The "Great Resignation" has many industries examining how best to attract and retain employees, and some have turned to offering higher wages, better benefits or training programs. This shift in the workforce has left a number of industries with hundreds, if not thousands, of job openings. Recently, Glassdoor reported that IT departments across the United States have more than 14,000 enterprise architect jobs open, and workers in these positions have a satisfaction rating of 4.1 out of 5.0. Enterprises are eager to fill these open positions.
Programs, such as IBM Z Xplore, are part of the equation for these enterprises, as these programs are adept at providing training to students and other potential job candidates who are seeking real-world employment. Ross Cruickshank, developer advocate and IBM Z influencer ecosystem content lead, and Monica Siegel, technical influencer at IBM Z, say that learners are exposed to basic mainframe skills on one learning platform through the IBM Z Xplore program, as well as acquiring new skills as they continue their enterprise computing journey.
Community Learning Through Hands-on Challenges
According to Siegel, "IBM Z Xplore is a year-round learning platform available to individuals interested in developing in-demand IBM Z skills, earning industry-recognized digital badges, and staying involved in the IBM Z community." Cruickshank adds that the platform aims to "attract students and learners from around the world to learn more about career opportunities in the Z ecosystem; IBM Z Xplore provides foundational education paths that lead to skill growth, creating continuous engagement in our student hub, and assisting in the development of Z talent for our clients."
Cruickshank explains that the learning platform has three major components:
- Challenges for different skill levels
- Direct access to fully functional Z environments
- Modern tools and techniques
"IBM Z Xplore's challenges," he says, "introduce learners to aspects of the Z environment through hands-on activities and encourage experimentation and research." These tasks are broken down into three levels — fundamentals, concepts, and advanced — and participants need to complete the required challenges within each level to unlock the next challenge. Cruickshank points out that progressive tasks open up new challenges to elective modules that focus on users' specific areas of interest. Siegel explains that within each level are beginner to advanced challenges that provide hands-on learning with various coding languages, as well as an introduction to IBM Z concepts like security and enterprise scalability.
IBM Z Xplore provides users with direct access to fully functional Z environments like z/OS and Linux. As learners master basic skills, they can later access virtual machines, CICS, and other systems. The fundamental challenges, Cruickshank explains, are focused on open-source tools like Zowe and Visual Studio Code. He and Siegel both say that the forums and discussion groups are an essential part of the community and can be used by learners to conduct research and provide hints and tips to other users. This ensures that everyone can continue making progress and apply systems skills by learning from others and the available sources of information on IBM Z Xplore to problem solve.
Throughout the IBM Z Xplore experience, users can earn open industry-recognized badges through Credly, which can be added to their public resumes and demonstrate the skills they have attained. Cruickshank adds that at least once per year, an IBM Z Student Contest powered by IBM Z Xplore is offered worldwide to registered students, enabling them to stretch their skills, earn prize money, and "show off their Z chops."
Annual IBM Z Student Contest
Siegel says the IBM Z Student Contest is hosted by HackerEarth and powered by IBM Z Xplore. "It’s only available to students at an accredited school who are 18 years-old and older," she points out. "Students have an opportunity to further their learning journey in enterprise computing, can earn prize money, and receive up to two industry-recognized badges that they can display on their social media and resumes." Siegel clarifies, "Users do not have to participate in the contest in order to have a learning experience on IBM Z Xplore. There is beginner to advanced content on IBM Z Xplore that is separate from the IBM Z Student Contest."
Growth of IBM Z Xplore
Since the launch of IBM Z Xplore in September 2021, the platform has numerous educational institutions represented, which Cruickshank says comes from "organic interest, [while] others have specified that IBM Z Xplore badges are part of their course credits." Siegel adds that multiple professors are receiving support from their educational institutions to promote the learning platform in the classroom. "We have had thousands of students, educators, and re-skillers join our platform from all around the world, and we continue to see more sign up monthly," she states. "We provide a mechanism that allows educators to track classroom progress so they can accurately aid their students."
It is not just classrooms and professors interested in IBM Z Xplore, they say. In fact, Cruickshank remarks that some users are from the corporate world, and others are "veterans" of the previous Master the Mainframe programs. However, he adds, "Most of the registrations in the first quarter of operation were new to the world of Z."
Future of IBM Z Xplore
Siegel says the future of the learning platform is bright, as it expands to offer more advanced challenges and ways to extend education journeys through which users can elevate their IBM Z skills. "These extended learning journeys will allow more hands-on experience through different challenges involving TSO/ISPF, application modernization, and more," she explains. Cruickshank also notes that the platform will add challenges in the areas of transaction processing, API integration, and artificial intelligence and machine learning. "With users able to 'touch and feel' the systems, they can better decide where to focus their career paths and invest in training and certifications," he says. Siegel adds that the platform also is expanding to include multiple languages and multiple learning paths.
IBM aims to continue building community for its users and learners alike, and Siegel says that beyond IBM Z Xplore, learners who are new to the platform and computer science can explore the IBM Hour of Z gaming app. "Hour of Z is a great entry point into computing concepts that can be continued in IBM Z Xplore," she adds. There also is the IBM Z and LinuxOne community and the IBM Z Global Student Hub for students that contains rich blogs, videos, and updates on the platform.
Changing Misperceptions of IT
According to Cruickshank, "there is a perception in the IT industry, and among some enterprise customers, that there is a dearth of Z-related skills, but IBM Z Xplore (and Master the Mainframe before it) demonstrates that there is a very healthy community of users keen to learn about Z, acquire skills, and advertise those skills with a view toward building careers in the Z ecosystem."
Setting itself apart from the Master the Mainframe program — which introduced thousands of learners to IBM Z for over 16 years — IBM Z Xplore offers continuity and an ability to expand their IBM Z skills and knowledge with help from the community through interactive roadmaps, user rewards, and forums, they add. Siegel says that learners are able to get "worry-free, hands-on experience inside IBM Z." She adds, "IBM Z Xplore plans to expand into other parts of IBM Z for individuals to continue to broaden their knowledge. It's a learning platform with growth potential that ensures learners expand their own horizons in enterprise computing."
Siegel comments that IBM Z Xplore is an essential way for anyone interested in learning about mainframes, which are key to society's functionality as this platform stores and protects user data for enterprises across the world. "This no-cost educational opportunity helps learners gain new skills they can use across their careers," she says. Enterprises facing numerous job openings in their IT departments could find a venerable partner in IBM Z Xplore, as they look for skilled job candidates with mainframe experience.