Faced with persistent rumors about the demise of mainframe computing, why would any young woman decide to disrupt her IT career in her early thirties by retraining to become a mainframe developer? When I said I was thinking about doing this, most people thought I was mad.
Having graduated ten years ago with a BSc in Computer Science, my career history has included stints in network monitoring for an ISP, providing internal support for an enterprise financial suite at a major bank and web development for a real estate agent. Working on mainframes had never entered my head. I only recall a brief mention of them in an “Introduction to IT” class during the first year of my degree.
The general perception of the mainframe platform is of the old green screen command line interface and older—not so fashionable—programming languages such as COBOL and Assembler. I had people warning me this was a very unusual move to make at this stage in my career.
The World’s Largest Enterprises Rely on the Mainframe
When you look at the numbers, however, it becomes clear that some of the world’s biggest enterprises still rely on the mainframe. This includes the ten top insurers, 44 of the top 50 banks, and 90 percent of the largest airlines. 87 percent of the world’s annual credit card transactions are processed on the platform. If you’ve recently booked a holiday, used an ATM or gone shopping with your credit card, you’ve probably “touched” a mainframe in some way.
With all of this in mind, you can see that mainframe applications are still very widely used. And if you’re considering a mainframe career, you could potentially look forward to a salary premium; there’s a shortage of new people coming in to support the platform, and the existing generation of mainframe administrators and developers are approaching retirement. In fact, in a 2015 survey, 85 percent of mainframe customers said the demand for mainframe skills is increasing as existing workers retire, and 93 percent were concerned about the skills gap.
All the same, I admit I was nervous. I was still being exposed to the “mainframe is dead” mantra—even if it often came from those with no actual experience with mainframes or from people with a vested interest in competing technologies. I was in two minds when my manager asked me if I would consider working as a mainframe developer.
One of the things that helped reassure me was that I was already working for a company with a separate division dedicated to developing mainframe tools. I’d seen with my own eyes that plenty of real people are continuing to have successful careers on mainframes. I also knew that many large, respected organizations still rely heavily on mainframe applications—and plan to do so for the foreseeable future.
When I started my journey towards becoming a mainframe developer about eight months ago, I became part of a large development team, most of whom were 20 to 25 years older than me. You could count on one hand the number of women on the team, but that’s probably true of most developer roles—and it has not discouraged me.
Tools and Resources for Supporting New Entrants
I’ve had access to formal training and workshops. And with the mainframe community keen to encourage fresh recruits, there’s a growing number of online tools and resources available to help new entrants learn the ropes—many of which are free. I’ve also absorbed a lot “on the job” from working with the experienced developers around me. It’s a steep learning curve, but it’s my goal to chip away at the wealth of information they’ve accumulated over 30 to 40 years of their mainframe careers.
One of my biggest worries was that I would slowly lose the skills I’d already developed throughout my pre-mainframe career, but that hasn’t been the case. I use modern languages and tools similar to anyone who works in distributed computing, including Java, SQL, SVN, Jenkins, Eclipse based interfaces and other web technologies.
In fact, part of my team’s current focus is on modernizing the mainframe for the new generation of people who will work on the platform. As a result, I’ve been involved in developing and testing web and mobile interfaces, graphical reporting and dashboards for mainframe applications, as well as working on mainframe development tools in the open source Eclipse integrated development environment.
Mainframers Can Gain Multi-Platform Skills
Most mainframe sites today probably run multiple platforms so it’s likely that any new recruits will develop cross-platform skills. After all, the mobile apps and other new tools will be written in modern languages and these will have to work seamlessly with underlying mainframe systems. In the end, I believe the multi-platform skills we can acquire by working on the mainframe today will help make us more employable.
My advice for companies who want to encourage and retain new mainframe talent—both men and women—is to ensure you help newcomers visualize their career progression. It’s helpful to create a longer term career plan outlining the training and skills they will. acquire and the varied roles they could take on as they move up the ladder. Seeing a structured career path will help reassure incoming talent about the opportunities ahead.
Creating Shared Experiences for the Next Generation
It’s also important that the mainframe community finds ways to bring new entrants together so they all feel like a part of the next generation of mainframers. User conferences such as those organized by Guide Share Europe (GSE) helped me connect with other newcomers and see that there are many other people coming into this area. There are also online forums and groups aimed at incoming mainframe workers, but there’s definitely room for more.
It’s encouraging for anyone who works with mainframes to see that IBM is continuing to invest heavily in the platform. The z14 mainframe, introduced last year, is the fastest yet. It comes with end-to-end encryption—which should go down well considering that security, data protection and compliance are among the biggest concerns of today’s IT departments. It also includes support for modern technologies such as Docker Containers and machine learning.
Ignore the Doubters and Go for It!
Like any big career decision, choosing to retrain as a mainframe developer was not easy, but it worked out as an opportunity to expand my capabilities. My advice to newcomers? It’s normal to feel nervous about making a move into the unfamiliar mainframe world—but that’s no reason to rule it out. Looking from the inside, out, I can certainly say you wouldn’t be crazy to investigate a mainframe career. In fact, I would call it a sensible choice.
Sarah Khalid is a software developer at Macro 4.