Many of the key IT systems supporting business operations were written in the last century and the professionals who built them are thinking about retirement or have already retired. Nick Denning, CEO of Diegesis considers how to prepare for the future.
IT professionals with the skills needed to keep businesses running are disappearing from the world of work. This is a generational issue that is exacerbated by the difficult conditions of recent years which is leading to the “Grey Resignation”(i).
The last few years have brought into sharp focus the need for organisations to be rock solid in their core processes and systems. The resilience of supply chains has been tested like never before. Production and workforce management systems have required flexibility to keep products on shelves and to deliver them where needed. Effective human capital management (HCM) has been necessary to support hybrid working and the recruitment and retention of key staff resources. Through 2022 and beyond these challenges are likely to remain just as the employees with the relevant skills to address them are leaving the job market.
The skills cliff edge
Organisations face a looming cliff edge. The generation of software developers, programmers and business analysts that came to the fore to fix year 2000 (Y2K) and to implement core enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, are disappearing. This cohort gained experience building essential solutions which now run businesses and provide vital systems of record.
Enterprises have become reliant on this level of knowledge and expertise. The Y2K and ERP developers have a deep understanding gained from working line-by-line through code. They configured the first systems to automate and integrate business processes and they needed to understand IT software, databases, report writers and how to solve business problems.
Bye bye Boomers… and Gen-X too?
The last of the Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age and Generation X (born 1965-1980) are evaluating their priorities. These employees have been paid well over the years and have often benefited from bonuses and stock options. Now they’re reaching a certain age and their pension pots are available just as the daily grind becomes more difficult.
Organisations are seeing the generation of employees with the mix of business, IT and project skills reassess their futures. The ability to ease off and enjoy life is looking very attractive, even if it is a few years earlier than planned. What will be the impact on the day-to-day running of enterprises and supply chains?
Time to rebalance
In a recent Computer Weekly article (ii) Brian McKenna talked to several organisations that are long standing SAP ERP users. The unanimous message was that they needed people with skills to manage core business systems and projects. There was also an emphasis on the importance of tech people who could talk business to end users and really understand their commercial challenges. An ability to manage the complex relationships with IT suppliers was also noted.
Organisations have to re-think the balance between systems of record and systems of interaction. In recent years the spotlight has been on digital front-end skills for graduates. There has been a focus on usability and interaction. The ‘in vogue’ tech skills have related to apps, mobile, AI and data mining. It is true these are important but has the emphasis moved too far from the core systems which actually keep the business world humming? Many essential business systems remain on-premise rather than in the cloud and these require further traditional skills.
Can government help?
Do our politicians really understand the tech sector and the evolving IT needs of business? Probably not enough to deliver the change needed. Their knowledge of IT seems based on what they know personally (mobile devices, social media, apps) or what is newsworthy or arriving in their inbox from constituents (cyber security, big data, child protection, data privacy). This lack of understanding is no surprise given the backgrounds and experience of many MPs.
It is telling that data about the business and IT backgrounds of MPs is somewhat sketchy. A 2021 report (iii) from The House of Commons Library, which is a research and information service based in the UK Parliament, recorded the occupations of newly elected MPs immediately before the 2017 and 2019 General Elections. The number of MPs of the four main parties (Con/Lab/SNP/LibDem) with a business background declined markedly between 2017 and 2019:
Con Lab SNP LibDem
2017 41.0% 5.7% 17.1% 33.3%
2019 25.2% 5.0% 16.7% 18.2%
This reduction contrasts to a large increase in the number of MPs of all parties who directly came from a political background (councillors/other elected officials). The ‘real world’ experience of MPs from a legal/medical/education background also declined significantly.
An LSE study (iv) of the 541 MPs with higher education degrees in the 2015-2017 Parliament, showed only 93 (17%) held degrees in STEM subjects. Given the subsequent decline in the number of MPs with a business background, it seems unlikely the STEM experience in parliament has increased. In comparison, 46% of UK students in 2019 graduated in STEM subjects. It appears that the experience of parliamentarians is diverging further from business and IT. Can they really be expected to understand the tech issues being faced?
A way forward – Maintain, Modernise, Migrate
If the politicians don’t really understand the problems, then it is incumbent on all of us in the business world to continue to educate, organise and lobby. That means crystallising the real challenges being faced. Then communicating them, free from techno-speak, to individuals, organisations and through trade and membership associations. Groups like the British Computer Society (BCS) continue the commitment to bring rigorous engineering principles to the IT world and help to amplify the message.
Now is the time to formulate strategies to maintain, modernise or migrate core legacy systems. This may mean making work more attractive to those leaving early. Creative packages which improve an employee’s work-life balance could be the answer to help maintain existing systems. Skills transfer programmes to pass knowledge to younger generations should also be planned.
How can legacy systems be modernised? Refactoring business logic can expose services which can then be invoked by a new graphical user interface (GUI). Writing an API to wrap old software components into a segregated sub-system, enables the old component to be upgraded or replaced.
Progressive modernisation/evolution extends the life of tried and tested programmes and prevents expensive, risky and time consuming rip and replace projects. An effective strategy is essential to the initial modernisation process, which can and should lead to a migration to the cloud of some components.
It is vital to demonstrate to young IT professionals that they can have good long-term careers working with the core applications that solve complex business problems. This can be achieved through training and personal mentoring. Why not volunteer to speak at local schools or higher education establishments or to offer more in-work placements?
At Diegesis it’s our policy to recruit young professionals (v) for roles which cover more traditional systems, databases and languages. We know that these employees, at the start of their careers, have fantastic long-term opportunities ahead of them – working on the solutions which keep the world running.