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Mainframers: Challenging the Next Generation

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:31 PM

As someone who has worked in the mainframe world for more than 25 years, there’s one phrase that I could be happy never hearing again: skills gap. It’s no secret that many mainframe engineers are nearing retirement age, but contrary to popular perception, the world isn’t about to end. Far from it. The reality is that organizations that foster the new crop of engineers who can work on IBM z13 servers and other mainframe environments, rather than just bemoan the lack of resumes that cross their desks, are already ahead of the curve. And internships may be the key to filling the positions that will open in the next three to five years.

Before I dive into how internships can play a vital role in replenishing the workforce, let’s start with the basic premise that there’s a shortage of skilled engineers in all areas, not just the mainframe world. It’s not like it’s easy to hire an experienced Hadoop engineer. Demand is outstripping supply across the board, and while mainframe-based shops may be feeling the pinch, it’s a problem that affects the entire tech sector. Even the so-called “unicorns”—another term I hate, by the way—are having trouble meeting their headcount targets.

This past summer my company hired 40 summer interns, most of whom were between their second and third years of college, one was a high school senior. They had very little practical work experience—and no formal training on big iron—when they arrived. We are always looking for mainframe talent, so we created it ourselves by assigning many of these students to work on projects that run on the mainframe. Guess what: Within a few weeks they were up to speed and became valuable members of our team. It was actually that fast. We didn’t have to spend a year training them, send them to special classes or make them do extra learning on weekends. They worked on things like turning SMF performance data into actionable information, writing IBM Bluemix apps that accessed mainframe data and porting open-source software like Perl, PHP and Python to z/OS.

The reason is: Anyone with an aptitude for programming and an interest in learning mainframes can pick it up just as quickly as they can learn any computer platform. Coding for mainframes requires specific skills, to be sure, but the bottom line is that good programmers are good programmers, regardless of what tools they’re using.

Of course, in the real world it isn’t that simple. Many younger programmers want to work in “hot” areas in the same way that an aspiring auto mechanic might want to work on a pit crew at the Indianapolis 500. But once their careers kick off, they’re going to want great salaries, stability and room for advancement—and that’s what mainframe jobs can offer from day one. That’s something that mainframe veterans know, but it’s a pretty well-kept secret, especially when it comes to engineers in their teens and 20s figuring things out.

What we’ve figured out is that most bright young engineers aren’t going to show up looking for mainframe positions. But they are going to be looking for jobs, and through our internship program we are helping them get their feet wet by assigning them to mainframe projects to see how they like it. The results are encouraging: All but one of the graduating engineers that we made offers to accepted their jobs, and will be starting as full-time employees next summer.

Bryan Smith focuses on IBM mainframe solutions as the CTO at Rocket Software, a global software company that has developed mainframe tools and solutions for the world’s leading businesses for 25 years.