Mainframes 101: training for legacy systems

Ryerson University’s Chang School for Continuing Education has developed a certificate program designed to train IT workers in mainframe system computing.

All courses in this one-of-a-kind program are offered on Saturdays which is designed to allow working professionals to complete the certificate in less than a year. Francois Des Jarlais, instructor and academic coordinator for the program at Ryerson, spoke with ComputerWorld Canada’s Shane Schick about what students can expect to learn.

? What happened to mainframe proficiency? Why did it die out?

Francois Des Jarlais: There’s two reasons. A lot of it was generational — in terms of the mainframe, I think, the labour market really got saturated in the 1970s. They simply didn’t need any more mainframe people, and a lot of people went off on a tangent into distributed systems, wireless systems, and these were the new emerging and evolving technologies. But a lot of the processing that a lot of enterprises do is still on the mainframe. They’re good jobs and people never left. We could compare this to the Y2K scare in the late 1990s when they were pulling old mainframers out of retirement to do Y2K projects. There’s a generational shift, but the mainframes are still there.

? Can you give me some examples of what might be considered mainframe-specific skills?

FDJ: A lot of it would be in terms of architecture, just setting up a database. Some of it is even archaic languages, or structured languages like Assembler. That’s a skill that’s coming back. People thought it would be long gone by now, but here we are having to retrain or retool people in the Assembler programmer language.

? How steep is the learning curve if you have a basic understanding of IT architecture?

FDJ: It’s not too bad. Of course, it’s a different system. Structured programming is a lot different than object-oriented programming. But I think the whole idea is the same because anyone who’s worked on object-oriented systems has eventually had to tie back into legacy systems in the background. Eventually all these systems tie back to mainframe systems somewhere. So I think for people in the industry, there is a little bit of apprehension, because the mainframe was supposed to be gone, mainframes are these big black boxes that they’re a little bit afraid of because they don’t know what happens on it. But I think the skills are adaptable.

? Mainframes may not have gone away, but they obviously haven’t stayed the same, either. What will you be teaching in this course that might be new to people who worked on mainframes back in the 1970s?

FDJ: One of the things about the course is we’re not only trying to be comprehensive in touching on all aspects of the mainframe, but we’re also trying to be progressive in terms of bringing in things like (IBM’s) Websphere. A Websphere enables Java applications to execute on the mainframe, and to connect with legacy systems. So for example, if you have a DB2 on your mainframe and be able to have your clients check in on account information, you have that tie in directly onto the mainframe from the Internet using technologies like Websphere.

? How will taking this course benefit IT professionals in terms of furthering their careers?

FDJ: There’s tremendous demand right now, and demand is growing. There are a lot of people heading into retirement over the next three or four years, and there’s no one coming up behind them to replace them. A lot of companies are trying to get in gear. Mainframers make more money than distributed systems designers, more than game developers.

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