Mainframe Skills Shortage
April 13, 2016 Workforce

Millennialize the Mainframe: Ending the Skills Shortage

Premed, engineering, forest ecology—these typically aren’t the steps one takes in college to become a mainframe software developer, but somehow that’s where they led Noah Al-Armanazi.

After experimenting with various degree tracks, he took a job in network security, prompting him to major in Computer Science. But after learning some Assembler language and graduating, working in the distributed environment had lost its luster.

“The little bit of Assembler I did at the beginning of college was attractive to me because it was a different thing from all of the normal distributed stuff,” Al-Armanazi said.

His knowledge of Assembler, though limited, made the mainframe an alluring alternative to network security, so he applied for a developer position at Compuware. Ironically, Assembler became his biggest fear about working on the mainframe.

“It was one of the things that kind of scared me,” Al-Armanazi said. “It was the one big barrier for me.”

Despite Al-Armanazi’s unfamiliarity with the mainframe, Compuware recognized his determination to work on the platform, and after hiring him they accommodated his learning needs.

“That’s what blew my mind completely,” Al-Armanazi said, “the fact that they’re going to take three months at the beginning and just train you in everything you need to know.”

Millennials as Stewards of the Mainframe

Compuware is passionate about hiring and educating Millennials like Al-Armanazi to become the next stewards of the mainframe. But research shows 4 in 10 CIOs don’t have a plan for ending the mainframe skills shortage at their organization.

“From my experience the mainframe skills shortage seems like it’s a major thing,” Al-Armanazi said. “Throughout all of my college career, anytime that anyone even brought up the mainframe you were laughed out of the room almost. I had professors tell me Assembler was a dead skill.”

Al-Armanazi’s experience in college highlights persistent apathy towards the mainframe, despite its importance as the backbone of the digital economy. A difference of opinions places the platform in a unique position between innovation and indifference. Compuware is taking the innovative approach to mainstream the mainframe by including it in Agile/DevOps processes. Equipping non-mainframe developers with modernized and familiar tools is essential.

“I see the mainframe as a platform in kind of this weird transition phase,” Al-Armanazi said, “and with Compuware pushing to have Eclipse-based tools, it’s time for the younger generation to jump in, mainstream the mainframe.”

Eclipse-based tools like Compuware’s Topaz are making it easier for Al-Armanazi and other Millennials to understand esoteric mainframe knowledge from retiring colleagues.

“If I’m unsure of how a section of code works but someone points me in the right direction, I bring it up in Topaz and try and recreate what they were showing me, try to make it as familiar and easy for me to change things as possible,” Al-Armanazi said.

Mentorship by Mainframe Experts

Mentorship by mainframe experts has accelerated Al-Armanazi’s growth. His most formative experience was working alongside Compuware mainframe expert Judy Lenzotti on the team that built Compuware’s groundbreaking visualization solution, Runtime Visualizer, in a mere 84 days.

“I basically just hovered over Judy’s shoulder for 90 percent of the time,” Al-Armanazi said, “just watching her, having her talk me through what she’s doing as she’s doing it.”

The knowledge Lenzotti shared with Al-Armanazi was foundational for his understanding of the mainframe and what can be done to modernize it. Instances like this showcase how knowledge and innovation of the mainframe are shifting from one generation to the next.

“Everybody just looks out for you, tries to find something to help you build on what you already have,” Al-Armanazi said.

Critics claim new platforms should replace the mainframe and reject the urgency for Millennials to become the stewards of the mainframe through garnering knowledge from experts like Lenzotti. But Al-Armanazi and other millennials at Compuware disagree with critics.

“To replace it would take more than twice the amount of effort than to just continue working with it,” Al-Armanazi said. “It’s a challenge for sure, because of the whole generational gap, where the mainframe just stopped being taught in schools. But we’re bringing this forward so that we don’t have this mainframe skills shortage anymore.”

It’s undeniable: Compuware is on track to mainstreaming the mainframe and building up a generation of Millennial developers to curtail the mainframe skills shortage.

Photo by Liv Martin and Chad Morgan