Millennial developers
March 16, 2016 Workforce

Millennialize the Mainframe: Transferring Technical Skills

It’s becoming easier for Millennial developers to transfer their technical and programming skills to the mainframe. Just look at Justin Lewis, a Millennial software developer at Compuware who has leveraged his technical acumen to help the company mainstream the mainframe, bringing it into cross-platform DevOps processes.

“My interest in college was high performance computation,” Lewis said. “I did GPU [graphics processing unit] programming, and I did speed programs. Since then I’ve been kind of curious as to how to make my applications run faster, use fewer resources, what it takes to make a very conservative application.”

Speed programs are application development speed competitions against other developers. To give a sense of Lewis’s development agility, he came in 11th place out of over 40,000 developers across the globe in his first competition.

“That’s what got me into going into the lower level programming,” he said.

At Compuware, Lewis was able to parallelize his hobby of getting GPUs to work with his job of getting assembler applications work. His skills transferred fluidly, but having just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Computer Science from Grand Valley State University and relocated to Detroit, he experienced the common challenge of adapting to unfamiliar environments—a new job, a new city.

“It definitely put me outside of my comfort zone, it’s something that I wasn’t necessary familiar with,” he said, “but I adapted and overcame.”

The Agile Mainframe Presents Opportunities for Millennials

Lewis wasn’t the only one acclimating to a new culture. Within his first year at Compuware, the company began a major cultural shift from Waterfall to Agile. Indeed, Lewis arrived at a unique time.

“The shift in moving to Agile was definitely a positive one,” he said. “It vastly improves the ability to return feedback, and we can continuously report on our progress in that manner.”

Compuware’s effort to mainstream the mainframe with modern software development tools appealed to Lewis when he joined Compuware, and becoming Agile seemed to be a necessary step to maintain that innovation. When CEO Chris O’Malley urged employees to bring new ideas to the table, the company quickly became a bastion of modernized mainframe software development, opening opportunities across the board, even for Millennials like Lewis.

“Compuware has really put forth a lot of effort to get you into a modern development environment, and I see that as an opportunity,” Lewis said. “If there’s any feature request that we wanted to make in order to assist with modernizing the development on the mainframe then we can go ahead and make those.

“There are also opportunities to become a leader in a short amount of time because of the retiring workforce,” Lewis continued. “A couple of the guys that started with me went down the management [path] and they’re already Scrum Masters, one of whom is already managing a project for [  This guy started after me and he’s managing a group of people that we just acquired.”

Do Millennials Own Responsibility for the Mainframe?

It wasn’t always apparent to Lewis how gratifying a career in mainframe software development could be. At one time, he viewed the mainframe as “a really big computer.” While technically an accurate statement, Compuware established in him a newfound respect for the people who manage the mainframe, and he’s discovered it can be a fun platform to work with.

“Sometimes you can run into situations and you have no idea how to solve them,” Lewis said, “and then you come up with the worst idea that turns out it actually works and solves your issue, and then you just feel good the rest of the day.”

Lewis said he’s had plenty of those moments, but his philosophy of mainframe software development is founded in more than having fun. With retirement of the mainframe workforce escalating, the obligation for moving the platform forward will lie squarely on the shoulders of Millennials. For that reason, Lewis has discovered a deeper purpose for working on the mainframe: responsibility.

“We definitely have a responsibility, for both the mainframe and the products that we maintain,” Lewis said. “The onus is on us to acquire the knowledge of the retiring workforce, before they retire.”

Still, many Millennial developers prefer not to associate their technical aptitude with responsibility for the mainframe. Fears, like being manacled to COBOL and wasting an education in Java, persist.

The Mainframe Learning Curve for Millennials

While there’s a learning curve for COBOL, it’s being minimized for inexperienced mainframe software developers thanks to Compuware’s modernized toolset. COBOL will stay—its functionality is irreplaceable—but the future of COBOL applications, how they’re interacted with, will change, and Millennials have a large role to play in the modernization process.

“We’re trying to modernize it because we’re the people who are going to be stewards of the mainframe,” Lewis said. “So we’re pretty much presenting ideas that we would be comfortable working with.”

The culture Lewis speaks of may sound similar to that of a creative startup. In fact, Compuware is a 40-plus-year-old startup with a transformed culture hinged on Agile processes, whose innovative ideas manifest in products and product enhancements on a quarterly basis.

Admittedly, it’s an unconventional stance to take on the mainframe. But this stance is necessary, it’s working and Millennial developers like Lewis have found exciting ways to leverage their skills through it .

Photo by Liv Martin and Chad Morgan[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]