When DevOps-guru Comp Sci Grads Discover the Mainframe Is Cool

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared on Enterprise Systems Media. The article below includes updates and additional information from the author.

I was recently in Sacramento attending the SHARE mainframe conference. It’s always a pleasure to see customers, colleagues and other people interested in all things mainframe. It was especially nice to see all the first-time attendees from hundreds of different companies. 

And that’s usually what I come away with—new connections with other mainframe folks, new platform knowledge and new excitement for the mainframe industry. But this time, my biggest take away was this: The next time you hear someone say people entering the workforce don’t want to work with mainframes, think again. 

A Fortuitous Meeting

I usually submit items to speak on at SHARE, and at this event I was delivering a session on the DevOps track titled, “What exactly is Agile DevOps, and how does it affect me as a Systems Programmer?” It has been my experience that many mainframe operational folks are not too familiar with what Agile Development is, let alone how they fit into the DevOps picture. 

For this talk I gave a short primer on Agile Development terms and concepts and ideas on how organizations can adapt and re-organize into a DevOps model. This is especially critical because in the digital age, big no longer beats small; fast beats slow. 

During my presentation, I was asked some very good questions from one of the attendees. It turns out that attendee was Dr. Jagan Chidella, a professor at Sacramento State University.

He very much enjoyed my session and invited me to speak to his class sometime. I said I would love to and was sure I could work something out. To my surprise, he said, “How about 4 p.m. today?” 

The arrangement was made! I met Dr. Chidella later that day on Sacramento State’s campus—which, by the way, has very beautiful rolling grounds dotted with tall Sequoia trees. He is a very energetic and optimistic professor who is always looking for the best for his students—the kind of professor you wanted to have when you were taking college classes. It turns out he was teaching a graduate-level DevOps seminar, Advanced Software Engineering Product Management. 

Talking Mainframe to DevOps Disciples

Dr. Chidella’s students were pretty much the opposite of my normal audience. They were already very familiar with Agile terminology and methodologies but had little concept of Waterfall development techniques. That is not surprising because, after all, Agile Development was what they had been taught from the beginning.  

The students had not entered the workforce yet and, therefore, did not know what it is like to work in a large development environment. Without working in a large development organization, it seems a little foreign to imagine different groups operating in silos, separately developing and operating large applications. 

Because DevOps is so logical, the students assumed it naturally would be the norm in all, if not most, organizations. It was as if I told them the iPhone is a cool device, a comment so obvious that it’s unnecessary to voice it. 

My observation is that the most basic goal of DevOps is minimizing the time to get from “idea” to “production”—tasks must be performed in parallel; testing and deployment must be automated; every team that has a stake in the process must work together and listen to each other.

The students were very interested to hear that many organizations perform activities in sequence, each group handing off to the next, and that many times group objectives are at odds with each other. For example, many operations groups are evaluated on system availability, while development groups on speed of delivery. This causes frustration as one team is “go, go, go” while the other is “no, no, no.”    

Further, I explained there is an even bigger divide between mainframe and open-systems developers, but, fortunately, the days of mainframe and open-systems developers existing apart from one another are quickly coming to an end. 

As more web and mobile activity engages the mainframe, IT organizations must transition to more integrated, cross-platform DevOps models that enable mainframe and open-systems teams to collaborate and develop side-by-side. Because the mainframe and systems of engagement are so integrated, and are becoming more so, it’s necessary for open-systems developers to understand how their code impacts the performance of front- and back-end systems. You need all systems performing at peak agility, both for customers and economic efficiency. 

They were very attentive and appreciated hearing real-world examples of migrating mainframe environments to DevOps, such as at Compuware and at some of our customers. One student said they didn’t realize so many large companies rely so heavily on mainframes, and that they’d like to learn more about the platform after coming to this understanding. 

Mainframe DevOps: Comp Sci Grads Get It

I think before I spoke with Dr. Chidella’s students, they thought the mainframe was this mythical black box: 

  • What does it do?
  • Why is it valuable?
  • What was the OS?
  • What makes it so reliable?
  • How is it different than a super computer?
  • How do you interface to it?
  • What makes it so fast? 

But these comp sci students were not at all turned off by the mainframe, as many would assume—they were very intrigued by it. They had no bigotry toward the mainframe; they wanted to understand how the biggest organizations use mainframes to solve their biggest problems. People entering the IT workforce want to work on big, important things that are interactive and make an immediate impact, as one student told me, and the mainframe is definitely that. 

It’s the most technologically advanced business computing platform, and it is extremely efficient, reliable, and secure. But an often-overlooked reason the mainframe is still in use is because it has continually evolved to meet requirements. Precisely the opposite of what people unfamiliar with the mainframe claim. 

The only thing that hasn’t evolved as well is the interface to the mainframe. It is essential for large enterprises to on-board young, driven programmers like Dr. Chidella’s students who can bring new value to the mainframe, and these students in particular were not at all interested in using “green screens” that make the mainframe feel very old. Fortunately, I explained, there are now several modern tools and IDEs to provide much better interoperability to the mainframe. 

Certainly, the students in Dr. Chidella’s class want to work on big things, bring efficiencies to large organizations, remove constraints to development and use their training in DevOps to make a difference. They see this career path as something different compared to what their developer friends are doing, and there’s something cool about that. The bottom line is that they want to work on something new and important. 

So, the next time you hear someone say people entering the workforce don’t want to work with mainframes, think again. It’s probably that they just haven’t had exposure to the platform. 

Generating Exposure for the Mainframe

Perhaps colleges and universities should think about creating some curriculum to expose students to mainframes. Perhaps businesses need to step up their recruiting efforts. Here are some suggestions to help from Compuware’s resident expert, Talent Enablement Manager and Technical Recruiter Leigh Ann Ulrey: 

  • Colleges/Universities should establish mainframe courses in both Information Systems and Computer Science/Computer Engineering programs. The mainframe industry has a plethora of different opportunities for individuals who love technology; however, some opportunities are more suited for Computer Science/Computer Engineering programs and others are more Information Systems/Business IT focused. 
  • Have relevant industry speakers in classrooms and/or student organizations. Most students just lack an awareness of mainframes, so the simple act of educating students on the real-world use of the platform can be quite eye-opening. We have attended round tables at universities coordinated by the IBM Academic Initiative that brought together many industry partners to a campus. Additionally, organizations that need to build their next-gen workforce should make efforts to go to college campuses and engage with students and faculty.
  • Plan to train. Corporate training will be essential to pass on the necessary knowledge and onboard new hires. Even if schools start to teach a few mainframe classes, that education will not be set up to train students to be experts in specific areas, but rather, to train students to learn how to think critically.
  • Invest in mentorship. Pair new hires up with both senior and junior developers is critical to onboard and retain new talent.
  • Participate in industry collaboration and public knowledge sharing. Currently, finding helpful mainframe knowledge and information online is difficult and can even be hostile. New generations of learners want to be able to research and learn the skills and information they need, as they need it. Additionally, as SMEs start to retire, their knowledge isn’t necessarily documented. One recent example is the attempt to create a mainframe StackExchange

In any case, mainframes are not going away—they are an integral part of large-business computing and will be for a long time to come, and we need new talent to step up to the challenge. From what I experienced in Dr. Chidella’s classroom, there is plenty of interest in doing just that, and there really isn’t a “generational” bias against mainframes. 

Speaking of moving forward without bias against mainframes, I love passion in this quote from Krysten Erickson, one of Compuware’s newer developers and a first-time SHARE attendee in 2017: 

“I am not about to tolerate the death of the mainframe because we as stewards bobbled the handoff while arguing about our generational differences. These conversations can be enlightening, but since we have more in common than we admit, I hope we can put our combined focus on the future and make certain that the mainframe remains in it.”

What is your mainframe organization doing to grab the attention of talented comp sci grads? At Compuware, we’re practicing the points above, and to an even greater extent than I’ve conveyed here. Becoming a more vocal advocate for the mainframe and starting down a path that would enable your team to leverage the DevOps skills and knowledge of younger programmers would be valuable steps in building your next-gen workforce. 

For some powerful advice from millennials on why they love the mainframe, why they think mainframe development is a viable career and how your mainframe team can attract others like them, watch this two-minute video.

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