Dear IT graduate, just one word -- mainframes

Mainframes are once again gaining traction in some quarters, but finding young mainframe talent can be difficult

Imagine today's computer science students experiencing the kind of cocktail party thrown for Benjamin Braddock by his parents in the 1967 movie "The Graduate." As the students wonder about what the future may hold, various older figures sidle up with one-word suggestions about possible careers. "Java," "Linux" and "Internet" you'd expect to hear whispered, but "mainframes?" Not so much.

"The mainframe has had one of the worst PR campaigns of the last 15 years," said mainframe analyst Mike Kahn, managing director of research firm The Clipper Group Inc., based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "In the mid-'90s, the mainframe was declared dead by the industry and that wasn't so far from the truth."

The mainframe's value proposition was completely out of sync with what was going on in the mid-'90s as companies embraced PCs and decentralized their business operations, Kahn points out. Today, however, many organizations are looking once more at recentralizing their IT functions, so the mainframe is swinging back into favor in some quarters.

Opportunities in big iron in the western world are also on the rise as companies look to replace the staff who've been tending the computer behemoths and are now heading for retirement. At the same time, firms in China and parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere have recently purchased or are looking to invest in mainframes as they beef up their computing power.

Through work with educational institutions and corporations and under the banner of its Academic Initiative, IBM Corp. has committed to having 20,000 mainframe-trained professionals in the global market by 2010. Big Blue hopes to double the number of universities and colleges around the world signing up for its zSeries mainframe courses from last month's 150 to 300 by the end of this year. Of course, it's no altruistic gesture. If you factor in sales of associated software and storage, analysts estimate that IBM's mainframe business generates around 25 percent of the company's revenue.

"It's not an issue hiring people with mainframe skillsets, but we are having difficulty in finding young people [with those skills], said Murray McBain, vice president of technology at the Royal Bank of Canada, an industry sponsor of the IBM mainframe program. He has been working with the faculty at Mohawk College, one of the Canadian educational institutions offering the IBM course in big iron.

When addressing computer science students at Mohawk, the first thing McBain did was to bring them up to date on mainframes and their role in today's computing world. "When we talked about Java, SOA (service-oriented architecture), and multiple operating systems, you could see it clicking," he said. "They weren't falling asleep on us, we were using terms they understood."

When he visited Mohawk, McBain took three of his senior managers with him, each with between 15 and 25 years of experience working with mainframes so that the students could appreciate that "real people are still working on mainframes," he said. Next up will be taking the experience he's had at Mohawk and replicating it with other Canadian schools, he said. McBain believes IBM's message about why students might consider studying mainframes becomes much more powerful when the vendor visits universities together with one or more of its customers who use the zSeries machines.

"We just want to make sure that people are aware of the opportunities, how big and wide they are," McBain said. "Ninety five percent of the Fortune 1,000 are still running a good portion of their businesses on mainframes and probably 75 to 80 percent of the Royal Bank's business is running on mainframes."

Not having sufficient mainframe experts is only part of a larger issue, according to analyst Kahn. "There are an awful lot of people graduating with degrees in computer science who really aren't learning anything about enterprise computing," he said. "They don't understand large systems thinking."

Today's computer science graduates have grown up in a PC world as have many of their teachers. "Classes and projects tend to be measured in days and weeks, not weeks and months," Kahn said. "They really don't work on any big projects."

When looking at the success of IBM's mainframe program, "You have to ask where is it sticking to the wall?" Kahn said. He believes the sticky places are community colleges and night schools, which are more focused on turning out employable students rather than some of the more elite academic institutions that may more rigidly adhere to the requirements of the ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). "The more journeyman colleges are more focused on large systems thinking," he noted. Additionally, some universities reserve mainframes as a subject for study with graduates with at least a master's degree with computer science, according to Kahn.

It can be easier working with smaller schools and community colleges, notes Mike Bliss, program manager for IBM's Academic Initiative and Big Blue's director of eServer zSeries technical support and marketing. "They can get a class [up and running] quicker," he said. "They have less bureaucracy and are less specialized."

As part of his research, Kahn interviewed many computer science students. "They were all talking about job security and getting a good job and not being laid off in three months," he said. "There is a lot of security in large systems. Mainframes is a place where you're needed." Students' initial take when they heard the word "mainframe" was first to wonder if such computers were still around anymore and second to question their relevance to today's mainstream computing, according to Kahn. After being exposed to big iron and large systems thinking, some students' reaction was to note a significant disconnect from what they'd been taught in school and what they were discovering in the real world, he added.

Trying to encourage more students to learn about mainframes is all well and good, but there's a much more serious problem in U.S. and Canadian universities. The number of students signing up to study computer science is plummeting with Kahn estimating that the rate has fallen by 40 percent over the last three years. He even came across an elite institution he declined to name that has resorted to lowering the GPA (grade point average) requirements for its computer science course as a way to raise enrollment numbers. "The dot-com bust is responsible for a lot of it and students reading about outsourcing in the papers every day," said Kahn. "And, oh, by the way, it's [computer science is] really hard. Students are looking for what's fun and not hard."

Lying at the root of the problem is that many students abandon math or science way before they get to college, back in the ninth or 10th grade, according to Kahn.

Like Kahn, McBain at the Royal Bank of Canada is also concerned about the general drop-off in students enrolled to study computer science. When he asked professors at Mohawk what students were studying instead of IT, the answer tended to be biomedicine and forensics.

"It's a bit of the CSI syndrome," McBain quipped, referring to the popular TV series set in Las Vegas, Miami and New York that focuses on the work of three fictional crime scene investigation teams. "We need to create the same syndrome for IT," he added, so that students have more dynamic associations with careers in computer science. Thinking aloud, McBain wondered if companies coming together to form an industry consortium might help encourage students to study IT. Such a body could visit high schools and universities and lay out the potential job opportunities in IT.

Universities in the mainframe program are asking IBM how the school can define terms relating to mainframe computing to aid students' job searching, according to Susan LeVangia, curriculum manager for the company's Academic Initiative zSeries program and senior software engineer.

Every relationship IBM has with an educational institution is different. Some take all the IBM teaching materials, some take part and others use the tools from Big Blue as a basis for building their own mainframe course curriculum, according to the company's Bliss. The IBM teaching materials mostly consist of PowerPoint modules with 20 to 30 slides in each module and include speaker notes and lab exercises, LeVangia said.

IBM has established mainframe hubs that universities can log into for mainframe access if they don't have their own big iron. The U.S. hub is at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and can be accessed by any university around the world. Thirty to 40 universities are utilizing the U.S. hub at any one time, according to Bliss. IBM has other mainframe hubs in Brazil, China, Eastern Europe and India, and is looking at adding more hubs in Europe, he said.

Sidebar: Mainframes, computer science thriving in Poland

Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, has its own mainframe. The school purchased a zSeries from IBM running Linux to support all the e-mail accounts of its more than 55,000 students on a single server. It's the university's second mainframe -- it had a model 4381 in the early 1990s, according to Bogusalw Mroz, the school's vice rector.

Poznan is the 150th university to sign up for IBM's mainframe education program. The first semester of offering a mainframe course has gone well, Mroz said. Looking ahead, the university plans to focus in on particular subjects, with mainframe security being a likely candidate for its own course, he added.

Unlike the U.S. and Canada, Poland doesn't currently have any problem filling computer science places. Mroz reports strong competition among would-be students with 10 candidates for each place in computer science. However, he notes that figure pales in comparison with the demand to study biotechnology where the university is seeing 80 candidates for every one place.

Kris Bulaszewski, manager of systems and technology at IBM Poland, believes the work with Poznan has gone very well. He gave a lecture to students on mainframes which was very well received. He hopes to do something similar with another Polish university by the end of this year.

Government, telecoms, banks and manufacturers in Poland are all using mainframes. Students with mainframe skills are likely to receive relatively high salaries as a way to encourage them to stay in the country. "It's an investment to keep good employees," said Bulaszewski. He was one of many people with IT skills who returned to Poland after working abroad when the country transformed into a market economy and a free society.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.