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The Mainframe Ecosystem: A Community Effort

How the thriving IBM Z ecosystem is changing mainframe perceptions and closing the skills gap

Gold, red and green circles and interconnected lines against a blue background

Community. That’s the driving force behind the burgeoning IBM Z mainframe ecosystem, whether supported by IBM itself, ISVs, universities or end users—or more likely, all of the above. 

Indeed, each of these segments benefits from the others by working toward common goals, such as improving mainframe ease of use, cultivating skills for the future or developing open-source frameworks that simply slide into the mainframe environment.

As Meredith Stowell, vice president of IBM Z ecosystem, puts it, “It’s a win-win-win. It's a win for the customers, it's a win for the partners, it's a win for IBM. It's a win all the way around.”

That’s why so many organizations are pouring so many resources into helping this ecosystem grow by providing educational opportunities, working in tandem with other organizations to overcome mainframe misconceptions, and contributing to open-source tools that make the mainframe more attractive and easier to use for newer programmers and admins. And this effort isn’t for bragging rights. Rather, it’s for the overall benefit of the mainframe community.

“The purpose of the Z ecosystem is really to provide the strategies, tools and support for customers to succeed with the platform,” says Lauren Valenti, director of Broadcom’s mainframe education and customer engagement initiatives. “We're really thrilled to see the results of our efforts; how users are benefiting from the ability to modernize their mainframe environments and amplify the value of their mainframe investments.”

Mutually Assured Interest

Some might think that the various participants supporting and growing the IBM Z ecosystem may have conflicting interests, but if they do, they don’t show it. In fact, this is coopetition at its best with organizations keeping each other informed about market trends and client needs, collaborating on content they have mutual stakes in and working together in a customer's environment.  

“IBM and other ISVs might pull us in because of something they know BMC uniquely does or vice versa,” says Grant McDonald, director solutions marketing with BMC. “IBM might need to validate something for the customer or assist in something that only IBM can provide. So, I would say ISVs are evangelists for the platform and IBM is an evangelist for ISV tools and capabilities. We have a mutually assured interest in keeping our solutions aligned by informing and engaging with each other.”

Indeed, as more companies recognize the importance of speeding up innovation and accelerating their digital transformations, it’s critical that everyone involved, including IBM, ISVs and clients, has input. 

“We ultimately build better together,” Stowell says. “No single company, in my opinion, can deliver everything a client needs, so acting as a community truly allows everyone involved to drive added value for all mainframe users. The development of a vibrant partner ecosystem is key to supporting this goal, by bringing the strengths of many companies together to foster better business outcomes for our clients.”

Looking at Things Differently

The communal Z ecosystem also recognizes there’s at least the perception of a mainframe skills gap, especially as senior mainframers begin to think about retirement or have already retired. Many companies are watching this transformation with gritted teeth, knowing they’re losing decades of experience and knowledge. Even IBM and ISVs have acknowledged this issue.

“Clients and business partners have a common awareness that there’s a shortage of available mainframe skills. They're worried that the people with mainframe expertise are leaving the workforce and that it will be costly and difficult to replace them,” Stowell remarks. “Often, what fuels these concerns is the belief that the mainframe requires unique skills and that these skills are distinct from others within the organization. What we’re saying to them is that they have to look at things differently.”

For one thing, there isn’t necessarily a dearth of mainframers. Indeed, younger people have begun to see the mainframe as a very flexible and modern platform. Part of this is due to the IBM Z ecosystem community, with, for example, IBM, ISVs, the Open Mainframe Project, and, increasingly, universities offering new academic opportunities, often in concert with one another.

BMC, for example, has what it calls the Mainframer-in-Training program, which partners BMC mainframe experts with junior staff. Working alongside each other in real-world conditions helps junior staff learn a range of essential mainframe and discipline-specific skills.

“It’s similar to what IBM is providing. But we also focus on specialized areas. Security in particular comes to mind,” McDonald says. “So, we’re doing our part, IBM is doing its part, other ISVs are doing their part and even clients are doing their part. We’re all contributing in different ways to the Z ecosystem for the betterment of all of us.” 

Educational Opportunities

Broadcom is no exception to this, having established a variety of educational initiatives itself. These include, for instance:
  • The Mainframe Academy, which is a six-week vendor-agnostic program that provides basic foundational mainframe training to primarily client IT hires
  • The Associate Software Engineer Program, which is a no-cost educational initiative for both Broadcom and client new-hires that focuses on technical- and soft-skill development
  • The Vitality Program, through which Broadcom hires and trains individuals in core mainframe programming and skills before sending them on to a residency at a customer site where the individuals develop hands-on experience
  • The Mainframe Open Education Program, which is sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project and supported by partners such as IBM, Broadcom, Kyndryl and universities, and focuses on open-sourcing mainframe learning roadmaps and content that can be used at any interested institution to guide IBM Z educational programs 
“Previously, there hadn’t been anywhere that could serve as a comprehensive, one-stop place for people to find anything and everything mainframe. The Mainframe Open Education Project will deliver mainframe users a convenient platform to create, donate and access learning tools to cultivate skills and allow for knowledge sharing and community contributions. If you’re a hiring manager seeking mainframe talent, or an employee looking to expand skills, you’ll find value here,” Valenti says. “So, the question is how do we make it easier for everyone to learn more about the mainframe? And the answer is we have to make it available and open. That's what the Mainframe Open Education Program is all about.”
 
IBM has also been building a broader curriculum of no-cost training over the past few years, and in conjunction with a group of employers, has defined industry-standard learning paths and a competency framework available to the public.

Openly Accelerating Innovation

Much of the increase in training opportunities for younger mainframers is driven by the recent advent of tools that have similar approaches to UIs and workflows new hires have become accustomed to seeing in distributed computing environments. This comes down to embracing common tooling and operating models from other platforms and applying them to the IBM Z. 

Open-source tools and frameworks such as Zowe, for example, make it easier for younger-generation mainframers to work on the mainframe much as they have on other platforms. And because they’re more productive using these tools, both they and their seniors can speed up time to innovation, whether using Linux or z/OS as their primary OS.

 “Many of us in the industry—including IBM, Rocket Software and Compuware—have offered Z-based products that have attempted to address the skills gap by improving developers’ user experience,” Valenti says. “But everything became fragmented because of how the solutions were architected and the different programming languages used to build them. Sure, users got the ease of use they wanted, but the look and feel wasn’t common across those tools. Having a Zowe-like open-source solution created a huge opportunity for our industry to standardize UIs and increase developer agility.”

Additionally, companies—due in large part to common and familiar solution interfaces—now have a larger group of potential employee candidates to choose from. They don’t have to focus solely on mainframe-only developers any longer. Instead, they can broaden their search to include people who’ve worked on other platforms, have distributed-computing experience or have no experience at all.

As McDonald further notes, “Open source allows people to develop more quickly, make tailor-made customizations and stand on the shoulders of giants, the other people in the community who have contributed to whatever open-source project it may be. This sharing makes it much easier for mainframers—new or not—to accelerate innovation.”

Enthusiasm and Interest

Thanks to the support of a wide variety of mainframe believers—be they ISVs, individual evangelists, organizations devoted to the platform, academic institutions or IBM itself—the community-built IBM Z ecosystem is thriving—and it shows. Increasing numbers of younger IT professionals are now looking at the mainframe with fresh eyes, realizing that the platform isn’t some put-out-to-pasture beast, but instead a modern, leading-edge machine they can easily and more quickly innovate with. 

This may sound like fantasy to some, but according to Stowell “the level of enthusiasm and interest in this platform is really increasing, and along with that, the IBM Z partner ecosystem is incorporating modernization into their solutions. I’m not sure which came first—the enthusiasm or the modernization—but it’s great to see younger people appreciate the mainframe for what it is: a flexible and far-from-intimidating machine that’s supporting critical workloads in critical industries both now and well into the future.”
 
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