Skip to main content

Women of COBOL Episode 4: Creative Solutions for Closing the Mainframe Skills Gap

Misty Decker: Hi and welcome to this episode of Women of COBOL. Today we are talking about changing lives through COBOL. I’m so excited about this one; I hope you are, too. Let me introduce our two guests. Today we’re going to chat with Magie Hall, assistant professor of Strategic Business Analytics at WU Vienna. Thank you for joining me, Magie. And we have Laura Sherwin. She is Manager of Mainframe Systems and Training at Ensono. All right, so Magie, how about if you start us off with a description of your research, because you’re doing research in this area, right?

Magie Hall: Yeah, I am. I’m so excited to be here, so thank you. I love talking about this project. It’s called the Work Learn Project, and Work Learn is matching two critical problems we have today. On the one side we’re looking at adults who are currently experiencing homelessness. On the other we are looking at the chronically distressed mainframe talent pipeline, and what we’ve been able to figure out is something like 40% of adults experiencing homelessness are actually employed, so they either are working or they worked in the past quarter, but they’re not making enough money in order to have a financially stable life. So this is an opportunity, because on the other side we’ve got the mainframe sector—it just has so many problems with recruitment, with perception, all of the things that I’m sure we’ll talk about today—and what we figured out is we might be able to match these two problems and create one big, winning solution.

Misty: That is so exciting. You know homelessness is such an issue in that because you’re homeless, you can’t get the job that’s going to make you not be homeless anymore. And of course all of us in this COBOL and mainframe space, we know how important it is to get people into this career path, so you’re solving two problems all at once. It’s exciting. So Laura, you are very interested in this topic as well, so help us understand a little bit about the Ensono Mainframe Academy.

Laura Sherwin: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me as well. Well first of all, hi to Magie. Magie and I met each other at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her coming in as a faculty member—I was a staff member there, so I’ve been fortunate enough to know Magie from when the idea of the Work Learn Project first came into her head and first started, and it’s been really great to see how far it has come. So the Mainframe Academy, like Magie said, we are a managed services provider, IT provider. Mainframe is a lot of what we do, and we have a definite mainframe skills gap. A lot of mainframe folks are getting close to retirement age—and that’s not just with our company, it’s throughout the industry. So what we found is it’s been really difficult to find folks that have that skill set or skill sets for mainframe. And for our company, it has been more effective for us and more efficient for us to be able to do our own in-house training, hire people in, identify them, hire them, train them, retain them. So our Mainframe Academy is our answer to that ongoing issue or problem, and we’re making pretty good headway. It’s basically a 6-12 month level training program. We hire folks in, we look at folks—and we can talk about this later on in the podcast—but we look at folks coming even outside of IT, some folks who never have any IT experience. So it helps broaden our candidate pool, but the training consists of basically 6-12 months of—we have online course work; we have a lab environment where people can practice what they learn. They get technical mentoring. They start out learning about basics of mainframe and end up them delving more deeper into specific mainframe disciplines or areas. They eventually upon successful completion have hands-on projects; they get moved to a permanent team and a permanent placement in our company. We’ve been really excited about the program. We have two entry points into it. One is our kind of traditional college internship. It’s a summer internship that we just finished last week; had 20-23 interns all summer long—they were great. So we have that entry point—that’s more of our traditional student type entry point. Then we have what’s called our fast-track program, and that is for folks that are typically nontraditional students. They may or may not have had any college education. They typically have a minimum of a couple of years of professional office experience. They may have IT experience, may not. So we get some career changers there, and from a lot of different fields. Their program—it’s all the same curriculum and training as our internship program, but it’s at a faster pace. We’ve been doing that since we started Mainframe Academy in 2014. Our program has since grown since then in not only numbers, but in the content: the curriculum that we’re able to provide, the experiences that we can have these folks get to gain whether they stay with Ensono or not, to get them to gain mainframe skills and being in the market. We have about a 92% retention rate from our program, so for us it’s been very successful.

Misty: Wow, fantastic. That sounds like a really terrific program and I have heard of other companies doing something similar. Clearly there’s a gap here with getting people into the mainframe careers that has generated the need for you to do these types of programs, so let’s talk a little bit—today is about COBOL changing the lives of real people. Share a story. Let’s talk about some real people.

Laura: Absolutely. Magie, do you want to go first?

Magie: I can. I’m not sure my stories are as great as yours actually, because you have the history, right? We’re a little lean, mean, start-up phase of research. What I was so happy about is when we were doing our testing for the usability of the program, right? Can people even sit down and learn this stuff if they’re not guided in a classroom? And we had an older gentleman who came in and said “even someone like me, who doesn’t know computers?” Somebody who has really all the troubles that you could have. Even someone like me, I can understand this and that felt so on point. It was exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing, right? It’s getting somebody who can do the work, is excited to do the work, and giving them the ability to do it—which is really what’s been missing so far for at least my population, for people who your mental model says they’re sitting on the street. They may or may not be clean. They’re asking for your money, right? You have all the bad mental models for the homeless population, at least in the United States and exactly these people are the ones who need the access the most. So when we’re talking about changing lives, that’s really what I would look for, although that’s not nearly as concrete as Laura, who is sending out 50 interns a year.

Laura: Well yeah, Magie, thank you. You know from my perspective what I’ve seen that’s been really fulfilling, but I think really kind of encapsulates what we’re trying to do here, is watching people—exactly what Magie said—who don’t have an IT background. They maybe have really not much computer knowledge, but they have a curiosity and a passion to learn. They have an aptitude for wanting to gain new knowledge, and so being able to give them a chance—and we have folks that have come into our program, I mean most of them when they start out, they don’t even know what a mainframe is. Some have never heard of COBOL. They don’t know what that is, and so going from that point to actually a year later being on a permanent team—perhaps it’s a networking team or a scheduling team, dealing with storage of the mainframe, actually having client interactions with our clients and being a productive member of that team and adding value—is really fulfilling. So just a couple of quick examples: We have had a couple of folks in our cohort last year. One was a social worker, and she had gotten really burned out on being a social worker, and so she wanted a career change. She was going back to school part-time, kind of interested in IT but you know, a little nervous, hadn’t done this before, came to our program. She had a taken a COBOL bootcamp course with another organization and then got accepted into our program, and a year later now she is one of our mainframe project managers, is doing very, very well. So those skills as a social worker really have helped her in that capacity as being a mainframe project manager. Another example: We have another woman who her background was in healthcare. She was a physician in healthcare in India and when she moved over to the US several years ago, those credentials didn’t transfer, didn’t translate. And so fast forward several years and she was looking for a career change, and really again a person who didn’t have those—that STEM background or that COBOL background, didn’t know what a mainframe was—has done very, very well on our team. So one of the things I like to tell people is—I make the analogy of being in mainframe, being a COBOL coder, for example. Now my folks are more on the systems side. They’re not actual application programmers, but there’s a lot of analogies, like to being a doctor, being in medicine. You have two doctors and people tend to lump them all together and say well you’re a doctor, but yet they specialize and so a dermatologist and a neurologist—they’ll have some overlap but they don’t have the same skill set, right?

Misty: Right.

Laura: Same thing in the mainframe and in the COBOL space. I mean there’s so many different areas you can specialize in, whether you use COBOL everyday or not. There’s so much—I think I read the other day there’s something like 220 billion lines of COBOL that are out there—

Misty: 800. It’s 800 hundred million.

Laura: Yeah, yeah—so I mean billions, right? And not everyone has to know-how to code COBOL to be able to be successful in IT. So being able to take these folks successfully with whatever their past—we’ve been able to leverage their past life experiences and be able to use that to help them. Once they gain knowledge, they have the aptitude. They just soar with their career.

Misty: That’s such an inspiring story, and what you’re reminding me of is when I read about Grace Hopper and the origins of COBOL. She insisted that it be readable to anyone that can read English and understood by anyone that can read English, and you know that wasn’t the direction they were headed in. Grace Hopper insisted on that, and it was literally accountants and secretaries that wrote those earliest programs. And in my talks when I talk about unconscious bias against technologies, one of the things that I observe that’s really interesting—and I learned some of this from Marianne Bellotti in her book, “Kill It With Fire”—is that around the time that technology was seen as important and essential and not a menial task, that’s around the time that women started getting pushed out of those jobs. They became elite jobs for men, which is really interesting because COBOL was the great equalizer. It was meant to be accessible to all, and then technology became more and more complicated over time, making it more and more elite. So could you share your thoughts on your experiences when you’re working with these people that don’t know anything about this technology before they get started, how COBOL and mainframes become that great equalizer that makes it you know, access for everybody? Any thoughts?

Magie: I’ll let Laura start on that one.

Laura: Yes, thanks, thanks. From my perspective COBOL is a language, and really mainframe in general, that there’s so much work to be done and because there is such a gap of skills with a lot of people retiring, that kind of thing, it forces that equality. Now it’s unfortunate to have to say that, right? Ideally in a perfect world, I would much rather have it not be that, but I think just the fact that there is such a need for people with these skills forces people to expand their candidate pool, for example. And really the fact that COBOL is more of a procedural language, like you had mentioned—it was written in a way that people, lay people could understand it without a lot of preparation. I mean you can learn the basics, go on in and you can at least go in and see what a COBOL program is doing and have a decent idea of what is the function of that program, what it’s trying to do. So the fact that it’s an easier programming language to learn than probably some of the other newer ones for folks who have no background in IT or STEM makes it a little easier for them to as an entry point. Magie, what about you?

Magie: Yeah. I can only support that, but the fact that COBOL is written the way that it is, the fact that it is a language that you read and you write just like English is the determining factor in being able to do what I’m doing with the project with my colleagues. You can’t really underestimate that. When we are looking at who we enter into our project, we are funded by the National Science Foundation. We have 42 people that we’re going to, over three years, put through this project. We are not actually screening for math test, which is really common for entry-level programmers. We’re not screening for special reasoning. That’s another one of those common barriers that you get. We’re looking at reading ability. Do you have a seventh-grade reading level? Because that’s what you need. If you have a seventh-grade reading level, you can read the back of a pill box, that’s the standard that the American Medical Association uses, and we can work with you. You can’t do that with other languages—or at least you can’t do it as easily. COBOL is specific and wonderful for this purpose, and I really don’t know that we could do it otherwise with any other technology set.

Misty: Wow. That is quite the statement, Magie. You just—okay, you’ve blown my mind.  That’s really an exciting statement to say that COBOL is the only language that you could really do this program with because it’s so accessible. That’s impactful. I really like this concept and I want to explore a bit more about what you look for when you’re determining who to enter into these programs. And Magie, you said you focus on reading and language at even a basic level. Laura, what about your program for your alternative candidates, the non-university path? How do you determine who gets into the program and who doesn’t? What do you look for?

Laura: Sure. We look at a lot of different things. We really take a holistic approach, so we look at #1: curiosity. Does the person love to learn, because they’re going to be learning a lot of unfamiliar material to them. So do they have that passion? Do they have that curiosity? We look at how are they with general problem-solving ability and again, not necessarily related to IT at all. We talk a lot with people in our interviews about you know, tell us the time where you had to fix something. Again, people in other fields—auto mechanics—make great programmers because they are in again that same kind of mode of, I see symptoms of a problem. I have to find the root cause of the problem, right? I have to see what I can do to not only alleviate the symptoms but come up with some solutions, pick the best one and go implement it. So we look a lot for that. We also really look for folks that want to excel in their career, people that want to have a chance, people that basically can get along. That’s a really big thing in our culture is collaboration—no one really sits in a silo anymore and programs on their own. Even if you do that for a little bit, you still have to work well on a team. And so at our company, we’re a global company. We really look for folks that want to learn about people from other cultures, other aspects of life, people with an open mind—really an open mind to learn. That’s probably our biggest thing. We can train you, [but] we can’t change you to a person who doesn’t want to work with other people. If you don’t want to do that, if you don’t want to collaborate, we can’t really change that and make you successful at that. So really, just that longing to learn is the biggest thing for us.

Misty: Wow. I love that and I look for that when I hire as well. Motivation and the desire to learn is to me a top indicator of who is going to be successful, which is why I love to recruit diversity candidates, people that are normally ignored by the typical recruiting process. So I like to recruit at community colleges and HVCUs and organizations and projects like Magie’s. That’s where you can find the people that are going to really appreciate the job and really work hard and want to do their best. Laura you mentioned something about the culture at Ensono, so I wanted to talk a little bit about the mainframe culture—and that includes COBOL culture, because I think it is a little bit different from other IT cultures, because it is kind of a tight-knit community. How does that play when you’re bringing new people into that culture? Is it hard to break in because it is a tight-knit culture, or is it more welcoming to these diverse candidates? What does that look like?

Laura: Sure. In our program, it’s set up so that when folks come into the program and they’re going through their training period, they have technical mentors. And toward the end of that training period, they are actually placed onto a team with a mentor or mentors from that team. So they’re getting a chance to meet the people in those different areas while they’re in training. They’re getting a chance to work with them one on one. We have at Ensono—it’s one of things that actually kind of drew me to the company. We have positions for folks that are solely technical mentors; that’s what they’re paid to do.

Misty: Wow.

Laura: A lot of them are people that have retired and are coming back part-time, and so you’ve got this great one on one—or one mentor with a small group of mentees—with that technical knowledge that wants to give back. We help train those folks as well, and just having those one on one, those personal connections, has really helped out a lot. The other thing is that there is so much work to do and for us with our clients that there kind of again, there’s a welcoming culture, because people see this as “well, we have new people coming in. They’ve got some new ideas.” There is yes, some resistance. You see that a little bit. I know the term with that culture sometimes is kind of a good old boy club or good old person club. You see that a little bit, but at the same time these people come in and they’re able to come up with some fresh ways of doing things. As you know, modernizing the mainframe—there’s a lot of new tools out there, some different approaches. A lot of our clients really want to take advantage of some of the newer technologies to work better with their mainframe. And we promote diversity, inclusion, and belonging, very much so. That’s baked into our company culture, and we just have opportunities for people to get to know each other one on one. That’s the key I think, from my perspective.

Misty: Wow. Magie, I’m just thinking about some of the bias, unconscious bias people have against homeless people, and those preconceived notions. When you’re bringing these people in and you haven’t graduated your first set, right?

Magie: We haven’t.

Misty: They’re not employed yet, but when you do and you’re trying to integrate them into certain companies, do you have any thoughts on how to handle that, so that they are incorporated into the culture and they don’t carry that burden with them for the rest of their lives?

Magie: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I have a very controversial statement for all of the researchers who might be listening to this, which is the mainframe community is the first post geek gene community. They might have been the first one in it, because COBOL has been running and the mainframe has been running for so long, but they are also the first to get over the hump. And the geek gene is this frustrating, completely wrong idea that there are people who can do it and there are people who can’t. There’s actually this really irritating, retracted paper that in the very first line says those who can do it don’t bother training because they can do it anyway, and those who can’t do it don’t bother training because they can’t do it no matter what you do. This is that visceral—either you are like us or you aren’t like us—that has I think really contributed to how we see the community and how the community sees themselves and how they see the people hire. We’re geeks. We do this, right? I think that’s really what you’re saying when you’re talking about old boy clubs, the old boys networks. This is the geek gene exemplar. I think the mainframe community, I think the COBOL community is the first post geek gene community. I think it might have something to do with the fact that they need to be post geek gene. You have to look at unusual or nontraditional candidates whenever you are running the world but you don’t have enough people to keep it running. But I do think it’s also true that what we’re seeing out of our research is that if we can find person/position fit for our learners, and ours are among the most marginalized—at least in the United States and probably globally, the homeless are extremely marginalized people. But what we’re seeing is that if we can get a baseline of skills and we can get person/position fit, whatever comes once they’re in the door, they’re in. That is wildly encouraging and exactly opposite of the trends of tech hiring as a broad community, so I’m really enthused about it.

Misty: Okay, I’ve never heard of the geek gene.

Magie: Oh, I hate the geek gene.

Misty: But I completely understand what you’re saying, and I am encouraged that you’re observing that the mainframe is post geek gene. I look at it—my philosophy is that the mainframe community is like a band of brothers, because the mainframe and COBOL has been so derided and so attacked for so long. The people in those careers are a band of brothers. We’ve been through the war together, to the point whenever I travel, I always try to wear a shirt that proclaims me as a mainframer. And I’ll be in the airport and somebody will see my shirt and they’ll go—you know, you get the nod. I see you. We’re alike. We’re mainframers, and once you’re in the community, they embrace you I think because you’re now part of Team Mainframe, for lack of a better word. So it’s nice to hear that you think that they’re welcoming. They’re bringing people in. I think you’re right that the need for people—and Laura’s point of you’re going to share because you need the help is good, but then there’s also this other dynamic of being under attack for so long. Boy this conversation is just getting so philosophical and interesting, isn’t it? It’s a lot of fun. So let’s dive into that culture thing just a little bit more. What’s your call to action for our listeners around what they can do to try to help bring these people into the community, bring these people into these jobs? Do you have something that you would call out to our COBOL audience of what they can do?

Magie: It occurs to me that I need to ask for t-shirts for my learners [laughs].

Laura: Yeah, I’m thinking of some mainframe t-shirts. That’s a good idea as well.

Maggie: Sounds great.

Laura: I would say a definite call to action for people, for those already in the field is—think about everybody you know. Think about maybe people your kids know, right? Keep an open mind. Encourage people to come into mainframe. It’s really that personal connection for me and the other thing I think—we talk about this a lot at my company. We have some collaborations with other groups. So I would say don’t think that you have to do this one on one by yourself. Look at partnering with other people. We have a partnership with the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences, for example. They have like a Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship program, and we have partnered with them. So our fast-track participants in the MFA are actually Department of Labor recognized apprentices, so we work with them. We work with IBM, leader in the field, to talk about content and how to make that training more engaging for people and how to recruit people. I know on our end with our company, recruiting is a big deal for us. We’ve done things. We do the standard things—going to universities, going to career fairs, that kind of thing—but we have also had really great success with some of our best candidates coming from referrals. And so really I think call to action is in a way, as the mainframe community—you know, embrace it. Don’t shy away from it. Kind of think of mainframe as 70s are coming back man, so I mean it’s kind of embrace it and let people know. What I find is once you sit down and you talk to people and you talk about the career opportunities in COBOL, in mainframe, JCL—even just learning the basics of those things are going to get you in the door because there’s such a need. But when you tell people about the statistics like we talked about, the billions of lines of COBOL and ten of the top ten insurers use mainframes—I mean all those kinds of stats that are out there. It kinds of rings a bell.

Laura: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting for people. Once the light bulb kind of comes on, they go oh yeah, and they can really see that there is a lot of career opportunities and progression.

Misty: Exactly. So Magie, your program is just getting started right?

Magie: Yes.

Misty: So, go ahead. Ask us for help. What should we do for you?

Magie: If all of the hiring managers, if all of the senior leadership in this space would just be willing to consider a nontraditional resume—I think our biggest problem is going to end up proving to be word of mouth doesn’t scale well. So eventually these candidates are going to have to put their information into an online job portal. Eventually they’re going to get screened through HR who see you know, shift work at Wendy’s. Not to say anything bad about fast food, but that’s not your traditional candidate and that’s where we’re going to end up getting a little bit troubled. Because at some point—[even] with all the goodwill in the world, we’ve had such a good response from the community—we also still need to get these candidates in the door… We have people who know what to do. They can show a skills-based portfolio, that they are really able to do this job, but if they can’t get through the HR portal, then everything we do is for nothing. These people are still getting skills. They’re getting paid to learn while they’re in our program, but it’s not the thing that they need to get them into the next step, into a financially stable career. So I would love, love, love for everyone who is listening, when you’re seeing these candidates—if they are ours, if they are somebody else’s—nontraditional candidates really can carry the weight. They absolutely are willing and able and happy, but they have to get in the door.

Misty: Yup, yeah.

Laura: Agreed.

Misty: I’m going to go even further, Magie, on your behalf, and I’m going to put out a call to action to all of our friends and fans out there: Go to your management, go to your HR, escalate and ask if you can hire one person from Magie’s program. Use it as an experiment to prove that these people can really do the job and bypass the HR process altogether, the talent acquisition process, and just get approval. I want to hire one and try it out and prove to you that this is a good source of talent for us. So that’s my call.

Magie: Absolutely, and I will even make it easier for all of you who are listening. We accept challenges issued by our industry partners, people who are interested in hiring our candidates. You can give us close to real world problems that an entry level person works on, and we have our learners show what their solutions would be. We actually give a skills-based portfolio. It’s almost like an assessment center. We run that for you. Just be willing to hire, be willing to talk to them. This is our plea for you.

Laura: Well, I agree. I think that skills-based portfolio—as a hiring manager, that says a lot more to me about what someone’s interest level is, their potential aptitude level than seeing that they passed an assessment. Not everyone is a good test taker you know, but seeing that they can have that portfolio, that’s impressive.

Misty: When I did skills stuff for IBM, I always brought employers to the hack-a-thons and the events that we did with the students, and I told them you’re going to see who the good candidates are from this event better than you ever would from reading all of those resumes. So, Magie, I forgot to ask you a question. I think it’s pretty important, since we have an international audience here. What country are these candidates in?

Magie: The current slate, the first 42, are running out of the United States, and we’re looking to get the project online in the EU space as well.

Misty: Okay, great. So you can hire and sponsor projects today in the United States and keep in touch with Magie if you’re looking for EU candidates. That’s great. So we’re running out of time, but we’re talking a lot about partnering across organizations, and Laura you mentioned a few. So I’ll close with this last question for you: Give you an opportunity to give a shout out to the other organizations that you’re already partnering with—Laura already mentioned a few—and how does the broader mainframe community all collect around these efforts?

Magie: We have had wonderful response from the community. On our board of advisors, we have individuals from Pfizer, individuals from Google. We have conversations with of course Ensono, Micro Focus, IBM. We can’t discount them out of this equation. We have been just absolutely pleased and humbled almost how willing people are to start these conversations with us. So as it progresses of course—we talk from one year from now, we’ll see how it goes—but we have all promise of things are going well so far.

Misty: That’s fantastic. That’s fantastic. Thank you both for joining me today, but especially, thank you for everything you’re doing for these people and for the mainframe community itself, and helping really the world through helping individuals so COBOL is changing lives. I’m just so grateful for both of you. Thank you so much.

Laura: Thank you for having us today. I really appreciate it.

Magie: Yeah, thanks for the time. I love talking about this project. I love talking to both of you, so this was great.

Laura: Kind of near and dear to our heart, right Magie?

Magie: Yes, exactly.

Misty: Exactly. All right. Thank you so much.

Laura: Thank you.