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The Next Generation

New tools and people are helping fill the mainframe skills gap

7/18/2012 4:01:44 AM | Editor’s note: This is the final article in a four-part series about the IBM’s mainframe’s past, present and future. For more, see "A Brief History of the Mainframe," "Myth Busting" and "Not Your Father's Mainframe."

This installment focuses on two areas: where to find the next generation of mainframers, and what you can do immediately to access and control development resources anywhere on the planet. It's no secret that with IBM’s mainframe turning 48 years old this year and its pool of experts graying—future resources are becoming a real concern. Who is going to take over caring for the most reliable server platform in history?

That was the focus of a 2009 Gartner Research paper called, “Key Issues for Application, Staffing, Skills and Organization.” “Enterprises that have a large portion of application portfolios in aging legacy environments have been particularly hard hit, because the people required to keep the older applications in good running order are becoming more difficult to retain in those positions. Some are retiring, while others are pursuing alternate assignments or jobs to ensure future career opportunities.”

This sentiment was echoed in the CA study, “Mainframe—The Ultimate Cloud Platform?” It noted that, of those surveyed, “44 percent state that staffing issues (graying workforce, difficulty in hiring new staff) are of concern.” These are valid concerns, and the good news is that IBM, in conjunction with colleges and universities worldwide, is addressing this issue.

The IBM System z Academic Initiative program was rolled out in 2003 with 24 universities, and had reached 1,067 at the end of 2011. The program seeks to provide learning institutions, at no-charge, access to mainframe hardware, and the courseware needed to conduct classes. Training is also provided to help get these programs up to speed quickly. This is good news for IBM customers since all of the top 25 world banks run their businesses on mainframes, and 71 percent of the global Fortune 500 companies are System z clients.

A great example of this is the Global Enterprise Technology (GET) minor at Syracuse University in New York. This consortium of IBM and J.P. Morgan Chase teamed with Syracuse University to create the program and keep the pool of mainframe talent flowing, noted Roger Kay in his Forbes article, “Kids See a Future in Mainframes.” The article goes on to explain that there’s money to be made supporting mainframes. A 22-year-old graduate of the GET program was able to afford an apartment in New York City, working for J.P. Morgan Chase, “How many other 22-year-olds can say that?”

Kay’s article highlighted the use of Rational Developer for System z (RDz) as part of the program. Today, college students very rarely use command-line terminals to write software, instead they use point-and-click graphical development environments like open source Eclipse, upon which RDz is based. Because new hires already know how to use the tool from their college courses, it allows them to become productive much faster. RDz with Java allows developers to code in both COBOL, PL/1 and Java. Having one tool for multiple languages means lower training costs, because coders only need to learn one tool. One mistake many companies typically make is to take new hires, and put them in front of a green-screen, text-based development tool like ISPF. This perpetuates the myth that the mainframe is old and out of date.

While it’s a good thing for businesses with mainframes to team up with universities, it might not be for everyone. With billions of lines of COBOL code in the world today, what do you do if you need a programmer fast? In a perfect world, the ideal development team is housed in a single location, allowing you to know what everyone is working on. However, the COBOL skills you need might be scattered all over the planet. The resources might be working for system integrators, outsourcing companies, or freelancing. The challenge is how do you control these resources? How do you know what they are working on, and how much work they have actually completed?

Collaborative Application Lifecycle Management solutions can provide the answer. Tools like IBM Rational Team Concert (RTC) introduce a team development environment that breaks down the geographical silos separating developers from each other, their project leaders and their managers. Designed to work with RDz, and older editors like ISPF, RTC provides a structured development process that can’t be circumvented. This means you can’t have a developer check out a program that’s not part of their current work item. It also prevents developers from compiling a piece of software and placing it into production without the proper reviews and checkpoints. Most importantly, the entire process is completely visible.

It no longer matters where developers live or work. Project managers have the ability to see all of the work items assigned, what item is being worked on, and how many have been completed. Solutions like this allow businesses to find development resources anywhere on the planet, and manage them as if they were in the same building. Long gone are the days of endless status meetings, because project managers have a near real-time dashboard with the status of their projects. While RTC is not a mainframe-exclusive technology, it does help mainframe shops greatly, because of the massive amounts of code they typically own.

While IBM has been busy building a community of learning institutions to help fill the jobs of a retiring workforce, and by providing leading-edge technology to reduce the costs on application development, you need to keep an eye on why the mainframe is more important than ever in today’s global economy. Often forgotten is just how reliable System z technology really is.

Perhaps because it’s not in the newspapers with major outages or having been hacked, makes it seem irrelevant. However, in this industry no news, is good news. Today’s IBM zEnterprise System is not your father’s mainframe. It’s a robust, scalable platform that can handle any of today’s growing, and changing workloads. On April 7, IBM’s mainframe turned 48, and it’s still very much alive, and very well.

Al Grega is a worldwide sales executive for IBM WebSphere Software on the System z platform. Previously, he owned worldwide sales for IBM Rational Enterprise Modernization software and compilers. He has more than 30 years of experience ranging from OS development to services, marketing and product management.


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Mike Westholder
Good suggestion. Those will be added shortly.
8/1/2012 8:03:10 AM
Scott Myers
EPIC Interfaces is working to address this problem from the perspective of the employees who need access to mainframe files and jobs but are not technical and are not programmers. Check out www.epicinterfaces.com
8/2/2012 1:35:17 PM
danbouch
Take a look at RIPPLE-TRAC at www.gatekeepertechnologies.com, it will help many situations in the Mainframe world.
8/2/2012 3:15:36 PM
angelofc
Can you add the links to parts 1-3?
7/31/2012 5:23:40 PM
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