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Debunking Myths About Careers in Big Iron

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:34 PM

Anyone at the start of his or her career will feel the pressure to make the right decisions early. After all, your early choices and experiences can have a big impact on shaping your career direction–and with it, your future happiness and success.

For IT professionals considering a career working with mainframe technology, this problem is made worse by the misconceptions that are widely perpetuated by people who may have a limited understanding of the realities of life with z Systems. So in an attempt to dispel the negativity, here are five common myths about a Big Iron career that I feel you should treat with extreme caution.

1) You Will Only Be Working With Cumbersome Green Screens

It’s a widely held belief that working with mainframes means you will have to get to grips with text-based, green screen, command line interfaces, which sends a warning signal that immediately puts off today’s generation of computer science graduates.

Don’t be fooled, however; while the traditional green screen 3270 interface was once the default way of accessing mainframe systems, things have moved on greatly over the last decade. Anyone entering the mainframe world today will more than likely find themselves doing their development and support activity with more familiar, intuitive, modern interfaces.

Many mainframe developers now use Eclipse, the popular open-source integrated development environment (IDE), for example. Numerous mainframe software vendors also offer plugins to allow developers to carry out much of their work from within Eclipse. Widely taught in universities and heavily used for Java development, most IT graduates will already be comfortable with Eclipse.

Similarly, many mainframe applications and tools now come with browser-based web front ends, featuring customized, GUIs designed for today’s IT users. They incorporate point and click or touch-screen functionality, making mainframe systems easy to access and navigate from any device with a web connection.

2) You Will Be Isolated From Other Technologies

One of the fears for anyone thinking about pursuing a career in mainframes is the idea that they will be cut off from any contact with other systems and technologies and will therefore limit their options for the future.

However, the reality is that mainframes these days very frequently support or integrate with systems and applications running in other environments. The mainframe is widely held up as being a reliable, highly secure system of record, capable of very high volume transaction processing. This means it usually handles important data that other systems need to use or interact with.

Typically, then, mainframe developers will get the chance to work with other applications and environments, including customer-facing web and mobile applications that leverage z/OS data. In a financial services company, customer information and transactional data might be processed using mainframe systems that will need to be integrated with open systems applications (e.g., those that produce online mortgage or insurance quotes).

The chances are that as a mainframer you will find yourself being deployed in multifunctional teams, providing exposure to other systems. You will be working together, rather than working in silos.

3) You Will Be Restricted to Supporting Legacy Applications

There is a notion that all mainframe applications are dusty old legacy systems that have been doing the same thing for 30 or more years, with very little change—hardly an exciting prospect for a young programmer looking for challenge, excitement and change.

It’s true that mainframes are renowned for their reliability and stability, allowing many important applications to go on safely performing mission-critical tasks year in, year out. That’s part of the beauty of the platform. Rest assured, however, that there are also many living, breathing applications that are evolving and undergoing new development, especially around growing areas such as mobile, big data and analytics.

The rise of mobile, web, social and the Internet of things has led to an explosion of online transactions and data. Businesses want the ability to analyze and draw real-time insights from all this data; mainframes, with their immense processing power and speed, are ideally equipped to host analytics applications. Consider the modern IBM z13 platform, which is purpose-built to handle big data. It boasts the industry’s fastest processers, capable of processing 2.5 billion transactions per day, and comes complete with as much as 10 terabytes of local memory, which is ideal for crunching data in real-time. It also supports Hadoop, which is fast becoming a standard platform for big data analytics.

4) It's a Bad Career Move

Is working on the mainframe a bad career move? I don’t think so. From a financial perspective, because of the scarcity of mainframe experts, you are likely to be in high demand and paid handsomely.

For example, in a survey of 1,400 IT professionals working for IBM mainframe customers which was released last year by IBM Systems Magazine in collaboration with SHARE, 85 percent of respondents acknowledged that the mainframe skills gap really does exist for them, with 82 percent finding it either challenging or somewhat challenging to recruit new mainframers.

Moreover, most mainframe shops are expecting to continue to develop and change their applications, which promises long-term job security. More than half of the sample surveyed by IBM Systems Magazine expect their mainframe workloads to continue growing over the next five year period, and 42 percent said they are currently seeking application developers.

5) You Will Never Escape

There may be a worry that once you enter the world of the mainframe you will limit your opportunities to further your career elsewhere or in other directions.

Remember, though, that if you are working for a mainframe shop, then you will, almost by definition, also be working for a large, established, organization. Some of the world’s largest and most successful enterprises choose to run their core applications on mainframes. 44 out of the top 50 worldwide banks, 18 of the top 25 retailers and 10 out of the top 10 Insurance organizations use z Systems. It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s corporate data resides or originates on mainframes.

So, if and when you do decide to move on, you will probably have gained experience and training within a respected enterprise, in an organization that is more likely to invest in developing its staff and in a company that looks impressive on a resumé. All of these factors can only help to make you more employable.

Bear in mind also that mainframes support a variety of modern programming environments based on Java and C, with a large slice of mainframe processing capacity also used to run Linux. So the chances are you will have built up some highly marketable skills.

Plan Carefully

For anyone who is planning a career journey, it’s wise to tread carefully and take your time making the right decisions. That includes not ruling out the mainframe environment simply because of the misinformation that surrounds it.

Keith Banham has worked in IT for 35 years and is the R&D manager at Macro 4, responsible for the company's mainframe suite of products. Keith started as an Assembler programmer at a major bank and during his 30 years at Macro 4 has worked on many of the company’s solutions for application lifecycle management, application performance management, document management and session management. One of his recent roles was the modernization of these solutions by building web, Eclipse and mobile interfaces, as well as the modernization of Macro 4’s internal mainframe development environments.