It’s something of an IT paradox: the conventional wisdom when it comes to the IBM mainframe is that it’s an enterprise business platform in decline, yet the mainframe space routinely represents a sweet spot for IT professionals both new to their career and for those looking to make a career shift.

While it may seem counterintuitive, there’s an underlying truth that makes sense of the paradox. Specifically, the mainframe is still the powerhouse platform at the heart of many of the world’s largest institutions—finance, manufacturing, retail, government and other compute-intensive entities.

And, the bulletproof mainframes powering those compute-thirsty enterprises aren’t going to be displaced any time soon, even though the aging IT guard tasked with maintaining mainframes is nearing retirement and, in many cases, re-retirement. Thus, there’s considerable demand for new IT blood to replace mainframe professionals looking to relinquish the reins.

In some cases, the new IT blood isn’t even all that “new,” so to speak.

Take Bartis Hawley-Wall—a May 2012 computer science graduate from West Texas A&M University (WTAMU)—for example. He’s currently an associate software engineer for Islandia, N.Y.-based CA Technologies, specializing in IBM mainframes (level two support for one of CA’s workload automation products, to be exact).
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He wasn’t what many would call a traditional student.

“I ended up going back to college late, after I’d already gotten married and had two kids, and basically had a failed start in a dead-end job,” says Hawley-Wall, 35, relating his stint working as an assistant in a dispute resolutions department for a transaction processing company. “I wanted to go back to doing what I love to do every day instead of just trying to pull a paycheck.”

Hawley-Wall, a self-proclaimed hopeless romantic with a thirst for learning, initially approached computer science with an eye toward game development. However, after some waffling input from advisors, augmented with his own research, he decided to pursue a computer science degree with a focus on enterprise computing. As fortune would have it, WTAMU was one of the few colleges he could find that offered such a specific computer science track, even though the department at the time he started classes was relatively small with two professors and maybe a dozen students.

“One of the professors was very, very harsh with his grading curves, and he expected a lot of his students, which I appreciate now, but was quite difficult at the time,” says Hawley-Wall. “He was the one who started preaching the mainframe from almost the first day. His mainframe advocacy, combined with the first Master the Mainframe competition—a requirement for some courses—opened my eyes to these platforms that operate on a completely different input-output basis. Mainframes perform at a completely different level compared to what are affectionately called ‘toy computers’ in the industry.”

A tough but fair professor wasn’t the only hurdle Hawley-Wall encountered on his way to a mainframe career. He says the Job Control Language (JCL) was easily the toughest thing he’s encountered in any computing environment.

“It’s its own little language that seems innocuous at first,” says Hawley-Wall. “It’s like you’re just trying to tell the mainframe your program or job—just go do this—but it is so exacting in how you must perform the syntax, and there’s so many things you can do with that syntax. Even today, if I’m trying to write a job card from scratch, there will always be a comma out of place or some error that I’ll spend 30 minutes or so debugging. But, overall, it’s been very much worth all the trouble. Once I started working with COBOL, and then High Level Assembler [HLA], I knew the mainframe space was where I wanted to be.”

Indeed, even before graduating as one of the first WTAMU students with an enterprise/mainframe computing degree, he found his enterprise IT skill set was a heavily sought after commodity, thanks in no small part to the advocacy and partnership forged by his mainframe-proponent professor and several mainframe ISVs, including CA. During his second to last career fair, Hawley-Wall found, not only were companies eagerly accepting his resume, but others were actively seeking him out, asking for his resume and offering jobs, putting him in the enviable position of being able to ask for terms, even while he was still in school.

Eventually, he joined CA, and he’s more than pleased with his decision.

“Honestly, I see myself still here at CA in five to ten years, quite likely still doing more of what I’m doing now but at a broader level,” he says. “I really enjoy coding, and if I can just stick my head into a piece of code all day I’m just about as happy as a person can be.

It’s not all about tinkering with code, however. With first- and second-generation mainframe professionals working above him, Hawley-Wall says there’s some unspoken urgency when it comes to getting up to speed on CA applications that have been in regular use for more than three decades. He says he regularly attends mentor meetings and is never far from a stack of legacy mainframe reference manuals. The job of learning about mainframes is never done.

“I find a very interesting challenge in fixing problems—I really enjoy debugging and digging into a problem, figuring out what’s wrong, and being the guy to fix it; it helps that I have a real interest in learning,” he says. “Really, though, there are some people above me who are probably looking to me to eventually fill their shoes, sooner than later. So I could find myself in an entirely different position, but still definitely on the mainframe.”