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Bringing new blood to the mainframe: A millennial’s perspective

Like Chicken Little, the mainframe world over the last several years has claimed that the sky is falling due to the looming shortage of mainframe developers, architects and systems programmers.

The demographics are clear. The baby boomers who’ve been manning the mainframe for 30, even 40 years, are retiring in droves. With young developers being primed for newer technologies like mobile, Hadoop or distributed Linux, precious little new blood has been circulating back into the mainframe ecosystem.

Yet, study after study indicates that CIOs have avoided dealing with the problem. For example, a 2015 survey by Compuware found that 39 per cent of CIOs have no explicit plans for addressing mainframe developer shortages.

From my perspective as a millennial who recently entered this field, a plan to address the mainframe developer recruitment challenge should include two key elements: increasing young developers’ awareness of the tremendous opportunities available in the mainframe world; and providing them with the necessary training and mentorship.

Make Millennials Aware of the Opportunities

Before I became a mainframer, my biggest misperception about the mainframe platform was that there are no opportunities. I had thought most mainframes had been phased out and were no longer in use in large companies. I quickly discovered that was far from the truth.

Rather than being on their deathbeds, mainframes are actually in high demand. IDC reported that worldwide revenues for $250,000 and up servers increased 66.1 per cent year-over-year in the first quarter of 2015. IBM says that 70 to 80 per cent of enterprise data resides on the mainframe. And 88 per cent of respondents to the Compuware study believe that the mainframe will be a key business asset over the next decade. Many of the world’s governments and large companies – particularly in the banking and financial services, healthcare, retail and telecommunications industries – rely heavily on the mainframe as a reliable, available and secure platform.

Not only have I found that the mainframe is alive and well, it also provides exciting opportunities. I’ve been surprised time and time again by the mainframe’s ability to handle big data. For example, I once submitted several jobs at the same time that each needed to crunch several million records. The results came back in less than five minutes. If I’d used a personal computer to process all that data, it would have taken several days. Results like that have opened my eyes to the underlying strength of the mainframe platform.

One of the mainframe's claim to fame is its hardware. These world class machines can support several of operating systems that each have a unique benefit for enterprise workloads. Most people may not know that the mainframe also supports several Linux distributions such as Red Hat, SUSE, and Ubuntu. Right now there is a push for more open source options to become available on the mainframe. This provides a unique opportunity for young professionals who have grown to love the Linux operating system and want to leverage that skill while developing on the world’s most powerful hardware. The options are only growing when it comes to mainframe software development.

Provide Training and Mentorship

The other issue CIOs need to address is helping millennials obtain the necessary training and skillsets. One reason so many millennials choose to work with Python or Java is that anyone with an internet connection can instantly take classes in these languages from a number of online educational sites. COBOL and Assembler courses are nowhere to be found on those sites.That means that even if a young person’s interest in working with the mainframe were to be piqued, they would run into immediate hurdles when they tried to dig deeper.

One of the earliest hurdles that young would-be mainframers hit is the job requirements section of a job posting. Many emerging graduates and young professionals are immediately discouraged when they see a requirement for several languages they have never heard of intermixed with esoteric acronyms from mainframe architectures. If companies want to fill this gap, they need to modify their approach to acquiring the talent and approach these individuals as problem solvers and not as run of the mill developers. They don't make resume filters for this kind of job search.

But there are resources – if you know where to look. For example, IBM is working to introduce young workers to mainframe programming and application development. I first learned about the mainframe platform when I participated in IBM’s Master of the Mainframe while I was still in high school. I’ve also located a series of online tutorials by Marist College that described the history of the mainframe and attended SHARE, which hosts a large number of helpful technical sessions and networking opportunities with the mainframe community. While at SHARE, I attended a wide array of technical sessions that provided valuable skills that I began to use immediately in my daily work.

Employers should also provide on-the-job training and mentorship. Where I work, at SAS, managers and more experienced coworkers have guided me through a series of programming projects. These have taught me commonplace IBM mainframe utilities, data access methods frequently used on the mainframe, assembler programs that expose common linkage conventions, macro facilities, tips for traversing the Interactive System Productivity Facility and using Job Control Language and more. Seasoned mainframers should also mentor newbies. I’ve learned far more from working with experienced mainframers than I could have ever learned from studying. Having seen the mainframe’s evolution firsthand, my coworkers have been able to explain why things are done the way they are or why things changed. They might give me a real-world use case that illustrates how IBM implemented a correction to a flaw. Regardless of the industry you work in, learning from those with more experience and then applying your own ingenuity and ideas is a formula for success.

Because reliable, always available, secure systems will continue to be critical for all major enterprises, I’m confident that mainframe computing will remain integral to the global economy and will continue to be a good career option for millennials.

Getting involved in the mainframe ecosystem helps you not only understand where enterprises started but also where they’re going. The mainframe is constantly evolving and the need for applications and support for them will continue to grow.

Holden O’Neal, Senior Associate System Z Software Developer at SAS (opens in new tab) 

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