Two Mainframe Career Futures

From a career standpoint, are these the best of times or the worst of times for mainframe people? If you read the front page of last Sunday’s Boston Globe, it looks terrible. If you listen to IBM, it couldn’t be better, and some job boards appear to back up IBM on this.

Boston Globe writer Katie Johnston started her piece this way: Brewster Smith specialized in mainframe systems for 35 years in the technology industry, recently converting his employer’s mainframe to servers that use newer programming languages. When Smith completed the project in July, his company laid him off because his skills no longer fit the new system. “It will take at least two years to train you to be productive,’’ he recalled his Concord, N.H., employer telling him. “Why do that when we can just hire someone off the street and they’ll be productive immediately because they know the languages.’’

Smith recently got a call from John Hancock Financial Services. The conversation ended quickly when the hiring manager found out he didn’t have experience with the current Microsoft Windows development framework.

IBM takes a decidedly different view. In a recent survey sponsored by the IBM Academic Initiative, it reports customers and business partners placed a high priority on the need for mainframe skills: Over 85% ranked mainframe application development skills as strongly required or required within their organization. These results point to an increasing need for organizations to groom the next generation of mainframe development skills.

As Johnston noted in her piece:  There is a dark side of tech, an industry in which skills and people can quickly become obsolete and some companies, believing high unemployment will give them the pick of ready-to-produce workers, don’t provide training. In fact, many companies demand candidates with skills that perfectly match their requirements.

There are very few jobs anymore where the skills you originally mastered will keep you securely employed for a decade or more. Almost every job skill in the computer industry is fleeting. Just think of all those Symbian programmers who recently had mastered a key mobile technology only to be reduced to near irrelevance by the rapid rise of smartphones with totally different operational attributes.

One high level IT manager in a leading mainframe shop puts it this way: There are some professions– dentistry, the priesthood, psychology, law– which require that members of that profession acquire a vast amount of knowledge and skill early and then can coast along for the next 40 years simply using that knowledge. Or maybe not. You can’t go skiing at Vail or golfing in the Virgin Islands without running into educational seminars for doctors or lawyers.

Then there are other professions, like IT, where everything one learns is obsolete within ten years or sooner.  You have to keep learning new things just to keep abreast of the technology, notes the IT manager.

Both types of professions can be rewarding, he concludes, if you go into them with the proper attitude. And that attitude is that you have to be willing to learn, even if you have to do it on your own nickel and your own time.

Are there programmers out there, asks the IT manager, spending 10 hours a week expanding their skills but learning the wrong things?  Undoubtedly.  Good IT managers not only should encourage their staff to broaden their skills but guide them toward which skills will be most valuable going forward even if they are not given the budget to support it.

The hybrid zEnterprise provides a valuable opportunity for mainframers to expand their skills into Linux, Java, and soon even Windows. The hybrid mainframe can handle SOA and mobile technologies and play in the cloud. Start familiarizing yourself with these technologies.

Today, every mainframer has access to other means to gain leading edge skills. All they need is a smartphone in their pocket. Apple and Droid provide rich SDKs to develop apps and marketplaces to distribute those apps. One mainframer leveraged his mainframe knowledge and rudimentary Java skills to write an iPhone app that sent a photo of he took of a wiring mistake to the trouble ticket system. The wiring got fixed, the company streamlined a process, and he demonstrated a valuable leading edge skill. The lesson: both old and new IT dogs must continually learn new tricks.

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One Response to “Two Mainframe Career Futures”

  1. Marcel den Hartog Says:

    This article really shows that you know what’s going on. Maybe I can add a few thoughts;

    There seems to be a big misunderstanding about MF skills these days. Many mainframers HAVE mastered skills like MQSeries, Unix & Linux, JAVA, TCP/IP, managing Relational Databases etc. In almost exactly the same way it’s done on other platforms. But many HR managers do not seem to be aware of this.

    In many companies, new mobile apps ARE being connected to the Mainframe already, just because most of the corporate data already IS on the mainframe.

    Like always, it’s all about perception. The perception is that mainframers are of a different generation and therefore will have a hard time learning “new” skills. The reality is that these people have had to learn so many new skills in their careers that they are probably best adapted to learn yet another one…. Mainframes and Mobiles will go well together. For some more insights:

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