COVID-19 may have changed the economic landscape, but the reality is that companies still need to hire top technical talent to secure their mainframes and ensure their systems continue to operate at their optimum. Some will hire college graduates, while others may turn to more experienced workers with greater institutional knowledge and work experience.
Some 28% of the Fortune 50 companies have created in-house return-to-work programs. Technical skills training is a must for computer-related employers such as Broadcom and IBM, and other companies in areas such as finance, health care, and more. Mainframe skills can be cultivated through in-house employee training programs or through outside firms, as well as at the collegiate level.
Geoffrey Decker, a computer science instructor at Northern Illinois University, says, “Any company that has a mainframe has almost everything in all areas of software development (i.e. mobile, web, networking, security, etc.).” Students with a background in mainframe technology, he says, would have the option to expand into other areas of the company. “Be willing to train in mainframe as it will, at the very least, get your foot in the door of a major corporation,” he advises.
At Northern Illinois University, Decker explains that there are two courses in mainframe programming and every computer science undergraduate is required to take a course in mainframe assembly language using the ASSIST Assembler. The second course covers JCL, COBOL, using the High Level Assembler, the Enterprise COBOL Compiler and the Binder, using QSAM I/O routines in assemblY language, linking subroutines with main code, and COBOL with DB2 SQL. When time permits, CICS is included.
Sai Swetha Gujja, software engineering manager for mainframe security at Broadcom, did not have any mainframe training until she started at Broadcom. As an associate software engineer (ASE), Gujja says the eight-week immersive training at the company established the technical foundation she needed for mainframe work, and that was followed by a technical mentoring program. Most ASEs are now engaged in a six-week immersive training program, followed by a mentoring program, she adds.
“More training is digitized and this highlights the differences in how different generations handle it,” adds Gujja. Decker agrees, “More information is made available online, both static materials and lectures.” Both say that millennials seem to prefer a “hands-off” approach to learning. Gujja adds, “They need immersive training, but at the same time yearn for flexibility and more ownership. More of a tinker and learn approach, and they are more used to and comfortable with digital training.”
Meanwhile, baby boomers and Gen Xers tend to prefer in-person training sessions more than digital options. Decker cautions that “all mainframe learning requires hands-on training. Only by doing can someone learn the material, which I believe is true of all programming.”
“I also tell my students that they need to improve their analytical skills,” Decker says. “To be able to take a problem or task and analyze it and the environment in which it occurs or will eventually run will ultimately make them more successful. Knowing the context in which a system will run also will allow them to create a better system.”
Mainframe Training Challenges
Decker explains that one of the biggest challenges for mainframe training has not been how it is distributed, but the public perception that the mainframe is dead. He says many people continue to buy into the notion that the mainframe is going away, isn’t worth learning, or is career suicide.
Combatting these misconceptions requires instructors to show students how viable the mainframe still is in today’s society. Gujja adds that there is a lot of history to the mainframe, from dumps to operating systems that require a combination of in-person training and mentoring. “Several years’ worth of knowledge cannot be transferred in a few months or years,” she says.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Northern Illinois University to consider going virtual with some of its classes, and the computer science department is contemplating continuing with at least some online learning throughout the summer and fall semesters. Decker says that the faculty have the option to teach lectures online in real time, post recorded sessions for access any time, or a combination of both. Gujja says similar moves to all virtual content are happening at Broadcom with its training programs.
Decker points to networking with mainframers as a key factor for students looking to enter the field. He says students cannot only find career opportunities, but also learn from others’ mistakes and new ways of looking at a problem.
“The positive effects of networking cannot be measured, and they’re significant,” Decker says. Above all, companies need to find the right talent. Gujja adds, “Keeping them motivated and training them well goes a long way toward retaining top mainframe talent.”