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Closing the Mainframe Information Gap Through Education

If you’re reading this, you likely don’t need to be told that a mainframe career is very rewarding. The pay is excellent, the opportunity to work with world-class technology is exciting and the profession is filled with supportive people who are passionate about the platform.

Dr. Cameron Seay, an adjunct professor at East Carolina University and a long-time instructor at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), cites another significant benefit to working on the mainframe—one that flies far under the radar.

“It’s a level playing field. If you went to Harvard, MIT, Stanford or Duke, it doesn’t matter, because they didn’t teach you JCL,” he says. “It requires persistence, it requires perspective, it requires focus.”

Through the years, Dr. Seay has seen it for himself: an opportunity to work on the mainframe has been life-changing for many people from various backgrounds.

“What you know or where you came from doesn’t matter. What matters is who you are, he adds. “So, do you want to improve your life? Do you have the stick-to-itiveness to sit down and wrestle with material for hours on end? If you can do those things, you can do this.”

There Is Room for You on the Mainframe

Not quite two years into her mainframe career, Laticia Carrow has shown that she is one of those stick-to-itive people. A systems analyst with DDC-ITS, Carrow has achieved several Interskill badges while quickly becoming a strong voice in the community. During last summer’s SHARE Columbus conference, she participated in two panels on building a mainframe workforce. She was also nominated as a TechChannel Rising Star in 2022 and was recognized as a 2023 IBM Champion.

Carrow summarized her thoughts in a recent post on her LinkedIn feed: “My goal has been and forever will be to give back all the goodness and loving-kindness the community has shown to me by sharing awareness of z/Systems with others. We can only be what we see, so let’s show the world a room with a grand view. This is technology, this is z/Systems and this is for you. There is room for you on the mainframe. This is definitely the place to be.”

Mainframe Education and Training Approaches

Despite the long list of benefits, the number of people pursuing mainframe careers is waning. That’s why Dr. Seay and Carrow teamed up with Sarah and Gary Gwaltney, cofounders of the Twin Cities-based Knowledge Transfer Consulting Services Inc., to launch a mainframe training program. For the past 25 years, Knowledge Transfer has provided learning services to businesses small and large.

“We have designed and delivered numerous types of learning programs scaling across the globe for our clients, but we have never had the opportunity to design a learning program that has meant so much for the students and an ecosystem,” Gary Gwaltney says. “That’s very exciting.”

The Mainframe Information Gap

Over the past few months, the Gwaltney’s and numerous others have collaborated to address the mainframe’s most persistent challenge: replenishing the workforce of programmers, developers and administrators as many long-time mainframers are fast approaching retirement.

Of course, this is best known as the skills gap—though one could nitpick that label, given the evidence to suggest that this may not be precisely the issue. First, the ability to acquire skills continues to fall on the list of concerns among mainframe enterprises. Then there’s the reality that, through the efforts of IBM and others, mainframe education and training options are more plentiful than ever.

Perhaps it should be viewed as more of a multipronged information gap, or simply a lack of communication.

“There’s a gap because students don’t know anything about this technology,” Dr. Seay says. “It’s almost invisible in the colleges.”

“There’s talent out here that we just have not tapped,” Carrow adds.

While plenty of mainframe installations remain reluctant to move forward, many others recognize the gravity of their situation but simply don’t know where to look for new talent. On the flip side, while mainframers naturally understand that the world runs on mainframes, much of the world at large—specifically, a generation of tech-loving kids who’ve grown up on video games—are utterly unaware of the platform’s existence.

So, the problem, however you label it, is complex. Some creative solutions are being implemented, but more ideas and helping hands are critically needed.

Launching a Mainframe Curriculum

“We had wanted to get involved, and that opportunity popped up,” says Gwaltney. “I was asked if we would be interested in working with a local employer that was facing a big challenge in recruiting and training next-gen mainframe programmers to replace their soon-to-be-retired mainframe programmers.”

The effort began with Knowledge Transfer and the client, a Midwestern bank, jointly developing a student profile and building a curriculum framework. The next step was to locate experienced, accomplished instructors.

Dr. Seay was among Gwaltney’s first contacts. Soon after, Geoffrey Decker, a computer science instructor at Northern Illinois University; and Colin Pearce, who’s authored many courses over his more than 30-year career as a mainframe programmer in the U.K.; were also brought aboard.

With the classroom foundation in place, the team started recruiting local students from the metropolitan area where the employer is headquartered. Ultimately, nine people—each identified as a good fit for the program—were selected from a pool of candidates. Per the needs of the client, programming was the focus. Students were immersed in COBOL, Rexx, JCL, TSO, assembler and more.

“You have students from diverse backgrounds, with no history on the mainframe. How do we bring them along and allow them to see how exciting mainframe is?” Gwaltney asks. “I think the uniqueness our program is that it’s heavily instructor-led. I believe in self-study but having IBM practitioners and others on the team to help bridge the gap is so important.”

Connecting Students to Mainframe Careers

Bridging gaps is a theme here, as providing a group of largely nontraditional students with the support they needed was emphasized. The choice to carve out 3 or more months for the mainframe course is one example of this. Even with ample time and expert instruction, these students couldn’t be expected to walk into the workplace as accomplished coders. But as newbies, they would be prepared to hit the ground running.

“Even if you have a master’s in computer science, this doesn’t come overnight,” says Carrow. “But we made sure students were familiar with the concepts and the terminologies. We made sure they were familiar with the screens. Students could ask the instructors the questions they might otherwise be afraid to ask once they get to their place of employment. With this first go-around, the client was pretty amazed at what they got. These students far surpassed expectations.”

Eight of the nine students have been on the job since the conclusion of training last fall. Now they’re in the middle of what could be described as an apprenticeship. For a full 12 months, each student will receive a full salary and benefits. After a full year, there are options for all involved.

“At that point the employer will most likely offer everyone full-time jobs, but it’s up to them,” says Gwaltney. “The students have a choice too. They can either take a great job or go out and maybe look at other opportunities.”

This was the case with the ninth student, who opted to complete a college degree before pursuing a mainframe career. But whatever their choice, several students remain connected to the program.

Ongoing Support and Mentorship

“We eased their anxiety up front by saying you have someone who will support you,” Gwaltney adds. “But not only that—once you leave our program, we’ll continue to help with anything you need.”

Carrow was—and is—often that someone. She serves as something of a student liaison, fielding questions and offering support. “You get to know them. I keep up with them on LinkedIn, or sometimes they call at weird hours of the night. But I love it,” Carrow says. “Being able to help is so rewarding and inspiring. Seeing how they bloom is just remarkable.”

To truly evaluate the results takes time. But all involved in this initiative are invested in bringing new professionals to the mainframe platform and immersing them into mainframe community.

“It was a very fun, successful program,” says Gwaltney. “We’re excited and hope to duplicate it.” Dr. Seay adds: “We’re going to duplicate it. We’re going to triplicate and quadruplicate it.”

If you have any questions or would like to get in touch, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Gary Gwaltney via LinkedIn or through his company’s website.