Mainframe programmers can be young, cool and relevant

When a 47-year-old mainframe programmer is one of the youngest in his department, it's clear more efforts are needed to attract young IT pros to careers in mainframes.

Andre Schreiber grew up believing he'd be an IT professional, working on Windows Server and "stuff like that."

At 27, he is now a CICS mainframe programmer on System z.

Schreiber and his friends all knew about Microsoft Windows, but the mainframe was completely new to him and the first time he used a mainframe "it was clear I wanted to do something with the mainframe," he said.

Schreiber, a system programmer at Sparda-Datenverarbeitung, the IT service provider for Sparda Bank Group in Nuremberg, Germany, is the type of IT pro that IBM, maker of System z, wants to get interested in mainframes as one generation retires and the next generation takes over -- slowly.

"We saw this coming about 10 to 12 years ago," said Christy-Joy Schroeder, IBM worldwide z systems client skills leader. The company has implemented what she called an "academic initiative" to support development of z skills, by hosting hands-on labs and workshops, becoming partners with colleges and universities to establish curriculum around z skills and steering users to global training providers, among other things.  

Part of IBM's efforts to encourage z skills has been the "Master the Mainframe" contest that attracts 11,000 participants from 70 countries, ranging from middle- and high-school students to Girl Scouts and 4-H members. No mainframe programmer experience or skills are needed to enter the three-stage contest, with winners welcomed to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. to tour the System z test floor and manufacturing facility and talk to IBM executives.

"It is about getting an awareness that the mainframe exists and building those skills," Schroeder said.

IBM has a vested interest in the survival of the mainframe and mainframe programmer, of course -- but some of the country's largest businesses run critical applications on mainframes, and without IBM's help the search for young talent would likely be difficult.

"A lot of the schools we work with have 100% placement before the students have even graduated," Schroeder said. "These kids get picked up by major clients because they know they are talented."

Getting a job is an accomplishment on its own for many college graduates, but here they can take home a hefty paycheck too -- salaries generally start at $70,000 per year.

In fact, some companies may not even be looking for new hires specifically with z skills but rather graduates with a computer science degree and an eagerness to learn and solve problems.

Clients know their companies have people retiring but have not started the process to replace them, Schroeder said. "You really need to start building that pipeline now, working with universities."

The search for mainframe talent

Darren Morris sees firsthand the lack of young mainframe programmer talent. At 47, he is a senior design analyst at National Australia Bank -- and the second youngest in his 23-person team.

"I don't think anyone realizes what is happening yet," he said. "Once one retires, the rest will follow."

Incorporating new tools, such as DevOps, into the mainframe environment is one way to get younger IT pros interested, Morris suggested. National Australia Bank also has an Institute of Management Studies training.

"These programs will bring in a bit of life," he said. "Some of the older guys struggle with some of the newer tools. It would be good to populate some of that enthusiasm around the older guys -- that's what I am looking for."

Hiring managers at his company are now willing to hire a computer science graduate with no mainframe programmer experience to fill the role.

That's one of the major points for the younger folks to recognize is that you don't have to learn COBOL [to be a mainframe programmer]. It is cool to know COBOL, but you don't have to know it.
Andre Schreibersystem programmer, Sparda-Datenverarbeitung

In 2009, Schreiber began an apprenticeship in the IT department at the bank, and was part of a project to migrate an old z10 mainframe to the newer z196. That was his first contact with the mainframe, and his manager asked him if he could imagine working on it as a career.

"I said yes, of course, it was very interesting," he said. "I accepted that and I took the challenge."

He encountered some new, unfamiliar words which led him to ask some "silly questions," as he put it.

Schreiber's older colleagues have more knowledge about "classic stuff" while he is focused on new workloads inside CICS, especially Java; he specializes in Liberty, OSGi, and Axis2 Java-based application server in CICS.

Liberty in CICS is Schreiber's latest challenge -- he sees it as the future for CICS for uses such as online banking apps.

"We can bring one of our major applications into this new technology," he said.

Schreiber suggests letting younger people know there are plenty of job opportunities in mainframes and the pay is good but also, telling them they can use the Java language, something young IT pros likely know.

"That's something really cool because it combines the two worlds right now," he said.

Java's appeal

Many IT pros do not realize they can run Java on a mainframe, something often associated more with languages such as Assembler and COBOL.

"They don't publicize it well that it is possible to do stuff like that on mainframes," Schreiber said. "That's one of the major points for the younger folks to recognize is that you don't have to learn COBOL. It is cool to know COBOL, but you don't have to know it."

Mainframes are closer to the open world, Schreiber said, noting he uses his Unix knowledge on the mainframe.

"There are a lot of possibilities to combine your classical knowledge of Windows and especially Unix and Linux on a mainframe," he said.

IBM has also started the Gen Z Connect program that includes a workshop at an enterprise shop designed to build community and networking that includes labs and fun networking activities at night, Schroeder said.

"We're trying to build this network worldwide for all of the Gen Z folks coming in to the mainframe," she said. "The last thing we want them to think is that they are the only new, young ones working in this environment."

Schreiber's advice to young IT pros: "Just try it. Nobody will ever say it was a mistake to try it. If it isn't for you, you can always change your mind."

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at rgates@techtarget.com.

Next Steps

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IBM z/OS 2.2 updates mainframe capacity provisioning

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What are some of the primary factors holding back young people from beginning a mainframe career?
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I think it's that you do not hear a lot about them.It seems to be more mobile driven technology today. To be honest, I worked on a mainframe over 30 years ago, COBOL programming. Most of my technical friends have had little to no exposure to these types of systems. So I'm not sure how large of a job market there is.
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My first job out of college was to work in insurance company in midwest of U.S. The work I did there was mainly involved in JCL, VSAM, IDMS, and COBOL. I had been worked in these system for over six years. Then I started to move on a completely different field and have been working in a completely different field (networking, Lotus Notes, Exchange, Web related stuff, and Windows servers) for over 20 years.

Now, I'm at my early 50s and would like to explore the possibility to getting back to the mainframe arena. But now, I'm not sure what the mainframe market is like for an old folk like me. In fact, I'm interested in exploring the opportunities in Australia as my kids are studying there, and my wife is an Australian citizen.
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