No matter when you entered the industry, you know more about mainframe technology now than you did your first day on the job. But it’s been a long time since you could learn a major new system by reading all its manuals from cover to cover; besides, the most useful IT industry skill has always been the ability to quickly learn.
People’s learning styles differ, and educational resources have evolved over the years. So it’s worth reviewing a bit of history, exploring today’s options and opportunities, and highlighting the best ways for practicing professionals to stay current and for junior “mainframers” to advance their careers.
That Was Then, This Is Now
In early and middle mainframe days, IBM training spanned its product range. Free introductory and for-fee classes were staples of a well-fed mainframer’s diet. For decades, IBM courted academic institutions with programs such as the Higher Education Software Consortium (HESC), which offered substantial discounts on the VM operating system and associated software, generally in exchange for demonstrating that they made substantial use of supplied products for academic purposes.
But, as some industry segments lost interest in the mainframe, a cycle began, coupling disrespect for mainframe capabilities with decreased interest in mainframe skills, including the loss of programs such as the HESC.
All too many recent stories—some in publications that should know better— mocked California for being so far behind technologically that their payroll program is written in the “obsolete and unmaintainable” COBOL language. One article called it a “throwback” and said that it’s “so antiquated it would take months to make the [desired] changes to workers’ checks.” The fact is, billions of lines of mainframe COBOL are in use at large corporations every day, meeting real-world requirements. In 2006, Computerworld surveyed IT managers at 352 companies; 62 percent of respondents reported they actively use COBOL. Of those, three quarters said they use it frequently and 58 percent said they’re using it to develop new applications.
In the face of such scorn, it’s sometimes hard to convince management that the mainframe is a viable platform and that mainframe professionals add value to their organizations. Mainframes, of course, are the engines of most giant corporations, connecting to networks, Web servers, and the most modern applications and user interfaces.
A Frequently Exaggerated Death
While mainframes, COBOL, and associated technologies are hardly obsolete, the mainframe community does face a demographic problem: Workers who joined the industry in the 1960s and 1970s—today’s most experienced professionals, now at their career peak— will likely leave the profession in the next decade or so. Mainframe organizations anticipating a skills shortage may be tempted to migrate to other platforms for which they feel skilled workers are abundant. This thinking is reinforced by industry publications trumpeting the death of the mainframe— never mind it’s been a bogus theme for decades.
But mainframe sites and the mainframe community do need a supply of new skilled workers and education resources for junior and mid-level staff. Unfortunately, as mainframer John Chase notes, education is too frequently among the first casualties of “belt-tightening”— making it hard for new employees to join the mainframe community or for junior staffers to advance.