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Restocking the mainframe talent pool

With its zSeries Academic Initiative, IBM is hoping to bring in some of the best and brightest college students to help invigorate the mainframe, whose pros are starting to retire.

Chris Baran is the kind of kid who has always been into computers. In fact, as a senior in high school, he and a friend started an IT consulting company that helped small businesses attack their IT concerns -- from box to wire.

Like most computer pros under the age of 30, Baran's IT skills ran from Windows to Linux, and almost everywhere in between. The one place it didn't run was the mainframe set. But after stopping by an IBM booth at a career day last year, the 20-year-old's curiosity was piqued, if only for the challenge of tackling a new platform.

"I looked at it as a new challenge, [but] as I got into it further I realized, 'Wow, this is really big,'" Baran said. "This stuff isn't common knowledge, but it's pretty much everywhere."

Just under a year later, Baran, an incoming sophomore at Clarkson University in New York, is a certified z/OS whiz kid and one of the leading youngsters driving Big Blue's push toward increased awareness of mainframes among the so-called Generation Y.

He's also exactly the kind of talent IBM's Big Iron brass has been searching for.

Despite its undeniable staying power as a system responsible for running critical applications for many of the world's largest enterprise outfits, the mainframe suffers from a reputation as a relic from the Dark Ages of IT among the video game and iPod set. But with its Academic Initiative, Big Blue is hoping to restock the zSeries talent pool with kids like Baran, and in the process keep the mainframe viable long after most of its current professionals are long retired.

The zSeries division of IBM's Academic Initiative provides students and professors with hands-on access to the curriculum, industry experts and training on the mainframe. On Thursday IBM announced that membership in the program has reached 150 universities.

"It's real important [for us to recruit younger talent]," said Mike Bliss, IBM's zSeries director for marketing and technical support. "I don't think its going to determine the life or death [of the mainframe], but it's real important in the minds of business that the future employees they bring in, it won't take an extraordinary effort to bring them up to speed and have them operate in that environment."

Big Blue, citing a recent study by the Meta Group, said as many as 55% of mainframe programmers are over the age of 50, and many of the kids coming straight out of college are armed with knowledge of Microsoft and distributed systems -- and not much else. Furthermore, many companies running mainframe technology haven't established a plan to replace those employees once they retire.

The zSeries academic program, in its attempt to change all that, is seeking to arm college professors with the knowledge needed to bring their students up to speed on the mainframe. They also work with customers to find out what schools they typically hire from, then try and help that school offer a wider variety of mainframe education.

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They also offer summer school for professors, as well as internships and co-ops for promising students such as Baran, who took a co-op with IBM in January.

During his time learning the ins and outs of z/OS, Baran developed a newfound respect for the mainframe, and the amount of training it takes to prepare a youngster to work in a Big Iron shop.

"It's very complicated. You can't just jump in," Baran said. "It's a completely different line of thinking from Windows or Linux, so it's very important to have a chunk of time to get yourself acquainted … having it in colleges will ease that transition."

But the main battle IBM is waging, according to Baran, isn't with finding new talent. It's about convincing new talent that not only is the mainframe still around, it's thriving.

And it can only hope that they find more kids who take to z/OS education like Baran did.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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