boomer retirements by conducting a position-by-position analysis. This can help a company predict the impact and get prepared before a trickle of retirements turns into a mass stampede.

Take these recommended steps:

Chances are good that at least one employee on the team is planning to retire before his skills/experience/knowledge can be replaced. If that's the case, determine the criticality of this problem and what training/mentoring/documentation programs need to be implemented right away.

Conclusion

The good news is that many organizations are waking up to the worries posed by the retirement of baby boomers. And the current economy (for better or worse) is contributing to a trend of delayed retirements, a situation that makes the fuse a bit longer. But in the near future, regardless of economic conditions, the boomer exodus will accelerate. And every organization that now employs the offspring of the Greatest Generation will find out how well they prepared.

Jim Fowler is director of market development at Software AG. He has more than 20 years in B2B high tech, writing about such diverse topics as enterprise software, satellite communications, e-commerce and datacom hardware. Contact him at jim.fowler@softwareag.com.

This story, "Some Major Worries have Been Overlooked in the IT Boomer Exodus" was originally published by Computerworld.

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