Blog

This is a terrific rant that I wish I had written: It comes from long-time mainframe guru and curmudgeon, Clyde Mitchell III.

A recurring thread on the IBM-MAIN mailing lists bemoans difficulties finding mainframe (mainly z/OS) work. At the same time, IBM and others are concerned about the “graying” of the mainframe workforce, and are building initiatives focused on training new system programmers.

These two statements seem to conflict: if we’re short of mainframe sysprogs, why can’t folks who have been downsized find jobs?

As a hiring manager at a mainframe ISV, I frequently review résumés from z/OS programmers, and unfortunately, I believe I know a big part of the reason that these two issues coexist: far too many of the z/OSers out there are not very employable. There’s an old joke about people who “say they have 20 years of experience, but it’s really more like one year of experience 20 times”—and this applies to a lot of the résumés I see, which mention few or no technologies newer than 1980.

A recent IBM-MAIN post to one of these threads mentioned “…Linux on z hardware, which is about as useful to a z/OS sysprog or COBOL coder as an MP3 player running Linux. I guess everyone needs to learn Linux and switch.”

Well, yeah—you probably should learn Linux. The people making buggies in the 1890s were in the same boat: they may have been experts at what they did, but that wasn’t going to help them as the market shifted to automobiles. MVS has not stood still, but improvements have been incremental compared to other platforms. (Yes, that’s arguably a good thing for z/OS, but it’s not an excuse for ignoring the rest of the computing world.) The LUW (Linux/UNIX/Windows) world is far more dominant that the System z world, despite the strengths of the mainframe.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m as much of a mainframe bigot as the next System z fan. I made all the obligatory jokes in the early 1990s as people ran around trying to fix the LAN (“Gee, if only we had all the data on ONE BIG COMPUTER—nah, that’d NEVER work!”), and reviled what my UK friends call “little squatty boxes”. But that war is over, and the mainframe lost: end-users no longer sit at 3270s using PROFS or CICS. Even when the mainframe still runs the business, end-users typically use a Windows-based GUI application that talks to the mainframe under the covers. And I doubt that the System z folks complaining about Windows even use real 3270s: they’re far more likely to run a 3270 emulator on a PC. Yet too many of them refuse to learn to exploit the Windows platform.

I talk to mainframers all the time who don’t know Rexx (the IBM standard scripting language for almost two decades!), who don’t use z/OS UNIX System Services (which has been around almost as long), and who don’t tinker with their PCs (because they’re afraid they might “do something wrong”).

Heinlein wrote, “When it’s time to railroad, people start railroading”. When you saw the Windows train coming, when you saw the UNIX System Services train pull into the station, when you now see the Linux on System z train rolling—get on board. You’ve learned a lot in your career—JCL, assembler language, CICS, whatever—why would you limit yourself to one operating environment?

You sure can’t wait for your company to help you. This isn’t the 1970s: employers have little interest in spending money to cross-train when there are plenty of folks on the street with varied skills. UNIX System Services on z/OS is a true UNIX, so lessons learned there mostly map to Linux—and it’s a ready-made environment for cross-training yourself (unless your security policy has even your test systems locked down so tight that you cannot get access, which is sometimes the case).

“LUW people make lousy money”, I hear (I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s a widely held perception among mainframers). Unemployment is worse, trust me; and having LUW depth doesn’t mean that you have to apply for LUW jobs—but when I see two résumés, similar except that one has decent LUW skills, it’s not tricky to guess which one gets more interest. Similarly, when it’s time to downsize System z staff at your company, who is more likely to be retained—the greybeard in the back room who still clings to PROFS, or the one with equivalent z/OS skills who also has decent LUW knowledge?

It’s not too late! Get off your duff, pick another environment, and get cracking. Your livelihood may depend on it.