The Mainframe Workforce: A Leading Indicator for the Mainframe
Published: March 21, 2006
by Dan Burger
Think about the IBM mainframe computing environment over the past couple of decades. If you don't think this star has lost some of its shine, you have to snap out of your reverie. The advent of distributed computing three decades ago and the Internet a decade ago changed the landscape. For the mainframe, it's been no glitz, no glamour, and a little glory as the mainframe has persisted. Still, it is not surprising that people still whisper: What is the future of the mainframe?
There are no crystal balls or fortune-tellers worth more money than you can afford to lose. Forget about that. You can pay someone for an opinion, but you'll learn more by simply taking a look around the mainframe community. One of the things you'll see involves education and training. IBM has increased its investment and its efforts by revving up the Academic Initiative Program, a pipeline, IBM says, for delivering mainframe skills for the future. If the mainframe has a long and healthy future ahead of it, individuals who get involved in this program could be making a very wise career choice. If the mainframe goes into decline, the people who hoped they were riding a career rocket ship will be left holding a wet firecracker.
The Academic Initiative Program extends beyond the mainframe community, but I won't take it any farther than that in this article. If you've been around the IBM mainframe for very long, you might remember the previous educational thrust, which was called the zSeries Scholars Program. Approximately two and a half years ago, this program was working with about two dozen colleges and universities around the world on mainframe-specific education. IBM provided course materials and educational aids that focused on the large-scale computing scene, but it was a meager operation and one that belied a less than stellar attitude concerning the corporate commitment to mainframe computing.
Things have changed.
"Today we have more than 200 schools around the world that we are working with directly," says Mike Bliss, IBM director of System z9 technical support and marketing, with a goal to revitalize the educational pipeline that delivers new people to the mainframe workplace. "A year and a half ago, we said that by 2010 we want to help get 20,000 new mainframe-educated students into the marketplace," Bliss says. The "we" he is talking about is the IBM AIP team. "I think that number is conservative and that we will exceed that."
Bliss says the long-term commitment and investment is more important than the number of students coming out the pipeline. As a qualifier to that 20,000 students prediction, he says not all will have a mainframe degree, but they will have had "some experience with it." It is an ambitious undertaking that must move beyond the current level of school involvement to meet expectations. "We are going to continue to add more schools, but the number won't go up by a factor of five or ten," he says. "We are spending a lot of time with the schools we currently have."
Yes, things have changed for the better. However, in an IBM press release from July 2005, the stated goal was to have more than 300 schools in the program. It could be that IBM, in its exuberance to promote the program, overstated its realistic potential. Or it could be the proposal to expand mainframe education is not as appealing to college educators as IBM hoped it would be. How the program develops throughout 2006 is worth watching.
For the time being, let's just say the progress of this program has been substantial. But where is this leading? It's safe to say that when this program was only working with a couple dozen schools, the number of students graduating with mainframe skills was insufficient. This trickle of fresh bodies and brains, combined with the number of baby boomers reaching retirement age, was shrinking the workforce. Extrapolate these trends over the next five to ten years and this issue had the potential to become a crisis. How would IBM sell mainframes in the future if nobody were left to run them? Some folks who sell mainframes for a living and some folks who run their businesses on them (or are considering it) might be asking that question now.
Bliss admits there's not enough students coming out today with significant mainframe skills. That's why the AIP exists. But he won't comment about when the program might be churning out enough trained individuals to satisfy the needs of the market. "I don't see this as filling a shortage," he says. "I see it as helping to create the next generation of experts."
Even though Bliss prefers to avoid talking in terms of shortages, he does recognize that the academic focus on the mainframe had eroded and that's at least part of the reason the AIP exists. "I view this as a blip on the screen. Not an apocalyptic situation," he says. "Nonetheless, we hear this concern about a skills gap from our customers. Some have an issue finding skilled people and some don't. We are making an effort to address it. We have been doing programs around skills for several years, but additional incremental investments have been made to insure this is not a problem for our customers. Yes, there are issues out there for some, but I don't think we are going to get to a point where everything is going to fall off the cliff."
While IBM's AIP deals with both the skills for the future (getting colleges and universities involved in mainframe education) and helping customers acquire and maintain a skilled workforce today, other organizations are also trying to help with the issue of generating more mainframers.
Outside of the academic institutions that offer degree programs in computer science, one of the important education and training grounds in the world is the enterprise-level, IT-oriented user group known as SHARE. It has been in existence longer than any other IT peer group and many of its members are intimately familiar with the IBM mainframe. In much the same way that IBM has ratcheted-up its efforts at the collegiate level, there has been an increased investment in professional organizations such as SHARE.
Robert Rosen, president of SHARE, says there is an increased interest in mainframe education among the members of this organization and additional educational offerings are being offered. "We see the need in the industry today and we see that need increasing," Rosen says with regard to mainframe education and training. "We have to stay ahead of the game by not only providing what is needed today, but what is needed tomorrow."
Where is this interest in big iron coming from?
It's not just young students without working experience. Rosen says some of the increased interest in mainframe subjects presented at SHARE conferences is attributable to people who have worked in the IT field for a long time and are looking to transfer skills from other IT experiences. These are people, he says, who have always worked outside the mainframe area, but who often have an understanding of how technology is actually used to benefit business needs because they have work experience.
"This is not the MVS platform of 20 years ago. It has grown and adapted to a new marketplace," says Jim Michaels, the secretary of SHARE and a person dedicated to education and training. "It's not just MVS. It's Linux and Java. There are people transferring skills from other IT experiences."
Michaels makes note of an age demographic shift at SHARE from a big percentage in the 40- to 50-year-old bracket to folks under 40 and even attendees in their 20s and 30s. From the recent SHARE conference in Seattle, he says more than 100 attendees were under 35 years old and close to 200 were under 40. That's roughly 10 percent of all attendees. Michaels calls that "a significant increase and a trend--an increase is above and beyond what we were seeing before."
Both Rosen and Michaels identified the group of graying IT professionals, who are 55 years old and older and who are getting ready to retire, as an issue for the mainframe community. Those pending retirements represent an opportunity for those able to step into new roles. Both men say there are a significant number of folks less than 50 years old working in the zSeries area who stand to benefit from the openings created by retirement and that new opportunities will arise because those who move the ladder leave positions to be filled.
"Will the opportunity exist over the long haul?" Michaels asks rhetorically. "If you look at the amount of zSeries capacity that IBM ships over time, the numbers indicate that more capacity is being shipped. The market is not decreasing. You also look at the new ways the zSeries is being used. It's changed in ways such as zVM and multiple instances of Linux with multi-tiered environments and through consolidating server environments to take advantage of management and total cost of ownership. The skills--such as the mainframe mentality of testing and deploying changes in a managed way--that are being developed today are applicable in a broader sense than before. Concepts learned in an enterprise environment are very useful to other companies. Building enterprise quality systems is a mindset. And it's an advantage."
It is in no way a certainty, but based on the time it takes to get college curriculums in place and students in that pipeline, and the expected number of mainframe pros who are and will be retiring, there will likely be a shortage of folks available to fill the slots in the near term.
"There is a bottleneck that we are going through," Michaels says in regard to the mainframe-oriented workforce. "It is not a situation where the skills won't be available to support the platform. I don't think we are going to see that because of the steps that are being taken and the age demographics I see for the entire industry. I think enough new folks will come in and the existing folks will find it worthwhile to continue working and put off retirement."
Certainly IBM doesn't want people turning away from buying a zSeries because of a perception that it is difficult to find the people with skills to run these systems. IBM's spin doctors will never put the story in that light.
"I am not at all comfortable that what we have in place now is everything that is needed," Michaels says. "What we have are the right mechanisms in place to solve the problem over time." What is in place is designed to attract both young students and existing professionals. Although SHARE, as an organization and as a community, works with both students and professionals, it is more oriented to working with professionals looking for networking events and on-going training. Included in this are many instructors who are involved in teaching college-age students not only text book materials but real life business scenarios as well. "For people working in IT, who are in their mid-20s to mid-30s, the current state of the mainframe offers opportunities for those with transferable skills. As Michaels points out, some may look at the resources available through the Academic Initiative Program and decide to get involved in the mainframe area because they find it interesting and rewarding both professionally and financially.
"This is enterprise-scale computing," Michaels says. "Those working in smaller environments will have challenges of a different scale and the rewards will be better at bigger organizations. It's not a situation of getting paid more for doing the same kind of work. It's a matter of the value that is brought to the organization. That will drive the economic opportunities. The issue of scarcity is not going to be one of crisis proportions. I don't want to oversell that. Skills will not be so scarce or that it will take high salaries to get them. Will the folks who have the skills be attractive to enterprises? Yes. Will that translate into economic gains for the individuals? I think it will."
A healthy mainframe ecosystem must have a vital workforce that is backed by a strong program of education and training. IBM is making an investment in this key component, which seems to be paying dividends at this stage of the game. However, for a better long-term picture of how this plays out, it will take continual monitoring of the progress of this one component of the mainframe environment. Doing so will reveal a great deal about the success of the platform overall and the people who make a career choice to be a part of it.