The demand for skilled mainframe technologists is high in government, enterprises, and other organizations. Although colleges and universities offer computer engineering and computer science programs, many of these programs leave gaps in students' education. For members of minority groups and veterans, this gap is wider. They’re often underrepresented in college programs but have skills and abilities that would shine in a mainframe environment.
Lance Gaynor, an experienced mainframer, realized this gap and in 2018 founded the nonprofit Mainframe Mentors in New Jersey to help fill it. He shares his experiences and efforts to not only educate, but also recruit veterans and underrepresented groups into the technology sector.
Channeling 40 Years of Mainframe Experience into Mentoring Passion
After working in mainframe computing for more than four decades, Gaynor saw that many groups weren’t represented in the industry. "I was often one of the only African Americans on the mainframe team or one of the only former military service members in the room," he explains. "Because mainframe jobs offer good salaries and benefits with large organizations that offer job stability, I wanted to train veterans and underrepresented young adults."
In 1980, Gaynor trained with the U.S. Army at Fort Ben Harrison Indiana as a computer machine operator on an IBM 360/40 mainframe computer, which used punched cards as input. Throughout his career, he's worked with Electronic Data Systems (EDS), Sprint, Alltel, and Wells Fargo, among others. "All of these mainframe shops provided me valuable training and work experiences," he says.
According to Gaynor, by working his way up from computer operator, production control analyst, and COBOL programmer to systems programmer, and, now, senior operating system engineer, he gained insights for a multitude of levels within mainframe computing. He says there are few others who have experienced all those levels. "It's this knowledge that I rely on when deciding what classes are best for our students, and it also comes in handy when they have questions," says Gaynor.
Educating the Mainframers of the Future
One of Mainframe Mentors’ goals is to convince young people interested in technology careers that mainframe computers are "the way to go," according to Gaynor. Today's college education opportunities are often focused on Microsoft servers, cloud computing, Linux, or other emerging technologies.
"It is hard to tell a younger person that 'I have a computer that 1) you've never seen before, 2) it has an interface you've never seen before, 3) it has no graphics at all, 4) you do not need a mouse to use it, and 5) the technology is [decades] old,’" he explains. Many of today's technologies are flashier, and most young adults are already familiar with those interfaces.
To do so, the organization is committed to reaching students where they are. Gaynor explains they presented a talk titled "Mainframes: What a Great Career Choice" at a local junior college's Minority Male Initiative Conference that was well received. In 2023, the organization plans to visit and present at local high schools to encourage minority students to pursue mainframe computer careers after graduation. "We are a small nonprofit trying to do big things for our veterans and minority young adults," he says.
Another way Mainframe Mentors is educating future mainframers is through their flagship 6 to 12 month training program. The program brings the mainframe computing world to veterans and underrepresented youth and young adults to help them become sought-after job candidates for enterprises seeking to fill talent gaps.
In its first three years, Mainframe Mentors focused its attention on fundraising and establishing partnerships with companies and education providers, such as Protech Training Inc., to ensure its program could provide training to its students at no cost. This means students have access to in-person and virtual classroom options taught by subject matter experts at no charge. This includes textbooks, course material, and sometimes laptops or desktop computers. "If students covered the costs on their own, they would spend up to $20,000,” Gaynor says. All of the funds raised for the organization go directly to the training programs and the students. He adds, "We take no salaries. Zero."
Students in the program are paired with mentors from a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME), who can help answer their questions and learn how to work on a team. Additionally, students can engage in training programs from IBM, including IBM Z Xplore. Beyond traditional mainframe training, the organization's partnership with IMPRESSUME allows students to receive coaching, project management, resume writing, and online presence help.
Gaynor says that students in the Mainframe Mentors training program must be self-driven, engaged, professional, and on time. Because classes can be eight hours each day for three to 10 days on average, students need to be flexible. The timing of these courses is not up to the Mainframe Mentors.
"Having a full-time job makes it hard to commit to those hours, which is why all of our previous and current students have quit their current jobs," says Gaynor. "I know it sounds crazy, but to make these classes they had to, and it paid off."
Measuring Success With Job Placement
Mainframe Mentors is focused on bringing high school graduates, college students, working adults, and veterans interested in technology into the mainframe fold. Gaynor says, "You can have an MBA, like our first student Kalia from the naval reserve, or like our current junior-college student Isaiah, whom we are looking to get employed in early 2023 into the field of mainframe systems programming." He adds, "Isaiah may not have his associate's degree when he becomes employed, but he will have tens of thousands of dollars in mainframe training."
According to Gaynor, "it is this 'mainframe computer skillset' that these employers need, not necessarily a four-year degree." Once employed, employers often offer some sort of tuition reimbursement program to help employees continue their education. "It can be a huge win-win situation when it comes to furthering your education with large corporations," he explains.
For Mainframe Mentors, it's about the students and their success at finding stable employment with a good salary and benefits. Two of the program's students were recently accepted into a "mainframe early talent program" at a Fortune 50 corporation. When more positions open up at this company, Mainframe Mentors students "will be able to compete for those coveted positions." Gaynor adds that many of these positions were previously only offered to the students of the company's own nine-month mainframe training program.
"This will provide them and our program with job placement opportunities after training," says Gaynor. "Now, we are a full circle organization: talent identification, talent acquisition, talent training, and job placement."
Although nothing is guaranteed, he says, Mainframe Mentors is confident that the training and coaching it provides students will exceed the company's future expectations. But Gaynor's organization plans to seek out and partner with other enterprises and government agencies to broaden the employment pool for the students.
Veterans and minorities may face challenges to becoming successful in the IT and mainframe space, but they have a lot to offer the mainframe universe. Mainframe Mentors, and organizations like them, are helping these community members fill the opportunity gap and find their passion and talent for mainframes. In doing so, they’re ensuring a diverse future for mainframe enterprises.