Tips for Training the Next Generation of Mainframe Professionals

Janet Sun with Rocket Software, contributed to this article.

Education is a major barrier to filling the mainframe skills gap. COBOL, CICS, IMS – the acronyms alone are enough to confuse or intimidate any young IT professional scanning ads for mainframe jobs.

But, access to quality training can quickly put new mainframe professionals on the path to a fulfilling career in the industry.

SHARE recently interviewed three current mainframe professionals and Rocket Software employees – recent college grad Lodewyk Westhuizen, four-year pro Kyle Beausoleil and 21-year pro Jennifer Nelson – to gather generational views on the challenges of mainframe talent recruitment.

All three said they believe the future of the industry can be bright, if it’s able to shake the perception that mainframe is an out-of-date technology with limited use cases.

“If the entire industry embraces the mainframe as the best tool to complete modern needs, and seek out the markets that would gain the most benefit from its body of work, once again, the mainframe could become the talk of the tech world,” Beausoleil said. “While by no means an easy task, it is absolutely an achievable one.”

Training is an important path to changing mainframe perceptions. That’s why we asked these three pros to share the educational resources that have been most helpful to them in developing their careers.

Learning from Vendors and Partners
“One might think it’s hard to start developing for the mainframe, but my experience has been the complete opposite,” said Westhuizen.

The reason why? Vendors have acknowledged education as an obstacle to recruitment, and they’re developing resources to accelerate training. For example, we wrote about CA Technologies’ Mainframe Academy, its accelerated, vendor-agonistic training program that aims to train and develop the next generation of mainframe professionals. They’re not the only vendors offering these programs.

“IBM has done a great job over the years in enabling developers of all kinds to interact with the mainframe,” he explained. “A simple import in Java had me querying a DB2 database in minutes. But, as with everything, mastery is not an overnight process and one learns something new every day.”

Vendors also often have lists of authorized partners who provide hands-on training, said Nelson.

“Authorized IBM education partners have been the best providers of education that ‘sticks’ with me years later,” she said. “I’ve looked up classes on PartnerWorld to locate authorized educators in my area who provide the course content I’m interested in.”

Getting Your Hands Dirty
Hands-on training is crucial for young IT professionals.

“Buying a book is one thing. But having a human-led course taught from materials that I can take notes in and take home with me makes a world of difference in comprehension and retention,” Nelson said. “It’s an investment in myself that not only makes me more valuable to my employer by what I can contribute, but it also helps me expand the kinds of responsibilities I can perform by expanding my knowledge into areas where I formerly had none.”

Competitions are a great way for college graduates to get practical mainframe experience. Westhuizen placed as a global finalist in the IBM Master the Mainframe challenge last year, and recommends that contest as a worthwhile experience. 

“It’s one of the very few opportunities where you are able to get hands-on experience on the mainframe,” he said.

Naturally, on-the-job training is vital, and Beausoleil said he’s picked up important lessons from his peers and colleagues.

“The best documentation I have found has been good comments in old code,” he said. “Features and specifications change over time and documents are notoriously out-of-date everywhere in tech, but comments by the person who created the functionality are invaluable.”

As daunting as the mainframe talent shortage may appear, it’s survivable if companies are able to first communicate the value of a mainframe career to prospective employees, and then take advantage of industry resources that guide those individuals through training and development.

“What we know and love today will undoubtedly change in the blink of an eye, facilitating even greater flexibility and adaptability for the demands of the world in the future,” Nelson said.

That’s why staff training can’t be a one-time investment, but an ongoing priority for the industry.

Student Career Day at SHARE Providence (August 6-11) will feature resources to help young IT pros prepare for a career in mainframe, including educational sessions, exclusive access to technology partners and the opportunity to connect with industry professionals. Register today.

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