The mainframe is going grey, as the last wave of experienced practitioners lurches into their 50s. The lack of young mainframe talent presents a bigger threat to the continuing viability of the platform than software prices and commodity hardware do.
Rather than look for ways to migrate all workloads
Get 'em hooked
The ratio of available mainframe openings to young talent is high. IBM identified this problem with its mainframe operators and programmers years ago. Since then, it has taken steps to ameliorate the situation. IBM's Academic Initiative provides universities with free materials and software to build mainframe curricula. The company publishes a list of participating universities from which mainframe shops can recruit graduates or join the program.
Recent graduates and inexperienced new hires hear rumors and half-truths about mainframes that prove difficult to dislodge.
IBM's annual international Master the Mainframe contest enlists high school and college students to go through a series of challenges that introduce them to big iron. The contest is designed to give participants experience working with the mainframe and hopefully fuel a desire to pursue a career with it.
Professional organizations offer youth-oriented programs as well. SHARE conferences, for example, put on several introductory session tracks and host social events for mainframe newcomers to mix and mingle.
The whole truth and nothing but the truth
Recent graduates and inexperienced new hires hear rumors and half-truths about mainframes that prove difficult to dislodge. Enterprises should take the opportunity to tell the truth about big iron's strengths if they want young mainframers on board.
Begin courting the newcomers by stressing mainframe's software and hardware sophistication. Point out to newcomers that each new release and processor family adds features and improves functionality, with sophisticated optimization and parallelization algorithms. Position the mainframe as computing's gold standard for security and reliability.
It's about the technology, stupid
Let the bits and bytes of the mainframe draw in technically oriented graduates. The mainframe is one of the few platforms that uses Assembler language extensively.
Contrast mainframe's windows into internals and extensive customization options with other platforms, where dealing with an outage means rebooting the server and sending dumps to the vendor. Mainframe's monitoring and dump-reading tools, with the accompanying documentation, allow curious newbies to wander through system structures and figure out how it's all put together.
Clear the career path
Rotate new employees through different parts of IT every six to nine months. Make sure that you linger in the mainframe department, where fresh hires will get a feel for big iron, perhaps their first real encounter with the platform.
Start talking about the mainframe
Should I stay or should I go?
Is pay the way to an IT admin's heart?
What's the way forward as a mainframe newbie?
Depending on your corporate structure, mainframe can provide recruits with a sure career path, unlike the overcrowded Unix administrator and Java programming fields. Due to the ongoing mainframe skills shortage, IT pros on the market with big iron experience will be more valuable to enterprise employers or to other prospective companies.
In exchange for this mainframe interest, an enterprise may have to make room at the top of the corporate ladder. Most senior mainframe positions are likely held by people with many years of experience, and an ambitious young person seeking to climb the ranks could be turned off by the "gray ceiling."
Do as I do
It only takes a few months for newbies to understand their platform's place in the company. In that time, do any of your IT leaders present the mainframe as an antique or with one caster in the grave?
Enterprises must acknowledge the importance of the host to the whole organization's strategic direction and stress continued investment in the platform. Employees like making contributions to their company's success and want to be recognized as belonging to a valued department.
About the author:
Robert Crawford spent 29 years as a systems programmer, covering
CICS technical support, Virtual Storage Access Method, IBM DB2, IBM IMS and other mainframe
products. He programmed in Assembler, Rexx, C, C++, PL/1 and COBOL. Crawford is currently an
operations architect based in south Texas, establishing mainframe strategy for a large insurance
This was first published in April 2014