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New tools could draw Millennials to IBM mainframes

IT shops have tried a number of ways to attract Millennials to IBM mainframes. Maybe a new generation of tools is the best way to bridge the IT generation gap.

Hoping to bridge the cultural divide between older mainframe veterans and their Millennial colleagues, Compuware has rolled out a set of tools making it easier for younger workers to access and manipulate mainframe and non-mainframe data in a common manner.

As graying mainframe veterans retire in ever larger numbers, many IT shops find it difficult to recruit and motivate younger workers to take their place. Very few young people are willing to make long-term commitments to working in mainframe environments, preferring to work in supporting mobile devices and other distributed platforms.

"We have hired in some smart, younger people to work on our [IBM] z Series systems, but many times they take the job just because they need one," said one 50-something IT manager with a large New York City bank. "Too often their attitude is, 'I'll do my do time here and move on to something I am more interested in.' That sort of turnover can be frustrating when you are trying to build a team."

Compuware Corp. CEO Christopher O'Malley admits IBM mainframes have an image problem among young -- and even not so young -- workers, who see the platform whose glory days of significant innovation are in the rearview mirror.

"As one user said to me not long ago, mainframes are like a bunch of fat old bulldogs on the porch talking about what they did 20 years ago," O'Malley said. "But none of them has the desire to get off the porch and show how they can run today. Whether that is true or not, it is a perception that is widely held."

Compuware, which recently split itself into two separate companies with one half now solely focused on the mainframe market, has decided to see how fast it can run in a rapidly changing enterprise market. The company's Topaz series of tools, built for IBM's System z mainframes, is intended to help a variety of inexperienced IT professionals, particularly younger ones, work with mainframe and non-mainframe mission-critical data in a more intuitive way.

The pixie dust that allows Topaz to work is its ability to abstract both mainframe and non-mainframe data from its underlying platform dependencies. It is this abstraction that allows developers to more easily do things like gather test data from multiple sources, as well as incorporate mainframe data into use cases for analyzing big data.

Another important reason company officials believe Topaz will appeal to IT shops is it offers a single interface for IT professionals to edit data across file types, eliminating the need for multiple source-specific tools to browse and edit data. Instead, they can use a single intuitive data editor to manage Oracle, SQL Server, IMS and DB2 across an enterprise, company officials said.

Pricing for Topaz is flexible, starting at $49,500 for 50 users for a one-year term.

What has reinvigorated Compuware's interest in mainframes, in large part, is the explosion of sophisticated mobile devices being used by both consumers and corporate professionals for commerce, which is a driving force behind the digital economy. In this new economy, according to O'Malley, most Fortune 1000 class companies are confronted with having to compete with startups and so must find new ways to rapidly develop mobile apps.

But what many IT shops overlook is the mainframe is still the primary system of record for processing billions of mobile transactions. Compuware is hell bent on making sure IT pros can better leverage the mainframe's capabilities for mobile efforts.

"So whether you are Schwab or a credit card company, you have a lot of data to record, and what populates that mobile app is actually coming from the mainframe," O'Malley said.

The idea of IBM mainframes playing a greater, or at least a more visible, role in a user company's overall competitive strategy, could enhance the image of the venerable system in the eyes of IT employees just starting their careers. O'Malley is betting tools like Topaz will help make that happen.

"If a kid can say, 'I was at a major credit card company and worked on mobile connections to the mainframe and freed up tons of data so we could be more responsive in supporting our customers,' that's huge," O'Malley said. "Any kid would think that was exciting."

Todd Kimbriel, Deputy CIO for the State Of Texas who has charge of a dozen IBM z196 mainframes spread across two data centers, appreciates some of the challenges presented by the cultural divide. He thinks tools like Topaz could certainly help with his current projects involving mobility and collaboration, but he thinks shaping a cultural environment in which Millennials feel comfortable goes a long way toward incenting them to work with mainframes.

"The idea is to create an environment these young people want to work in. They want to work from Starbucks and not sit in a cube and be in meetings all day. We have made it a state-wide strategic plan to refocus on mobility and changing our culture to create more collaboration because that is what younger workers are looking for."

Kimbriel's group has taken over a quarter of the floor they are on, ripped down the offices in that space, populated it with mobile devices and is calling it a "collaborator." The hope is this new open space encourages a more relaxed atmosphere that encourages more communication and collaboration where there can be an even exchange of new technical and non-technical ideas.

"We are trying to demonstrate to other agencies that there are more than a few new ways to change your culture," Kimbriel said.

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