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Stand Out From the Crowd

Fundamentals IT newcomers should know about the mainframe

5/16/2012 3:43:49 AM | A previous Destination z article explored how the mainframe remains a potent business-computing platform—particularly for large financial institutions—but nevertheless sometimes struggles to make significant inroads when it comes to attracting IT students and professionals.

For those younger IT professionals who are aware of the mainframe and are considering a potentially lucrative career working with IBM’s biggest of the big iron machines, it’s instructive to point out some mainframe fundamentals they should develop to improve their chances of landing a job in a mainframe-dominated enterprise.

In an IT age dominated by OSs like Windows, Linux and UNIX variants, the mainframe’s core z/OS backbone is often overlooked, but even a rudimentary understanding of z/OS can put a job candidate head and shoulders above those applicants without such knowledge. Add to that understanding some basic z/OS programming and application-development skills and you’d be particularly well-suited for an entry-level mainframe position. Admittedly, learning a completely different OS can seem daunting, but z/OS can be a surprisingly intuitive interface with which to work.

“The thing about z/OS compared to, say, UNIX, is it’s like 15 years ahead of UNIX regarding full-screen editors and some other functionality,” says Kathy Foster, database analyst for Dallas-based Texas Instruments, Inc. “You don’t have to have a detailed knowledge about z/OS in order to use the mainframe, while the reverse is true for UNIX and Linux, in my experience, and I’ve come at it from both sides.”

For people coming from a Windows background or those who are generally GUI-savvy, z/OS can be a bit more uncomfortable to learn, because the mainframe green screen is a different interface entirely.

“It feels like going somewhat backward in that regard,” says Foster. “But once users figure out the basic commands, they begin to see the value in it. Plus, vendors are increasingly building GUI-based interfaces for monitoring data and that sort of thing, so it’s not a completely alien environment. That said, for people interested in learning the mainframe and becoming more proficient with it, I’d suggest learning more about the underlying z/OS itself and what’s going on in the background.”

Beyond z/OS, a familiarity with some of the software tools tailored to the mainframe OS is also important. Foster suggests mainframe newcomers should train on tools like Interactive System Productivity Facility (ISPF), its editor and how to navigate through those menus—all basic skills.

Being able to perform z/OS partitioning in both real and virtual environments is also a valuable skill. While partitioning can be conducted on most any OS, knowing how to partition z/OS provides a granular level of OS knowledge.

“Some basic knowledge of partitioning—on the mainframe it’s called LPAR—is useful,” Foster says. “Knowing that you have this big box that can be carved down logically into partitions helps to understand how the system is set up and accessed.”

Basic mainframe troubleshooting is additionally valuable, as is the ability to create and manipulate datasets. Stack on top of it all a working knowledge of COBOL—yes, it’s still heavily used—the CICS transaction server and other mainframe-specific technologies, and you’ll have an enviable skill-set that’s attractive to many mainframe enterprises worldwide.

Ultimately, there’s a whole complex world to learn about the mainframe, both basic and detailed, and it’s up to aspiring professionals to determine the niche best suited to them.

“One great resource I’ve found is an IBM Redbooks publication put out for Academic Initiative classes (Introduction to the New Mainframe: z/OS Basics),” says Foster. “It’s an excellent resource for getting an overview about everything related to the mainframe, and there are some details about using some of the ISPF functions and things like that. It’s an ideal starting point.”

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