You’d be forgiven for thinking Vance Morris is something of a mainframe celebrity, what with his name being rather ubiquitous here over the past year or so. With his third-place showing in the 2011 Master the Mainframe contest, and the recipient of the 2011 Greg Zaubi Memorial Scholarship—top honors for the annual Destination z Enterprise Computing Scholarship—Morris was a mainframe accolade magnet going into his last year of IT education at West Texas A&M University.

Upon graduation, Morris is poised to take his education to the heart of the mainframe universe—the IBM Innovation Center in Dallas—in 2013, so his name will likely continue to come up in mainframe circles.

So, who is this newcomer to the “Order of the Mainframe?” Well, he’s an IT guy, of course. After graduating from high school in 1999, Morris started working for a local Internet service provider, where he offered phone tech support, set up e-mail, etc.

“I knew at that time that I wanted to pursue a career in IT, but I wasn’t sure on the direction I wanted to go,” he said. “I did some on-again, off-again coursework at West Texas before eventually joining the Army, where I did computer, radio and communications technical support.”

Upon completing his stint in the Army, Morris decided to finish his West Texas bachelor’s degree, and discovered the university had since established a computer science department, which fit ideally with his career aspirations. It wasn’t long after that his advisor/professor H. Paul Haiduk became involved with the IBM System z Academic Initiative, opening up an enterprise computing education program track, which Morris quickly embarked upon.

"I got my introduction to System z by way of supporting the school’s curriculum—setting up accounts and troubleshooting issues is how I got into the mainframe,” he said. “Then the school was chosen for an IBM test pilot of Rational Developer for System z Unit Test, which is z/OS running on a Linux host. After going through the installation and configuration the first time and being exposed to the system’s programming, I really enjoyed it. So I decided that would be the career I wanted to pursue at that point.”

Attending a SHARE conference in 2008 also convinced Morris there was a vibrant professional community still working in support of a mainframe system, which many people on IT education tracks aren’t even aware still exists. He also recognized there was a long-term viable mainframe career path just waiting for professionals to follow.

“My professor told me, ‘You wouldn’t believe the number of people they’re pulling out of retirement simply to keep these machines running,’ and that was really attractive to me,” Morris said. “The opportunities that exist in the enterprise computing market are boundless, and it’s exciting, because I know the skills I am learning will be in demand for a long time to come.”

While Morris admits his Linux roots make him something of a command line junkie and thus an ideal candidate for working on mainframe interface screens, the overall complexity of the mainframe environment is one of the most daunting aspects of day-to-day interaction with the systems.

“You have so many layers of virtualization, and it’s all so customizable at practically any stage,” he said. “It seems like it’s totally different every time, with every implementation requiring something new and unexpected. I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles to overcome—the never-ending and complex learning curve and the vast amounts of documentation that has built up over years of mainframe use and innovation.”

According to Morris, one of the other major concerns he has as he’s poised to begin his mainframe career is accessing all the knowledge that exists almost exclusively in the minds of old guard mainframe professionals who are looking to retire.

“If they were to all leave at once, I honestly don’t know what the industry would do, because the case with a lot of these machines is that they’re up and running because there’s been someone there who knows how to do it,” he said. “A lot of times, it feels as though there’s no existing stop-gap between the younger and older mainframe generations. I welcome the challenge to step into the generation gap and look forward to learning as much as I can from Big Iron veterans.”