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Mainframe programmer takes roundabout route in career path

For BMC Software's Paul Horst, mainframe programming may be a second career, but it was always his first priority.




Paul Horst's path to the mainframe was unorthodox, to say the least. Though his passion for computer programming started when he was in high school, it took him 20 years to get a job in the field.

Horst, 42, is now a product developer at BMC Software Inc., where he's been since 2004. Originally from Princeton, Ill., a small town of less than 10,000 in the central part of the state, Horst became interested in programming while in high school. But once his four years ended, he had to take a look at reality.

"When it came time for me to go to college, we were pretty strapped financially, so I had to get a scholarship," he said.

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Instead of going into computer programming, he followed a family tradition and enrolled at Hesston College, a small two-year school outside of Wichita, Kan. run by the Mennonite Church. Horst's three older brothers attended the school, and the one closest to him in age had died of lymphoma while attending. So for Horst, it was a no-brainer -- to honor the family tradition and his brother.

Though Hesston has a computer science department, it's small. So Horst majored in architectural design and had his associate's degree in two years. Soon after he moved close to one of his brothers, who was working for Pfizer Inc. in DeKalb, Ill.. Then he moved to Pennsylvania to work with his cousins for a few years. Finally he returned to DeKalb and started his own construction business, designing and building houses.

And that's how he finally got his ticket to mainframe programming. After a few more years running his construction business, Horst decided to sell and use the money to go back to school. He enrolled at Northern Illinois University.

"I could finally pursue a career in computer science," he said.

Opting for a mainframe career
Then came Horst's next big decision. Most students in NIU's computer science department gravitated toward distributed computing and Web server programming and networking. Horst once again decided to take the less common path, and studied the mainframe.

What I saw was that the mainframe was this humongous workhorse.
Paul Horst
mainframe programmingBMC Software Inc.

"What I saw was that the mainframe was this humongous workhorse that processes so much information, and it's a stable environment," he said. "You don't see a lot of people going into the mainframe for one, and I think the mainframe will be around for a long time."

He thinks his choice was justified.

"When you look at the demographic for people that are on the mainframe, you see a lot of people that are incredibly bright people. They know this stuff like the back of their hand," he said. "But they don't want to do this forever. A lot of them are to the point where they're looking to retire. So that's where I saw an opportunity."

Once Horst graduated, he had yet another difficult choice to make. He got two offers on the same day from two companies: BMC, and another company using distributed computing in Naperville, a Chicago suburb. The offers were close in compensation and benefits, but the Naperville job was much closer to home. Once Horst started thinking about it, though, he figured he would have more opportunities at BMC.

"On the distributed side, they wrote homegrown applications and I was thinking that if I get in there, I would be siloed," he said. "The mainframe won out as far as I was concerned as far as longevity, flexibility, and the factor of the aging workforce. So that's how I made my choice."

The choices haven't all been easy. Moving to Texas, 2,000 miles away, was tough. Horst's wife is also from rural Illinois, and Horst himself is struggling with his allergies in the Houston area. To top it off, his father is now also struggling with cancer.

Still, Horst is happy with his decisions.

"Ever since high school, I wanted to be a computer programmer," he said. "It took me a long time and a lot of sacrifice, but I'm finally to a place where I really like what I'm doing."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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