Training and education are vital to any industry. This is especially true for the IT sector. Without trained professionals, data is at risk — and along with it, business' reputations and their ability to compete and innovate. Any public or private sector business that looks to tech for a competitive advantage could find it hard to source and attract the right talent, if training and education are not prioritized by colleges, businesses, and technology providers alike.
Dr. Cameron Seay, IBM Champion and adjunct professor at East Carolina University, says that from where he sits, colleges are ending or threatening to end mainframe-related programs, leaving a gap that could be detrimental to the world of business. This pullback doesn't mean that mainframe education has vanished. It has evolved alongside the industry.
"What I am seeing is a tremendous growth in non-degree-related mainframe programs ('training'), ranging from formal apprenticeships to less formal internal training programs and everything in between," he explains. "Companies are realizing they have to do something to address onboarding new mainframers as they increasingly experience 'The Great Resignation.' This gives considerable cause for optimism for the future of the platform." The number of mainframe training programs available to NexGen mainframers is on the rise, as IBM, Broadcom, and others create training programs to meet current and future business needs.
Must-Have Skills for NextGen Mainframers
There are a number of skills all mainframers need when they begin their careers. Dr. Seay points out that NextGen mainframers should be able to function in a limited way in a time-sharing option (TSO) native environment and have a basic understanding of Interactive System Productivity Facility (ISPF) and how to navigate it, as well as its basic editing functions. Mainframers also must understand how to create data sets and manage them, including the major access methods. They need to know the fundamentals of the job entry subsystem (JES), job control language (JCL), and system display and search facility (SDSF).
"Everyone needs to understand the role COBOL plays on the mainframe, whether they will be a developer or not," Dr. Seay explains. Additionally, mainframers should understand assembler because "it is the glue that keeps everything together, even if they never write a line of assembler code,” he adds.
Companies may want mainframers with more depth of knowledge in specific technologies, such as Db2, CICS, IDMS, and virtual storage access method (VSAM). “NextGen technologists should be familiar with the role each plays, whether they learn that technology or not,” according to Dr. Seay. “Acquiring these skills requires a combination of fearlessness, self-confidence, persistence, and focus.”
All NextGen training programs are a work-in-progress, and they have to be in order to effectively train new mainframers in an environment where technology is constantly evolving. Dr. Seay's courses offer a building block structure where labs feed into one another progressively with increasing sophistication. He advises against the firehose method, in which newbies are inundated with tons of documentation for self-study.
"My intuition is that the firehose method is far from optimal. To some degree it has to work, because all of my students survive it. But it’s unclear if their survival is because of the firehose method or in spite of it," Dr. Seay says.
Dr. Seay wrote a new textbook, "Introduction to Enterprise Systems," with Reg Harbeck, Karl-Erik Stenfors, and David Boyes, for the NextGen mainframer, providing them with an overview of the technology and its rich history.
"We are adding labs and slides, which we did not have in the first edition," Dr. Seay says. "The goal is to flesh out the methodology of training new mainframers. There is no standardization in mainframe training, as there is for other platforms (e.g., Linux). We want to create a template that anyone can follow."
Mainframe Training Programs on the Rise
IBM Champion Scott McFall, vice president of business development at ProTech, agrees that training programs have evolved and are on the rise.
"It went from the largest topic we delivered in 1999 (Y2K) to the least popular topic by 2009-2010. We started to notice a significant increase around 2014-2015 at SHARE Pittsburgh and started tracking 30%-35% year-over-year growth … By 2019, it was the most popular topic again for ProTech," he says. "It’s remained in that spot ever since. We’ve also seen new programs emerge, such as the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) approved apprenticeships and nonprofits' mainframe job training programs devoted to special groups of workers, such as veterans, low-income people, minorities, and women."
More programs are emerging at IBM, Broadcom, and even through the Open Mainframe Project. “The Open Mainframe Project's COBOL Programming Project has steadily increased its visibility,” Dr. Seay says, “especially with Hartanto Ario Widjaya and his following.”
Dr. Seay points out that the project is continually being refined to be more comprehensive, with modules for COBOL using Db2 and CICS, which he adds will "undoubtedly increase its appeal." Dr. Seay also says that the programming project has enhanced the marketability of his students.
The Mainframe Open Education Project is intended to be a one-stop shop for newbies. "There is room for any novice anywhere on the mainframe skills spectrum, and the need for these skills is growing daily," Dr. Seay explains. "I think the next step is to map out the training for specific career paths. Where we are right now is a general exposure to z/OS, and I’d like to see us getting clearer about how to prepare future specialists in Db2, CICS, Transaction Processing Facility (TPF), storage, development, and z/VM."
ProTech primarily offers instructor-led training, as well as self-paced learning courses from other providers. "It’s not an either/or decision when it comes to training models. We like to advocate for a blended approach," McFall explains. "You have to leverage them all with your employees for any program to be its most effective. Mentorship, ongoing professional development (soft skills), online support systems, and other methods are recommended in our programs."
Diverse Offerings Key to Training Program Success
Businesses and educational institutions alike should strive to find a balance of courses that not only teach mainframe skills, but also explore the history and culture of the platform. All of this information can better inform NextGen mainframers about their current careers and provide them with a means of identifying how legacy technologies work and are enhanced by new programs.
Additionally, programs need to not only be highly visible, but also scalable such that 20-30 students can be taught per class by available experts. Dr. Seay adds that the curriculum he created can be seamlessly inserted into any IT/IS/CS program without disturbing the core curriculum or jeopardizing an educational institution's accreditation.
Some of his most successful mentees include Angie Mejia and Cindi Harris, who each had zero technical background before learning about the existence of the mainframe and were partly self-taught.
For example, Mejia said she first learned about the mainframe at East Carolina University, where she's currently a senior, but she learned even more through IBM Z Xplore, a learning platform through which she earned badges, or credentials, on her own. "I was recently hired as an IT associate at UNUM Group," she adds.
East Carolina University graduate Cindi Harris has a degree in communication and worked a number of jobs outside the tech industry before stumbling across computer science. "I thought you had to be a rocket scientist or genius to be in computer science. I soon found a software development boot camp (not mainframe related), and ultimately received a scholarship and successfully completed The Iron Yard in 2017," explains Harris.
Even though she never took a course with Dr. Seay, Harris says he's been supportive in other ways as she started looking for mainframe work. Harris landed her first job on a mainframe engineering team at a financial firm in North Carolina before becoming part of a QA team for the Db2 Admin Tool team at Rocket Software. "I don't consider myself to be self-taught, just determined and resilient. The road wasn't easy, but I did have some old school mainframers who have mentored me along the way," Harris says.
"There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of stories just like theirs across all ends of the social spectrum," Dr. Seay says.
According to McFall, the goal of ProTech is to reduce skills gaps through training programs, but one area that is often overlooked by companies is the need for continuing education.
"Companies are committed to ensuring that new employees get the training they need when they start, but after they've been at the job for a while, there are no continuing education programs available," he laments. "There are often no instructor-led workshops during the workday, but employees are expected to use self-paced training during their off-hours. That’s not fair in my opinion. Employers need to do more than invest in self-paced learning materials."
Dr. Seay agrees. "Mainframe training has been ignored for too long," he says.
He urges the mainframe industry to consider offering mainframe-dedicated scholarships for potential students at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), for example, to cultivate a more diverse workforce. Moreover, the sector could find a way to ensure the faculty are available to teach those courses.
"In my ideal world, there would be at least one endowed chair at a school (e.g. an HBCU) that supported a faculty focus on the mainframe," he says. "There are almost no schools with such a focus. I can only think of Marist College, Northern Illinois University, Robert Morris University, University of Arkansas, and Columbus State University in Georgia."
Dr. Seay has no predictions about where the state of mainframe training is headed, but he does say that "it's going to get much worse, but then it will get better."
According to Dr. Seay, "Above all, the industry and trainers need to be aware that the mainframe is not just about skill sets. It's a lifestyle and a culture." NextGen technologists need to become part of that culture and have the confidence to evolve with the technology. Too many companies are losing mainframe talent and are just starting to think about how they are going to train the next generation of technologists. McFall says, "I encourage all mainframe professionals to be vigilant, to make sure that the torch is effectively passed from the last generation to the next."