Working on mainframes not just for old fogies

A new generation of developers rises to the occasion.

Kristine Harper was a high school senior when she took her first mainframe class. Six years later she's a professional mainframe programmer and platform evangelist to young people beginning their IT careers.

One reason for the skill shortage is a lack of exposure to mainframe computing in college, Harper says.

Her interest in mainframes began with an independent study she did with her father during her senior year of high school. "He taught me all the basics about mainframes, a little bit of [Job Control Language] and Assembler, and machine code and all that good stuff," she says.

The formal education all but ended there, however. With the exception of a single Assembler class at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Harper learned everything she knows from summer internships at Neon Enterprise Software (where today she works full-time as an associate programmer), conferences put on by Share, a nonprofit IBM user group, and her father. "I definitely did not pick up what I know from school," she says.

Alan Antonuk didn't get his mainframe training in a university classroom either. "The school I go to doesn't offer any mainframe-specific classes," says Antonuk, who in the fall will begin his fifth year as a dual major at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Antonuk, 22, is due to graduate next May with degrees in computer science and physics.

"There are a lot of [operating system] classes and they make mention of the fact that some of what's in modern PC [operating systems] comes from mainframes. There are references here and there but nothing specifically geared toward it," Antonuk says.

His first real introduction to the mainframe came from an IBM contest he heard about from university faculty last fall. The contest was designed to let beginners like himself compete, Antonuk says. The first stage included tutorials that eased students into the world of mainframe computing. By the third and final stage - which was limited to 75 students who had successfully completed the first two stages - the tasks were more difficult, Antonuk says. He completed the stages and found out in March that he had won the competition.

"When people think of mainframes, they don't see that it's still a very modern and developing platform. I think it's a lack of education about it more than anything else," Antonuk says. "I didn't know that these things are still a huge part of business everywhere until I went and did the mainframe contest."

Market research confirms mainframes remain a corporate staple. According to Gartner, large mainframe users have been increasing their mainframe environments - measured in millions of instructions per second (MIPS) - steadily over the past four years. Most of these users will continue to increase their installed MIPS at a compound annual growth rate of 15% to 20% through 2009, Gartner estimates.

IDC reports the mainframe continues to hold its ground against competing platforms. Support for new Linux and Java workloads will help drive MIPS shipments up 14.2% in 2006 and 9.2% next year, the research firm reports. In the big picture, however, IDC expects mainframe spending to drop from 8.9% of overall server spending ($4.9 billion) in 2005 to 6.2% ($3.9 billion) in 2010.

Getting involved

Harper's experiences as a frustrated student unable to find mainframe-centric classes led her into a mainframe advocacy role. Last summer she gave a session at the Share conference in Boston titled "The relationship between college, mainframes and Assembler language. Oh wait, there isn't one!"

The presentation created a buzz Harper wasn't expecting: "I didn't realize it was that hot of a topic, I just wanted to talk about something that was important to me."

The issue was important to Harper because she was set to graduate in August 2005, and had endured skepticism throughout her college years for her desire to pursue a career in mainframe computing. "People told me I was crazy for being interested in this area of computer science," she says.

Harper's involvement with Share grew into a role with zNextGen, a community that IBM and Share worked together to launch late last year for new IT professionals focused on mainframe computing. Today Harper is program manager for zNextGen, which has grown to 130 members (including new mainframe professionals and veterans who act as mentors to the newcomers.)

The opportunity to get to know her peers, young and old, has been invaluable, Harper says. "Being a young person or new person on the mainframe can be quite overwhelming. It's been exciting to communicate with these people and realize that we do have a lot in common," she says.

Jim Michael, 49, helps coordinate the IBM staff, Share volunteers and young mainframe professionals who contribute to zNextGen. "One of the things that we want to do is make sure we provide for knowledge transfer between the experienced professionals who come to Share and the folks who are new in the field," says Michael, who is secretary at Share and a mainframe veteran.

Demand generation

ZNextGen isn't the only effort of its kind. IBM has its Academic Initiative, for example, which gives participating students and faculty access to mainframe systems, curriculum, industry experts and training. BMC Software and CA also have spearheaded programs to strengthen mainframe-related training.

Now that programs such as these have taken root, Harper sees a resurgence of interest in mainframes - albeit a slow one. It's a tough sell at first, she admits. "Once you get the bug you realize this is a cool profession," Harper says.

Antonuk says he got the bug - though it's too early to say if he'll go after a mainframe-related position when he graduates. This summer he's doing an internship at Microsoft, where he's working on the vendor's Web services platform project code-named Indigo.

If Antonuk chooses to pursue a mainframe position after graduation, he's not worried about being stuck on a static platform or limiting his exposure to newer technologies such as Web services-based programming models. The technologies aren't mutually exclusive, he says. "You have to attach what's already there to what's new. There's always going to be some latest and greatest technology, and someone's going to be using it. If you're the guy who's running the mainframe, there's a possibility that you'll need to somehow interface with that."

He also associates the mainframe field with job security. "If there are skilled people who are willing to do this, the pay scale is going to be great," Antonuk says. "You're going to work with, hopefully, really smart people to get some very mission-critical, important things done. And it's not going to go away. You're going to have incredible job security."

Share's Michael agrees. "It does represent an opportunity. It's not like zSeries skills are so commonplace that they're a commodity. They're a specialized set of skills that will be in demand," he says.

When he returns to school in the fall, Antonuk is going to continue with work he started in the fall to get Michigan State's Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) student chapter - he's treasurer - to consider mainframe education. "I hope to get ACM involved in starting to spread the word about what mainframes are, what they have to offer and how people can get to know mainframes," he says.

Meanwhile, in two weeks, Harper will deliver another Share session at the group's Baltimore conference: "Confessions of a newbie Assembler programmer: Top 10 lessons I've really learned."

At this upcoming Share conference and in the workplace, speculation about supply and demand for mainframe technical skills within the IT workforce will keep things buzzing, Michael says. "It certainly beats when everybody was singing gloom and doom and saying the mainframe is dead. Man, this is a lot more fun."

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