Mainframers Learn New Tricks

IBM looks to retrain, reframe and retool systems and the work force.

As a shortage of developers with mainframe skills looms over the industry, IBM and some of its partners hope to renew interest in the big systems through partnerships with universities, new programs, new tools, and support for modern languages and architectures.

Motivating the move is that, while IBMs mainframe business has picked up, the work force of developers who write applications for the mainframe has dwindled, company officials said.

Indeed, Geoff Smith, an IBM z/OS information strategist at the companys mainframe development lab in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said that within 10 years, the IT industry will experience a decline in system programmer talent.

In particular, programmers with experience in IBMs z/OS mainframe operating system will be retiring, and inexperienced college graduates will be entering the work force, Smith said during a talk at the Share user conference of IBM IT professionals here during the week of Aug. 14.

Jim Sievers, chief architect at San Diego-based JME Software and a longtime mainframe developer, agreed. Sievers said he has been coming to Share events for more than 30 years and continues to see friends leave the work force.

Meanwhile, Smith said that, based on a survey from the Share conference in Anaheim, Calif., in 2005, a major concern among attendees was the skills gap between aging mainframe talent and newcomers entering the market with little or no knowledge or experience on the mainframe because fewer colleges teach mainframe-related courses anymore.

IBM is addressing this skills challenge by creating programs to educate and train people on z/OS, make it easier to manage z/OS, and simplify the development and deployment of business applications on z/OS, Smith said.

IBMs Academic Initiative for System z now features more than 250 colleges and universities worldwide, delivering mainframe education to more than 10,000 students, Smith said. IBM also has helped develop 12 enterprise system courses as well as a System z mastery exam that became available this year, he said.

In another effort to attract and retain new talent to the mainframe ranks, IBM joined forces with Share to start zNextGen, a community for new mainframe professionals. IBM and Share officials announced the community at the Share conference in August 2005, and the first meeting took place in March 2006.

Kristine Harper, a systems programmer with Neon Enterprise Software, in Sugarland, Texas, and program manager for zNextGen, said she has found the fledgling groups role in helping the new generation of mainframe professionals to network and in helping recruit new talent invaluable.

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"I came to my first Share when I was 18, and it was very intimidating," said Harper, who is just one year out of college but interned at Neon for five years before taking a full-time job there after graduation.

Saying there is a shortage of new talent entering the mainframe ranks is "the understatement of the year," Harper said, adding that "its really hard to find somebody at this conference without gray hair."

Michael Bliss, director of worldwide technical support for System z, is also IBMs executive sponsor of zNextGen. In an interview here, Bliss said IBMs reason for getting involved in the program is twofold: to provide a community for new mainframe professionals so that they can interact with and learn from each other, and to create an agenda that both IBM and Share can help them address.

zNextGen is just one way to help both new hires and professionals being retrained for the mainframe world assimilate "and leverage an army of experienced mentors," Bliss said.

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