Learning COBOL

The tide is definitely turning: organizations are replacing the outdated narrative that the mainframe is ‘old’ tech with a more objective view focusing on how IBM Z can support their business over the long term, while also contributing to digital transformation. At the same time, they’re nurturing the next generation of mainframe talent to ensure there’s a solid succession strategy as experienced mainframers leave the workforce. 

After all, as the fastest, most secure, and most reliable platform around (up to an incredible 99.99999% availability), IBM Z is likely to remain the best option for managing the huge transaction workloads that drive the digital economy, especially in sectors such as banking, insurance, government and airlines.

It’s also clear that IBM is investing heavily to ensure the platform supports digital transformation.  Witness how the new z16’s Telum processor is optimized for AI, allowing it to be infused into every digital interaction while maintaining super-fast response times – and making it well suited to everything from fraud prevention to credit approvals.

Investment in the people who work with IBM Z needs to keep pace with investment in the technology. At Macro 4 we’re some years into our own mainframe succession planning. Here are five important lessons we’ve learned along the way that may be helpful to others who are on a similar journey. 

1. Remove departmental barriers

First off, my advice is to set up your IT organization so that more people get exposure to the mainframe – don’t run the platform in a silo. For us that begins with people who are early in their careers. We allow college placement students and new graduates to work on IBM Z applications as part of their initial experience. Often, they start in an area that’s connected to the mainframe, but still falls within their own comfort zone – such as working on the web interfaces for one of our testing or fault analysis solutions.

More generally, it’s important to keep the doors open, allowing people across the IT organization to get involved with the mainframe. If you’re running Assembler courses, for example, let people in other R&D teams have a go. While Assembler and COBOL are not for everyone, there will be some who really enjoy the challenge. If you never let them near the mainframe, you’ll never know who in your team has a natural affinity with it.

Embrace a hybrid approach that includes the mainframe within cross-platform and cross-departmental collaboration. After all, one of IBM’s own goals is making IBM Z integral to a hybrid cloud infrastructure, working with the cloud as well as with other on-premises platforms and emerging technologies.

2. Modernize user interfaces

The biggest challenge for newcomers is the z/OS environment, not the mainframe platform itself. It’s often a culture shock for developers who are used to newer programming languages and operating systems. For example, when programming within the native z/OS operating system, developers don’t have access to the supporting infrastructure they’re familiar with when building, testing and deploying applications, such as a web-based integrated development environment (IDE).

Indeed, over the years mainframe development has become rather like an exclusive members’ club, with special routines and terminology that are unlike anything on any other platform. But thankfully that’s changing. Mainframe software vendors, including Macro 4, are creating new web, VS Code and Eclipse interfaces that help to break down barriers by allowing new developers and operations staff to work on mainframe applications in the same IDEs and management dashboards they use when working with web, UNIX and Windows applications.

Additionally, integration is possible with other tools to assist with all areas of DevOps including build, test and deployment. Jenkins, a common build tool, is a prime example. These tools run off the mainframe, allowing you to reserve the mainframe for the business-critical applications where its efficiency is undisputed and fundamental to the 24×7 requirements of today’s world.

Another valuable change to consider is switching away from old-fashioned 3270 emulators. Being tied to a desk to access a mainframe application is alien to anyone brought up with modern technology which prides itself on delivering an effortless and intuitive user experience. You can bypass this by using web-enabled session managers and emulators that allow developers to access z/OS applications on a mobile device instead of a traditional terminal emulator, for example.

All of these aspects of modernizing interfaces will help newcomers progress faster.

3. Hide unnecessary complexity

The next step is rethinking your development and deployment processes so that people don’t need as much mainframe-specific knowledge to get started. It’s important to only expose them to the terminology and concepts that are essential for the task at hand. Forcing newcomers to learn a raft of new processes and terminology just to access and update a piece of mainframe code is definitely not making best use of their time.

We’ve found, for example, that designing a new application interface is an opportunity to simplify things by hiding any jargon that’s not strictly necessary for a newcomer to know. Do they really need to see the JCL for the job they are required to run? It could be simpler to ask them for the information that’s required, while the JCL is automatically built behind the scenes – allowing the job to be submitted at the click of a button. All the user really needs to know is that the task was completed. They don’t have to understand that a strange program called ‘IEBGENER’ was needed to achieve that!

Ideally, you should aim to get IBM Z experts and new developers working together on these types of projects to modernize the way users interact with the mainframe. It really helps with cross-fertilization of ideas: newbies can explain the struggles they’re having, while experienced mainframers can incorporate those requirements into the final solution.

4. Lean on AI and dashboards

There’s an important role for AI in guiding newcomers. For example, we have an AI-powered chatbot that users can talk to about technical issues and performance problems. Rather than just being confronted with an error code, they can ask the chatbot questions about the error and it guides them to the source of the problem.

Dashboards can also assist newcomers by presenting key metrics through a user-friendly graphical interface. Users can drill down into more detail as they need it, which is much less daunting for less experienced staff because they’re guided from the high level into the nitty-gritty and only presented with the information they really need at each stage.

5. Work with new training resources and IBM Z champions

When introducing new people to the mainframe, our common starting point for training is a jargon-busting session which tries to relate z/OS-specific terminology to terms that are already familiar to them from other platforms. For instance, we explain that a PDS (Partitioned Data Set) is similar to a directory in Windows but with slightly different rules.

z Xplore is a great next step, providing a mix of exposure to z/OS usage and UNIX within z/OS, given that UNIX will be more familiar to many.

LinkedIn Learning offers short sessions that help provide a high-level understanding of different IBM Z-related topics. And Interskill provides a useful package of longer course materials, still self-paced, which gives trainees the depth they need to tackle a specific task in a given area.

Don’t forget to use your own talent as well! Our more experienced team members relish the opportunity to provide deep-dive sessions exploring a specific activity such as manipulating data types and converting them back for display using Assembler. These could be ‘heavy-duty’ topics, so the session is recorded and our trainees replay them to really get to grips with these particular topics.

In summary: empower your people

Making the mainframe more accessible by adopting user-friendly interfaces and embracing new tools and integrations is an important step in nurturing modern mainframe talent. But it’s also important to give more people in your organization an opportunity to sample what IBM Z has to offer and encourage more cross-platform, cross-departmental collaboration. And when people start working on the mainframe, expose them to information in digestible chunks, prioritizing the parts they really need to know to get a task completed. That way they don’t feel overwhelmed and can develop their skills and confidence faster.

Michelle Harris is Senior Manager, Product Services and Development at Macro 4, a division of UNICOM Global. Michelle’s career in IT started with a degree in Computer Science and Mathematics before Computer Science became a faculty in its own right in many universities. She has spent over 30 years working in IT on multiple platforms. One of her core responsibilities is looking after the development of the company’s IBM mainframe solutions.

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