Mainframe shops are very aware of the skills gap and the difficulties of attracting new talent to the mainframe because of misguided notions that it’s an outdated system. While the issue is far from resolved, the industry is moving in the right direction in many ways.
Far from being obsolete, many mainframes today are seeing increased workloads as they underpin high volume transactions in a number of industry sectors, boosted especially by the rise in customer facing online and mobile applications. Whole generations of people are “touching” the mainframe in this way without even realizing it.
To complement the traditional green-screen interfaces that epitomize the platform, mainframe technology providers are offering browser-based GUIs to suit newer users. They incorporate mouse control, windows, icons and “tree views” to provide a more familiar way of interacting with the system, akin to the interfaces that the new generation of developers have grown up with.
For example, many mainframe users are adopting the Eclipse open-source development environment—which, because of its popularity, is seen as essential to attracting new talent to work on the mainframe. It helps improve productivity and user experience for newer mainframers and contributes to cutting costs by avoiding the need to train new recruits in using unfamiliar and unfashionable green-screen interfaces
The mainframe of today is not the same as 30 years ago, and IT departments are able to make more use of newer, state-of-the-art development practices, such as Java-design patterns and SOA when building new applications or enhancing existing ones. Continued moves in this direction will help new entrants realize that mainframes are very much a technology for today and the future. At the same time, the growth and popularity of Linux on System z offers new mainframers an opportunity to add value quickly by working with Linux on the mainframe, allowing them to gradually build up their z/OS skills.
There’s an increasing use of software tools to automate many regular mainframe tasks. We could get to a point where non-specialist administrators armed with the right degree of automation, together with user-friendly administrator tools, would be able to include mainframe support as part of overseeing a range of other platforms that might be sitting in the data center. Dedicated mainframe specialists would act like high-level troubleshooters, and would only be brought in to handle more complex tasks. Generalist staff with some mainframe administration within their job role would handle the day-to-day support.
IBM is working hard to turn out computer science graduates who don’t mistake the mainframe for a dusty old has-been. The IBM System z Academic Initiative
has supported mainframe training at hundreds of universities around the world, giving undergraduates and graduates access to mainframes and helping universities to incorporate the platform within their curricula.
And the pace of development in mainframe hardware hardly substantiates the idea that System z is a thing of the past; the next generation of mainframe processors—the zEnterprise EC12 chip will ramp up to a super-fast 5.5 GHz.
So, while there’s definitely no room for complacency, perhaps there are indications the industry is taking steps to lessen the impact of the mainframe skills crisis.
Philip Mann is principal consultant and a mainframe performance management expert with Macro 4. He has been working with IBM mainframes for more than 30 years, with more than 10 years at Macro 4, where application performance tuning is one of his major interests.