Millennialize the Mainframe: A Modern Mainframe Development Perspective
Matt Kramer, a Millennial mainframe software developer at Compuware, didn’t have a modicum of familiarity with programming before starting the computer engineering curriculum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“My first exposure to computers and programming was at a very low level,” Kramer said. “I came into programming from a bottom-up perspective, as opposed to starting out with Java or C++.”
He was intent on finding a career in hardware design, but within two years he’d found a new interest in computer science and transferred to Northern Illinois University, one of the few American universities that offers courses in mainframe software development. Kramer’s knowledge of low-level languages and the university’s access the Marist IBM mainframe made forging a career in mainframes an easy sell.
“I already had experiences with very low-level computer technology, and then while at NIU I was actually able to take mainframe courses,” he said. “That really lined up both of my interests, on the low-level side and being able to do computer programming.”
At an NIU career fair, Kramer met David Rizzo, Director of Development at Compuware. As Rizzo described Compuware’s modern mainframe development tools, Kramer was captivated.
“David made Compuware seem very cool,” Kramer said. “He was describing some of the products Compuware has like Abend-AID, and I was like, ‘Wow, I wish I had that for my classes.’”
After graduating in December of 2013, Kramer moved to Detroit to join the ranks of mainframe software developers at Compuware, beginning a role in Shared Services, which provides common operation between Compuware products and manages source language support. Additionally, he began accompanying Rizzo to other career fairs.
“When we show [students] the cool things Compuware is doing with modern mainframe development, making the mainframe more accessible, all of the different innovative stuff we’ve done, that definitely seems to catch people’s interest,” Kramer said.
Attending career fairs gives Kramer an opportunity to spread the word about Compuware’s products that are “mainstreaming the mainframe,” an idea the company has been promulgating lately: the mainframe must be brought to Agile and DevOps processes and given operational tools that enable the technology to keep pace with the digital economy.
Mainstreaming the Mainframe Empowers Millennial Developers
Compuware is doing well to hire and empower Millennials like Kramer who view working with the mainframe as a challenge with the reward of opportunity. However, it’s often hard to convince Millennials otherwise when they perceive working on mainframe technology as a career dead end. They fear they won’t get a chance to shine in the slow, legacy software development processes that have besmirched the name of the mainframe for young developers.
“A lot of times the expectation is, if you’re going to get involved in mainframe, companies aren’t going to want someone new doing development,” Kramer said. “You’re just going to have to do maintenance, then maybe 10 years down the line you’ll have earned the right to develop.”
But Kramer says the opposite has been true at Compuware.
“Since I’ve been here I’ve definitely been involved in a variety of development and maintenance,” he said.
Working with some of the best mainframe software available has given Kramer plenty of opportunities to be creative, solve problems and use skills he’s worked hard to develop, aspects Millennial developers strongly factor into choosing a desirable workplace, yet simultaneously misconstrue to be exclusive to the distributed industry, which relies heavily on mainframe modernization. But Kramer said his ideas are regularly taken into account and considered, despite his age and despite whether they end up being pursued further.
“When someone comes up with a great idea it can be evaluated right away,” he said. “Ideas receive feedback instead of being sent off to a graveyard.”
At Compuware you just have to ask someone for help and they’re more than willing to point you in the right direction, according to Kramer. He said you can always find experts to meet with if you’re struggling to solve a problem or want feedback on an idea.
“A lot of people have been doing mainframe work for 30—40 years,” he said. “Now new people are coming in and showing interest, so they’re more than willing to share experiences they’ve had and things they’ve learned.”
Breaking Down Barriers to Entry for Modern Mainframe Development
Despite exciting career opportunities for Millennials, Kramer said there still exists a barrier to entry for modern mainframe development.
“Anyone can learn how to do basic Java programming and make their mobile app idea work,” he said. “There’s no way for a person to learn mainframing unless they have access to a mainframe.”
But that’s where Compuware changes the game. The company is providing developers with modernized mainframe application development tools like Topaz Workbench, an Eclipse-based IDE that gives access to the essentials of mainframe software development via Java, allowing developers from various backgrounds to work on one interface. With tools like Topaz Workbench, Compuware is tearing down the barrier between open systems and mainframe systems, helping development and operations thrive together.
“I think Compuware has the right idea, to provide the tools to customers so they can move the mainframe in with DevOps, doing away with Bimodal IT,” Kramer said. “Distributed and mainframe working together. I think that’s the right idea as far as sustaining the mainframe.”
Kramer saw modern mainframe development as an opportunity, and Compuware bolstered that belief. Two years after joining the company, he’s the scrum master for Shared Services and for ISPW, Compuware’s most recent acquisition. His journey contrasts the narrative of industry pundits who have wrongly predicted distributed technology’s coup-de-grace to the mainframe. That’s because Compuware is making modern mainframe development fit Millennials, not the other way around.
Bringing Modern Mainframe Development Into Agile and DevOps
While many assume the mainframe is condemned to slow, archaic Waterfall processes that leave little room for rapid progress, Compuware is succeeding in mainstreaming the mainframe by bringing it to Agile and DevOps.
Compuware’s Agile culture helps Millennials leverage their skills for the mainframe by providing access to modernized application development tools. Additionally, the company houses a proficient mainframe veteran workforce that welcomes the shift to Agile and is generously passing on expert mainframe software knowledge to their younger colleagues.
Overall, Compuware is providing Millennial developers like Kramer with the opportunities, tools and knowledge they need to feel enthusiastic about the mainframe’s vital role in the digital economy.
Photo by Liv Martin and Chad Morgan