May 24, 2012 Workforce 0 Comments

So You Heard There’s a Mainframe Skills Shortage?

So let me guess, you’ve heard the following IT speak, “the mainframe is dead, EVERYWHERE! And for those very few places it’s not dead, it WILL, it MUST die a slooow painful death just as its operators become grey and too die off together with their ancient, crusty, old black box.” It’s not hard to find at least one person in some IT shop who shares this opinion.  Many shops utilize a mainframe and still there are those x86 gurus that have their oh-so-strong negative opinions about this “crusty, old, black box.”  Unfortunately, these folks are just plain wrong in almost every argument they pose against my beloved mainframe! They are not horrible people but they have been horribly misinformed by the likes of Stewart Alsop who stated in March 1991 “I predict that the last mainframe will be unplugged on March 15, 1996.”

Talk about a bold prediction! That’s one person I would avoid taking to Vegas; He wasn’t even close!! Lucky for myself and the other millions of folks around the world that depend on the mainframe for their paycheck; Mr. Alsop was wrong! However his views and opinions along with his peers’ views and opinions had a lasting effect on some IT departments. You have to think “what motivation did Alsop and his peers have in posting this nonsense?” That’s another topic for another post, but the truth of the matter is the mainframe is here and it ain’t going away anytime soon! Not only did the big black box of the 80’s and 90’s survive, it is thriving in its current state!

Regarding the oft-reported mainframe skills crunch, no one can deny that a large share of the mainframe brain power has or is getting ready to retire.  Out of the LinkedIn users listing “IBM Mainframe” as a skill, approximately half are over the age of 45.  This makes it critical for employers, experienced mainframers, and rookies to work together to ensure a smooth transfer of knowledge.  After all, Millennial Mainframers will have to find a way to manage these behemoth machines in the not-so-distant future. But how are we going to do that? For most young twentysomethings, the idea of looking at a computer screen with 2 colors, green and black, is like the idea of using a rotary telephone.

In walks Linux on System z…

Linux was developed for System Z starting in 1998. By 2000, IBM formally announced Linux as a supported operating system for the mainframe. As many of you know Linux has become one of the most widely used operating systems in enterprise IT. This being said, traditional mainframe shops were accustomed to z/OS on their two colored monitors, not this “new” open source, nerd-written OS. And I’m sure there are plenty of mainframe shops around the world who thought the effort to port Linux to the mainframe would most certainly die just as Alsop predicted the mainframe would die.  I understand their thinking and point of view however they were wrong.

Linux on the mainframe gives IT organizations a whole new perspective on the mainframe (whether they know it or not).  In the past IT shops were divided with several teams focused on distributed systems and one mainframe team.  The distributed systems were made up of Windows, Unix, and Linux operating systems.  The mainframe’s OS was z/OS.  Since Linux on the mainframe, IT organizations are starting to restructure.  In fact the mainframe now has the ability to host all four of the major operating systems with Linux and z/OS on the typical system Z system and Windows, Linux, and Unix on blades in a zBX system hardwired to the mainframe.  This shift from divided IT shops to an IT group of one has started and is gradually evolving as we move forward.  In the past, the mainframe had a unique OS, applications that ran solely on z/OS, and an extremely unique skill set to administer the system.  The addition of Linux and zBX has broken down these walls and those mainframe “haters” will soon come to realize why we all love to harness the power of our incredible mainframe computer!

With all of that being said, the mainframe staffing issue is repeatedly brought up.  Many shops are used to having a small team of mainframe developers and administrators working in the corner just like the outcasts eating lunch together in high school.  The mainframe was old, boring, and focused on batch processing…until now. With new Millennial Mainframers being trained in schools around the world the mainframe’s reputation is slowly changing.   Through the IBM Academic Initiative and the Master the Mainframe Contest, students are learning that z/OS is not weak or outdated, but rather the most reliable, accessible, and scalable operating system in the world.  On Facebook, the IBM Master the Mainframe Contest page currently has 1,603 likes, which is high considering that the official System z page has 2,503 likes.  Additionally, the growing use of Linux on System z offers Millennial Mainframers a beachhead of familiarity in an otherwise otherworldly computing environment.  This allows Millennial Mainframers to immediately benefit their employers by assuming responsibility for Linux on z workloads while teaming with experienced mainframers to acquire traditional z/OS skills, suggesting that if you know Linux you are well on your way to learning the mainframe!  We are shifting the paradigm, and the mainframe is finally considered cool and sexy again.  The workloads System z can handle are almost limitless as IBM works aggressively to ensure that there are only subtle differences between the mainframe and distributed systems.  The biggest difference will be the sheer horsepower, utilization numbers, and RAS characteristics compared to x86 systems especially.

It is clear that Linux has had and will continue to have a lasting effect on the mainframe market, as the walls surrounding the mainframe are slowly being brought down. I have a strong feeling that Millennial Mainframers will have no problem taking over right where our esteemed predecessors left off. The mainframe may have largely skipped a generation of folks during the 90s, but that generation’s kids are picking up where there grandparents left off.

For a fresh and modern look at all things Mainframe, Check out