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Learning to Mainframe

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:42 PM

I’ve been working on z Systems for many years, so at this point in my career it’s second nature to me. But there was a time when Big Iron was new for me—and it was pretty scary. And I know I’m not alone. When you first sit down at a large system running at nearly 100 percent utilization, how can you make things better? How can even touching this thing ever help my career? Does the risk/reward matrix ever make sense? (Pro: business keeps moving. Con: Business stops.)

The answer is, “it's just a big computer.” Your path to success in enterprise computing is to make sure you are part of the "pro" side of the equation—that you are part of the team that keeps the world’s major infrastructure moving along seamlessly.

However, there is a clear path to mastering the mainframe:

Most developers working on mainframes today have no idea. The days of only running COBOL are gone. Today the mainframe has Open Source Software, Hadoop, Spark, Cloud services, analytics and anything else you'd expect from a modern transactional ecosystem. If you send a REST request to a server somewhere, do you care what platform is providing the response? No, you merrily go on to the next task. Let's also not forget the non-coding "users" of the mainframe whose daily lives silently depend on daily services from insurance, energy, medical, banking and other major industries that trust the majority of their core businesses to the mainframe.

Once you pass the divide and realize that you are actually working on a mainframe, fear is a common emotion. What if you cancel the wrong job? Will the line of code you just wrote force a chain of events that will end in a 3:00 a.m. wake-up call next week? Again, the infrastructure has you covered here for subreddits, user communities, mailing lists, manuals and trade shows. The resources are out there, and they’re easy to find.

This stage comes fairly early. At this point, you realize you can navigate the systems and are learning sound coding practices. This isn't an environment where you can create a random application, put it into an app store, and move on. This is an environment where you learn about efficiency, and your work is always tied to the core business.

I often speak to students in the Enterprise Computer degree program at Framingham State University. I talk about many of the points discussed here, but I also tell students that having the word "mainframe" on a resume opens a world of possibility. If you know what a mainframe is, and can navigate and discuss it with others, you are many steps ahead of your competitors. You are also entering a world of stable, well-paid careers that are core to the businesses that run them.

In short, learning to mainframe is incredibly rewarding—and mastering the mainframe is rewarding on many more levels. There is often talk about a "skills gap" surrounding mainframe jobs. However, I view this more as an education gap. The world at large needs to be educated at the role that mainframes play in their daily lives. Technical experts need to be educated about the opportunity that's waiting. Just don't forget the magic word: mainframe.

Kevin Shaw is a Senior Director of R&D at Rocket Software, where he focuses on mainframe technologies.