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1998-03-10 10:37:22


Almost No Programmers to Hire; Therefore, Y2K Can't Be Fixed



This report on brand-new programmers indicates the extent of the problem: there are so few of them. Few colleges teach COBOL, let alone any of the three or four dozen other mainframe languages that legacy systems may have.

All talk about recruiting old people, young people, prisoners, and welfare recipients is just that: talk. The United States needs 500,000 to 700,000 more mainframe programmers. They do not exist.

They need one-on-one mentors to train newcomers. In one example, 13 instructors trained 15 students. The numbers tell all: the system cannot train programmers fast enough.

All talk about getting most systems compliant is therefore nonsense.

Then there is the embedded chip problem, which probably dwarfs the software problem: possibly by four to one.

But there is still no panic. There is still talk about "getting it fixed if we start now." It is all nonsense. It was nonsense in 1995, and it is nonsense now.

When the public realizes this, the bank runs will begin. Then no one will have money to pay programers, let alone embedded chips experts. Almost no projects will be completed because all plans assume that the banks will remain open. They won't.

There is no way out for the world. My site has said this for over a year. It is the only site that has said this or says it today. There is no way out.

Get ready personally for what very few people see today and fewer still will begin to plan for in time.


* * * * * * *

If all goes according to plan, criminals will sit in a small auditorium in their English prison and listen attentively to the speaker lecturing them from the dais. The speaker will not advise them on rehabilitating their lives, meeting parole requirements or readjusting to the outside world upon their release. He will teach them COBOL.

Through an arrangement being negotiated between British prison officials and London-based software vendor ICL, this instructor will train prisoners -- with the exception of criminals convicted of computer fraud and other cyber crimes -- to fix Year 2000 bugs. Talk about scouting in the minor leagues. . . .

Quite simply, the need for mainframe programmers exceeds the supply. Only so many IT professionals are willing to retrain "backward" -- which is what learning COBOL, JCL or other mainframe topics represents to them. And many employers can't wait for computer-science students to graduate: A student entering a two-year community college now will emerge just in time to evaluate what happened when the computers failed on Jan. 1, 2000. . . .

On Feb. 9, a dozen employees with no computing experience trudged in from the cold and began an 11-week intensive course at Allmerica Financial Corp., a Fortune 500 firm based in Worcester, Mass. By the time spring comes to central Massachusetts, they will have learned TSO, ISPF, COBOL, JCL, utilities, MVS, module design, ABEND-AID, PANVALET, testing, EASYTRIEVE PLUS, EOS, CICS and VSAM. That's a lot to ask from folks who, when they rang in the new year, were employed as business analysts.

But where else can Allmerica get maintenance programmers for its old legacy systems, which still perform 80 percent of the company's computing tasks, asks Denis Garcia, director of IS training and development. The company has shifted many of its legacy workers to its Y2K effort, and allowed others to move to client-server systems to advance their careers. Of the 18 colleges geographically close enough for Garcia to recruit from, only two still teach COBOL courses. He barely bothers approaching recent college graduates, because they just aren't interested, he says. "One in 10 would actually pursue the opportunity when we told them it was mainframe."

So, many companies look inward in hopes of finding willing and able career-changers. "We thought we would have a lot more interest," says Jack McCarrick, who started a mainframe-indoctrination program as IS training specialist for Quincy, Mass.-based Arbella Insurance Co. Of some 1,000 Arbella employees, only about 20 responded to the call for volunteers to join the exciting new life of mainframe programming. . . .

And "if you think they're going to go back to their old jobs in two years that's na´ve," says Keith Larman, technical director of Psychometrics, an aptitude testing company in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Nevertheless, he says, many of his clients expect their trainees to view IT as a temporary displacement. . . .

Some of this material cannot come from stock courseware, but must be tailored to the site. At BankBoston, 16 newcomers to IT just completed a four-month course that transformed them into programmers. As part of the program, the students received eight weeks of COBOL instruction in a program run by John Hancock. But that generic course could not fully prepare students for what awaited them at BankBoston, says Tom Barnes, the company's education manager. "Our Job Control Language is very different from what they learned," he says. In addition, he taught them BankBoston's coding standards and conventions, and production and test environments. . . .

Even with a solid curriculum and terrific instructors, students are bound to feel overwhelmed by their head-first dive into the mainframe world. They need a lifeguard.

Mentoring plays a big role in the success of Arbella's program, says Jack McCarrick. He asked the business unit managers of the mainframers-to-be to recommend potential mentors based on their workload, skill level, experience, and communication skills. McCarrick then sent those individuals out for training on how to mentor.

The mentor relationship is important in several ways. For one, it gives students a first source for technical questions. Secondly, it gives them a contact for help after training ends and they are on the job. But perhaps most importantly, it gives them an inside resource into the new culture of the IT world. Golden recommends mentors for every program that brings newbies into IT, "to explain how things are done within that company and to maybe give them some hints we wouldn't give in class." . . .

On Jan. 20, the week of the Super Bowl, 15 adult students hoping to change careers took notes as two Illinois State University (ISU) professors gave them an overview of mainframe technology and an introduction to using a PC. On April 3, the week the major league baseball season begins, these students will complete their final project -- cleaning a batch of Y2K-infected mainframe code. Along the way they will have attended 54 days of instruction led by no fewer than 13 instructors. Most of them will be hired by consulting firm Advanced Information Services, which is paying for the class at ISU's Center for Information Systems Technology. Soon, they'll commute to their new consulting jobs at Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, a half-hour drive from this campus. There, they will help save the construction-equipment giant from millennial horror.

It's a tough way to get and train workers. But it's better than what ICL faces in the prisons of Great Britain.


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