For Job Security, Go with Z
zNextGen professionals say they’re drawn to Big Iron for the same reason as many older mainframes: staying power
What first attracts a zNextGen novice to the mainframe? To a degree, zNextGeners are drawn to Big Iron for the same reason many mainframe "old timers" still remain parked in front of their 3270 terminals: staying power. The mainframe simply endures, they say, such that Big Iron will likely always exist, in one form or another.
As a result, zNextGen novitiates such as Kristine Harper and Josh Smith say they’re attracted to the mainframe as much for its job security as for its technological and business challenges. "I’m a true believer that this technology has been around for many years and that it will continue to be around for years to come," says Harper, an associate developer with mainframe ISV Neon Enterprise Software Inc and zNextGen project manager with SHARE.
A 23-year-old assembler programmer who was all-but-raised on Big Iron—both of her parents are mainframe programmers—Harper says she loves working with a platform that’s host to as much heterogeneity—in terms of old and new workloads alike—as the mainframe. "The mainframe is improving and has been around for a long time. There’s so much talk about Linux and WebSphere [on System z], but I believe a lot of the core technologies are not going away and you’re not going to have to stop learning about those."
Josh Smith, a mainframe systems programmer with Ohio-based manufacturer The Timken Co., is also compelled by the mainframe’s redoubtable staying power. Smith—who, like Harper, isn’t strictly a zNextGen product (he graduated before IBM actually codified its zNextGen iniative)—says he feels his mainframe skills (which include assembler and COBOL) will always be in demand.
That wasn’t always the case, of course. For much of his college experience, Smith said, he had little exposure to mainframe concepts and methods. What he did know about Big Iron he had picked up by hearsay—and that was none too encouraging.
"Before I went to Malone [College, in Canton, OH,] and even the first three years I was there, my real opinion of the mainframe was that it was kind of dying out and that it wasn’t being used much any more. I don’t remember specifically talking to any of my peers about it, but from hearing things that they would say, I kind of got the same impression from them," said Smith, in an interview last year.
In this respect, IBM’s tentative zNextGen outreach efforts helped convert Smith before it was too late. "My senior year of college, I took an assembler class. I had spoken to the professor before [class] and asked him what platform he was using. This time he said he was considering using the IBM mainframe, and I said something to him to the effect [that] ‘Isn’t that really going out? Are people using mainframes anymore?’ and he said people are not only using mainframes but actually buying more of them, too."
For this reason, mainframe boosters say, zNextGen is a critical effort—even if its Big Iron evangelization doesn’t exclusively take the form of free hardware or IBM-sponsored lecture materials. Simply raising awareness of the mainframe—and of its redoubtable staying power—can help bring users like Smith into the fold.
"Today, we have these different levels of [mainframe] experience. We have those who maybe went to Marist college and got a full, really core understanding of the mainframe, as Marist offers a lot of mainframe courses," Harper says. "We have people like me who had no formal mainframe education but learned by coming to SHARE and [got] in early on and [built] up [their] knowledge. And we have these people who have some [computer science] education and now they can take these courses through zNextGen and so maybe they decide a career in the mainframe is right for them. It’s still quite varied how people come to this point."
In the future, argues SHARE treasurer Jim Michael, it’s likely to become less varied.
"I’m most curious to see what’s going to happen over the next two years. Since IBM announced the Academic Initiative program for [System] z, they have over 23,000 students who’ve been involved in zSeries education in universities, and the [number of] schools enrolled [in zNextGen] has grown, too. For the most part, these are students who probably wouldn’t have given [the mainframe] a second look, if it weren’t for zNextGen," says Michael, a veteran mainframe technologist in his own right. "Now that schools are offering more exposure to zSeries, more mainframe education, how many of these students will ultimately decide [a career in] the mainframe is right for them?"
That’s one reason why Harper, who isn’t a zNextGen graduate, says she was drawn to SHARE’s zNextGen outreach effort in the first place.
"I’m involved because I don’t want to be working by myself in 20 years," she concludes. "And that’s what’s so great about SHARE. Our members are those whom we’re not trying to convert from PC to mainframe—they’ve already made the choice, and they sort of already know how powerful the mainframe is. Once you’ve made that choice, you sort of don’t need to be convinced that the mainframe’s technology is valuable."