Mainframe Skills in the Heartland

Provided by: Greg DeBo

If you have journeyed out for a Conference lately or joined virtually, you have likely seen that there were several sessions addressing the same mainframe skills gap, and how companies can get a leg up on attracting and retaining talent.  I still see many comments on LinkedIn, which I often challenge, typically from consulting companies telling mainframe companies that they should move to the cloud to avoid the mainframe skills apocalypse.  Is it true, or just a scare tactic to generate revenue for the consulting company?  I have no doubt that in some geographies it is probably a problem, but I’m here to say it is getting better, and for companies that are willing to allow remote work, it will continue to improve.

TeamSWAMI’s founder, Krupal Swami, believes strongly in building awareness of mainframe technology at the university level. Since our mission is to help companies look at their mainframe strategy and opportunities to modernize their mainframe environments, she believes it is essential to bring along the next generation of technologists.    

What options are available?

We are lucky that alternatives exist today that didn’t just a few years back.  As always, companies have the alternative of reskilling existing employees that want a new challenge, and there are training services available that can help.  Some of the companies that can provide deep mainframe knowledge include Interskill, ProTech, and Knowledge Transfer, but there are certainly others as well.  For companies that are open-minded and willing to give people a chance at a second career even though they may not have a degree in Computer Science, the IBM zSystems Apprenticeship Program, Broadcom Mainframe Vitality Program, and more recently I read about the Ensono Mainframe Academy, have all been successful in re-skilling people for a mainframe career.  

I want to focus on universities, however, because that’s where I see progress needing to be made, and whether you like it or not, many companies still require a Bachelor’s degree. I’m happy to report that we’re seeing such progress in Illinois, and I want to make sure that companies that are struggling to find skills are aware of the three programs available in Illinois, including an exciting new one that is just getting off the ground.  Of course, there are also many other Universities still teaching the mainframe around the world. I’m sure many of you are aware of what Dr. Cameron Seay is accomplishing at East Carolina University, the University of North Texas also has a top-notch program, and Marist College of course where IBM hosts the mainframe that other Universities use.  I’m going to focus on the ones that we frequently interact with at TeamSWAMI in Illinois, all of which utilize the IBM Z Xplore platform.  

Northern Illinois University is in Dekalb, Illinois, just an hour from O’Hare Airport in Chicago.  They have a long-standing mainframe program that was called “Legendary” due to the longevity and depth of their curriculum. The program is led by Instructor Geoffrey Decker, an IBM Champion that has been teaching mainframe at NIU for 20+ years.  Some of the key facts about their program include:

Out of more than 4,900 competitors in the United States and Canada, an NIU graduate student won the 2014 Master the Mainframe Contest.

Out of 5,601 competitors in the U.S. and Canada, an NIU graduate student came in fifth in the 2013 Master the Mainframe contest; two other students, one an undergraduate, received honorable mentions.

NIU has produced 500 COBOL and mainframe-ready graduates in just the past 8 ½ years!

Every undergraduate student in NIU’s Computer Science degree program is currently required to complete CSCI 360 –Assembly Language Programming (IBM 370 Assembly Language).

When I asked Mr. Decker about why so many companies recruit there, he stated:

Each year at NIU, 40 to 60 students enroll in and successfully complete the upper-level mainframe course in which they learn basic JCL, how to write JCL for the COBOL Compiler, High-Level Assembler, Binder and several IBM Utilities, learn to program in COBOL from the very basics through variable-length tables and calling external COBOL and Assembler programs, Assembler QSAM programming, external subprogramming and linkage and COBOL Db2 SQL.

Illinois State University is in Normal, Illinois, right in the middle of the state at the junction of three interstates which makes it easy to get here from anywhere in the Midwest.  ISU also has a long-standing program that has been partially driven by partnerships with industry companies, including a very large local insurance company that I happened to work with for 34 years.  I was able to see the partnership first-hand as myself and fellow co-workers went and talked with their classes to share our real-world experiences.  Some key facts regarding the ISU Mainframe program include:

Historically the School of IT provided in-service COBOL and JCL training to industry partners

The School of IT established an enterprise computing track within our BS Information Systems degree to accommodate the needs of our industry partners.

One of eight academic institutions to partner with Marist College in founding the ECC in 2008 and remains active in the annual ECC Conference.

We have partnered with IBM to host several events on the Illinois State campus promoting opportunities in mainframe computing.

We incorporate IBM Academic Initiative learning resources into the classroom

ISU students majoring in the Information Systems—Systems Development/Analyst program take a 2-semester sequence of COBOL programming and External Data Structures (JCL).

Now to the even more exciting news, Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, will be joining the pair above in becoming the third University in Illinois offering Mainframe skills this fall.  In a previous blog that I wrote, I talked about how industry involvement is key to making this happen.  That’s exactly the case with EIU.  Levi, Ray & Shoup, a multinational corporation headquartered in Springfield, Illinois, and a mainframe software provider with its widely used VTAM Printer Support (VPS) product has had the same challenges finding mainframe skills.  As a result, they were willing to invest in the EIU program by becoming a named sponsor.  As students get the training, they will also be exposed to LRS as a company, and LRS will get additional access to the students and influence the curriculum.  As one of the critical skills they need is Assembler, which will be a key part of the Mainframe Languages course, which should please many of the other companies struggling to find Assembler skills.  

In talking with Greg Matthews, COO, Levi, Ray & Shoup, Inc., I wanted to better understand their willingness to make an investment like this, and he explained:

The LRS Foundation is proud to give this donation to Eastern Illinois University for the creation of a mainframe programming curriculum. We know it’s vital to invest in the next generation of mainframe developers because, despite what we’ve been told for nearly 30 years, mainframe computing is not going away anytime soon.

 As a company that develops mainframe software, LRS has a vested interest in making sure that students have access to courses offering mainframe programming instruction. Ensuring that those students have the opportunity to learn those skills is important to LRS’s continued growth, to our customer’s growth, and to the vast number of companies that continue to rely on mainframe technology.

 We’re very eager to see the first students graduate from this program. We’re excited for the future they have ahead of them.

We need more C-Suite Leaders with that vision.  Of course, it takes interest on both sides, and as Austin Cheney, Dean of EIU Lumpkin College of Business and Technology, states:

Lumpkin College of Business and Technology is excited to be offering important mainframe concepts for both undergraduate and graduate students in several technology-related disciplines.  But equally important, if not more so, is the strong industry involvement in the coursework.  Contributions from Levi, Ray & Shoup bring instant credibility to the offerings, ensure the content is cutting-edge, and connect our students with real-world practitioners.  Thanks to TeamSWAMI for supporting our program and helping us build these connections with such a fantastic partner!

The next challenge that I’ve heard from current mainframe instructors is that other instructors don’t want to teach mainframe because it isn’t viewed as strategic and “sexy”.  EIU was fortunate to have a current instructor, Paul Brown, already teaching IT courses step forward and volunteer.  As Paul states:

We recognize the industry need for mainframe skills and a nationwide deficiency in University offerings to meet those needs. EIU aims to dispel student misconceptions about the mainframe, provide awareness of its widespread importance and use, and prepare students to be successful in mainframe-related roles.  EIU is excited to partner with experienced industry leaders at LRS to provide students with real-world applicable knowledge, application, and networking opportunities.

This partnership between LRS and EIU is unique as far as I’m aware, and I would love to see it be the standard. I’m pretty confident that at least the other two Universities in Illinois that I mentioned above would be open to listening to similar sponsorship ideas.  I can guarantee that if students come in and see your company name every day and see that you are willing to invest in their education to learn the mainframe ecosystem, that will raise your profile to them and increase your chances of recruiting them.  They could even do internships/co-ops during the school year that way, which in my mind is the absolute best way for students and companies to learn about each other before full-time employment.  If you are really serious about struggling to find mainframe skills, just think about what an investment like this could mean to your company.

If you’d like to participate in or discuss the events we are holding at universities to promote zSystems, don’t hesitate to reach out.  We have another Illinois university that is also considering restarting its mainframe program, and I would love to help find an industry partner for them to work with to kickstart its program.

Illinois, Land of Lincoln, corn, and mainframe skills!

Greg DeBo is a Principal Consultant and IBM Gold Consultant at TeamSWAMI, having previously spent 34 years at a large Insurance Company with a focus on Mainframe Data.  TeamSWAMI focuses on helping small and midsize clients understand the possibilities that the modern mainframe provides, as well as engaging universities to address the mainframe skills pipeline.

I am a member of the mainframe community. I am excited to join in on the conversation.