Mainframe knowledge a hot commodity

What’s old is new again. IBM mainframe skills are back in demand — or so it would appear.

The reality is they never went away, despite declarations by pundits during the 1990s that mainframes were obsolete. IBM’s recent release of its new Series Z9 has served as a catalyst and reminder that the big boxes are still around, quietly and reliably handling heavy-duty applications like banking and airline systems.

But many universities and colleges dropped mainframes from their computer science programs over the years, and the trained IT staff currently maintaining mainframes are graying and will soon be retiring. The ranks will need to be replenished in the near future.

To that end, IBM recently launched an outreach program to get the message out to educational institutions and students that there are career opportunities in mainframes. In addition, the company launched the zNextGen program in conjunction with SHARE, an independent mainframe user group, to provide a global forum that allows young professionals to share information and learn from experienced mainframe professionals.

IBM’s goal is to have 20,000 trained mainframe professionals by 2010. “That’s our training target, but we’re not going to try to predict how many jobs will be needed then,” said Susan LeVangia, curriculum manager for the Z series program of the IBM academic initiative.

Venerable programming languages like Cobol are still needed by many customers, said LeVangia, and there’s even some limited demand for Fortran and Assembler. But there’s also a need for languages that students are more familiar with, such as C++ and Java, and operating systems such as Linux and Unix that run under zOS, IBM’s mainframe operating system.

Conceptually, what mainframe training will emphasize above all is “big-system” thinking, said LeVangia.

“Many students today have been brought up on distributed and single-application systems. It’s not at the forefront to think of systems that can support thousands of transactions and users or a single set of processes that can share workloads. That kind of thinking, both in a technical and business sense, is what we’re promoting,” she said.

Outreach efforts are underway in Canada to spread the message.

The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is partnering with IBM to approach colleges and universities, said Murray McBain, vice-president of technical support at RBC.

“We want to impress on these institutions that the opportunities are real, and we go along with IBM to validate that, and also to talk about opportunities at RBC,” he said.

McBain said they are starting to build a consortium of companies who will need mainframe staff in the future. Major banks and insurance companies are interested in the initiative, and other sectors with similar needs, such as manufacturing and retail, will likely join in the future.

“We do have a number of people at RBC who will retire over the next three to five years, but there are enough skills on the street today to cover our needs,” said McBain. But RBC is concerned about long-term needs, and skilled mainframe staff will become scarce unless development is encouraged now in colleges and universities.

McBain pointed out that the mainframe’s strengths, such as reliability and stability, have developed over the past 40 years. It is a tried, tested and true platform, and most banks still run about 75 to 85 per cent of their business on mainframes.

Based on some very early estimates, the five big banks in Canada will have about 300-500 mainframe infrastructure jobs each that will need to be replaced in 10 years. The four major insurance companies will have similar needs, as well as big IT services firms such as CGI and EDS.

IT skills go through a cycle. Skills deemed hot soon grow cold, precisely because they attract so many trainees that the skillsets quickly become a commodity, said McBain. “What we want to do is bring mainframe skills back up so they’re equal in the marketplace.”

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