SHARE-ing: The Secret of Big Iron Success

With the revitalization of the mainframe and the rise of zNextGen, SHARE itself has been revitalized. (First in a series)

IBM Corp. says its zNextGen program is an ambitious effort to recruit the next generation of zSeries professionals, in many cases straight out of college. Big Blue hopes to expose computer science majors to mainframe concepts and methods while they’re still undergrads, groom them for Big Iron careers, and place them in mainframe-centric jobs once they graduate.

zNextGen grads aren’t just pushed out of the collegial nest and into the potentially confusing world of the mainframe, however. They have several safety nets underneath them, including an aging group of mainframe pros who have been plying their trades—in some cases for several decades. zNextGen pros have another, even more avuncular support resource, as well—the venerable SHARE Inc. mainframe user group.

SHARE has effectively collaborated with IBM on zNextGen since Big Blue first announced its zSeries Academic Initiative (the parent project to the zippier zNextGen push), officials say.

The goal hasn’t been so much to scratch IBM’s back—SHARE prides itself on its independence—as to help secure the mainframe’s future, foster the development of young mainframe professionals, encourage lapsed mainframers (or Big Iron apostates) to come back into the fold, and provide updated support and training services for mainframe technologists from all backgrounds.

Call it enlightened self-interest, Big-Iron style.

SHARE doesn’t pretend to be an be-all and end-all source for mainframe training, officials stress. More than anything else, the SHARE confabs and their associated educational tracks provide a means for mainframe technologists to get a high-level overview—usually condensed to an hour or so—of salient mainframe technologies or issues.

“Most of the stuff we’re doing at SHARE isn’t a matter of [sessions spanning] a couple of days. Most of our sessions are hour-long sessions,” says SHARE secretary Jim Michael, a mainframer with several decades of experience. “Some of the tracks do include [training items] that are several sessions over the course of several days. We do a really good one that the zNextGen folks find helpful, an Assembler boot camp. It’s a multipart discussion of Assembler that is spread across a couple of days. We’ve got the folks who really have a lot of strength in Assembler over the years leading it. We also have a three-part [session] on Java for beginners.”

Other multipart sessions have included tracks on storage management and object-oriented Java development for beginners, Michael says.

Ongoing Education

Ongoing education is important for mainframe pros of all backgrounds, Michael argues. He notes that SHARE helps extend the benefits of the zNextGen program—which has as its educational emphasis tried-and-true mainframe concepts and methods as well as next-gen workloads (such as zLinux or Java-on zSeries)—to mainframe veterans, too.

“[IBM is] working with us and through us to talk about how we reach the established professionals, too, and at the same time we’re providing this landing zone for folks coming into the industry,” Michael observes. “So a lot of this introduction [to next-gen workloads] is being delivered through IBM, they’re bringing their developers and other experts to SHARE to talk to the attendees about issues like Java, zLinux, or zNextGen.”

SHARE president Robert Rosen says zNextGen has had a salutary effect on SHARE’s membership—and not just in obvious ways. Back at the turn of the century, when the press was saying, ‘[the mainframe is] a dinosaur, the mainframe is dead, and so on,’ SHARE still continued on. We were consistently vital. We had a number of people coming who were still mainframe customers and so on. But now we’re starting to see new blood. As people are beginning to see that the mainframe is a viable career path again, as people are coming back into that field, they’re recognizing that SHARE gives them something they don’t get from any of the other things you can go to, the user view from the trenches.”

Michael and Rosen both stress, however, that the benefits of zNextGen aren’t just limited to the infusion of fresh—i.e., young—faces. Instead, they argue, zNextGen program is helping entice lapsed mainframers back into the Big Iron universe, and is also having a salutary effect on long-standing SHARE members.

“The networking part of SHARE is extremely important. I can go talk to the instructor [after a session] and say, ‘Where can I learn more?’” Michael points out. “And with zNextGen, we have a lot of the experienced zSeries folks in SHARE saying, ‘I want to be involved in zNextGen, how can I help?’ We have experienced mainframe folks volunteering to get involved with zNextGen to provide that knowledge transfer. So it’s a mentoring relationship, but the mentoring has nothing to do with age. I’ve mentored people who are older than I was on some topics. I’ve mentored people who are younger than I was on some topics. It’s about two different people with different perspectives and different experiences sitting down [after a day of SHARE activities], having a couple of beers, and learning from one another.”

Not Just for the Young

More to the point, Michael insists, zNextGen novitiates aren’t always pimply-faced youngsters. Quite often, they’re former mainframe pros who’ve come home after spending years wandering in the distributed wilderness—or out of technology altogether. “I am seeing fresh faces that are pimply, yes. Some of the time I can tell they’re fresh because they’re clearly younger faces. Other times I find out they’re fresh because they’re new to zSeries, even though they’re my age,” he comments.

“We have special sessions at the beginning of the week for first time attendees. We had a special one just for zNextGen folks before the [last] general [SHARE meeting] in Seattle. I get to look out into that audience and see who the people are who are first-time attendees and have decided to come to this session. I look out at that sea of faces in the room, and they’re not all young people—there are a lot of folks of a variety of ages, I’ve got some folks who are clearly in their early 40’s or 50’s.”

For such attendees, Michael says, SHARE has a lot to offer.

“What if you were working on the mainframe 15 years ago and now you’re coming back to the mainframe? Well, the mainframe has changed some in that time! The tools we’ve used to have changed, [there have been] changes in the hardware, changes in licensing stuff,” he points out. “So if I’m an apostate mainframer who’s come back, the technology stuff matters, but also the packaging, the tools, the licensing, the fact that there’s a zAAP you can get from a licensing standpoint that will allow you to run at much lower cost. They need to get up to speed on all of this stuff, and SHARE can help them do so.”

Occasionally, the first-time SHARE attendee is that strangest of animals—the IT pro who doesn’t have any mainframe experience per se, but who visits SHARE to benefit from the experiences—data center best practices, time-tested administrative concepts and methods, and so on—of what amounts to an IT aristocracy of sorts.

“We’re also seeing, although in small numbers—but we are seeing people who have absolutely nothing to do with the mainframe. They’re running their Windows shops, but they recognize they need the kind of discipline and knowledge that the mainframe shops have had all along,” says Rosen. “We have a specific project called the Distributed Data Center project, which essentially while it’s primarily focused on the Windows server environments, it adds some Linux as well. It talks [about] how [you can] you bring that industrial strength [mainframe management know-how] to those kinds of environments.”

SHARE’s doing a lot of other things, too, officials stress—such as laying the groundwork for mainframers to make the best possible business case for their bread-and-butter technology platform. We’ll take a look at this and other SHARE initiatives—including a focus on technology education for business executives—in a follow-up article next month.

About the Author

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

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