Training: Commitment to IT Pros Still Low

Even companies that have embraced next-generation mainframe workloads often give short shrift to the question of training. What gives?

Mainframers seem to get all worked up over the issue of training. It’s not that they’re opposed, on the whole, to training—far from it. It’s rather that training—or what passes for training, if you’re a cynic—seems like an afterthought in many mainframe shops today. Even companies that have embraced next-generation workloads (such as z/Linux or z/WebSphere) often give short shrift to the question of training, at least as far Big Iron vets are concerned.

This situation is by no means unique to mainframe shops, of course. Most IT pros would say the training and ongoing educational opportunities available to them today are the merest shadow of those that were common at the height of the boom.

“I can’t speak for my current job—[where] I haven’t had any training [opportunities]—but with my previous employer [where he worked until 18 months ago] training was on an as-needed only basis, and even then a lot of it was just going through the motions,” says a software engineer with IBM Global Services. He cites the example of a third-party Oracle 10g training seminar he once attended. His employer paid for him and several of his coworkers to attend—but only for three days. “It was obvious that most of [my coworkers] didn’t want to be there, and he [the instructor] covered the material at such a fast pace that it was almost impossible for anything to sink it. [The training] just seemed to be a formality, at most.”

That’s not unusual. It’s especially true, Big Iron vets told us, because the mainframe is viewed as the Old Faithful of enterprise computing. Despite talk of new mainframe workloads, much of the work in Big Iron systems operation still takes the form of maintenance activities, such as operating-system or application upgrades or new feature requests. There’s little opportunity for training or continuing education there.

This situation rankles some mainframe hands. It wouldn’t sting so much, says Ted Tiefeld, a principal with Big Iron consultancy Tiefeld & Associates, if IBM and some of its partners weren’t also trumpeting their own mainframe training initiatives—i.e., programs such as zNextGen, which are designed to help recruit and groom the next generation of mainframe professionals. zNextGen is wonderful, as far as it goes, Tiefeld acknowledges, but doesn’t IBM also have a responsibility to the Big Iron technologists who helped skipper the platform through its darkest days?

“This training of the next generation of mainframe professionals is coming at the expense of seasoned professionals in their 40s and older who are unemployed yet eminently employable,” he argues. “The problem is that no one wants to pay honest wages for experienced workers, and prefers to exploit young trainees. There are plenty of mainframe workers out there who are perfectly capable of doing what is needed today in business—they have just generally been ignored due to age, and [they] have become disillusioned with the ways American business and IT have descended into ignorance, foolishness, and inefficiency.”

Other mainframers, such as Mark Post, deputy project manager for the SHARE Linux project, say the responsibility doesn’t rest entirely (or even mostly) with IBM. Employers need to shoulder the heaviest share of the burden.

“Unless mainframe users are willing to spend the money to train new people, it isn't going to happen. I can't tell you how many people I've seen in Linux/390 sessions that have been told they're going to support mainframe Linux and z/VM, but their employers weren't going to pay for any training outside of sending them to SHARE or zSeries Expo. It's really, really sad,” he comments.

There’s a reason for that, Post argues: Companies are obsessed with “squeezing the remaining life out of their IT employees”—so much so that they refuse to spend money on “real” training.

“When VM was first brought into my installation back in the 1980's, I was sent to several VM classes because it would have been unthinkable to do otherwise. Now, hardly anyone thinks twice about telling their employees to just figure things out for themselves, and don't dare miss any deadlines in the process,” he says.

Terry Sambrook, a director with UK mainframe and IBM eServer training specialist KMS-IT Ltd., says this isn’t surprising. “One factor which has remained constant in the UK is that when money is tight, the training budget is curtailed. I was a manager with a telecommunication company running [more than 100] systems and know that despite a 10 percent year [over] year, across-the-board target reduction, if the budget was in trouble, training might be arbitrarily withdrawn,” he points out. “From a management perspective training should be focused on the business need, whereas from a personal perspective training may be focused on the next sexy trend. Both statements [are evidence of] a perception that the company is reluctant to foot the bill.”

Another problem, Sambrook points out, is that mainframe training—even for next-generation workloads such as z/Linux or z/WebSphere—isn’t exactly an off-the-shelf commodity. “The high cost of training is a subjective term, as it is unclear what a company might be comparing the price with. [Shopping for training] is not quite like buying electrical goods in the mall, where there is usually a wide choice. The benchmark is probably IBM Education, which sets a premium rate, with other providers being more competitive,” Sambrook explains, adding that he has managed courses in the U.S. for an American training provider.

There is at least one potential solution, SHARE’s Post points out. “This is why a lot of people are saying that IBM should offer no-cost access to mainframe systems running z/OS, just as they do with Linux/390 and the Community Development System for Linux [formerly the LCDS],” he says. “They know it just won't be available if employers have to pay for it. IBM can do a lot to generate interest in the mainframe among the next generation of IT workers, but with the general climate the way it is in business, I don't see those efforts going very far.”

The rub, Post argues, is that mainframe pros—along with other, non-mainframe traditionalists—are hungry for information. In other words: if inexpensive (or free) training were available, they’d make the most of it.

“As a Deputy Project Manager for the SHARE Linux Project, and a presenter at SHARE and IBM's zSeries Expo, I see a lot of IT professionals desperate for useful technical information because they know they're not going to get it in a week-long class they way they used to in the past,” he concludes. “I don't think that's going to fly very well with younger employees that don't have a lifelong career (and emotional) investment in the mainframe to protect.”

There’s another important consideration, too, says Andre den Haan, CIO and senior vice-president of product strategy with mainframe ISV Seagull Software Systems Inc.: IBM continues to enhance CICS, COBOL, and other mainstays of the mainframe world, so mainframe software development—even for traditional workloads—isn’t a fixed and immovable practice.

“There are still a lot of customers that are developing new apps in Assembler or in CICS COBOL. There’s still a lot of new development [for these traditional languages] going on,” he comments. “You look at the [recent] CICS 3.1 announcement from IBM; they’re building in features to make it easier to build in Web services into applications! So even though new workloads get a lot of attention, I think traditional workloads are actively being developed, too.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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