5 reasons to learn mainframe programming

The work is fulfilling, the tools are state-of-the-art, and demand for mainframe-literate developers has never been greater

5 reasons to learn mainframe programming

If you’re an ambitious developer, you probably tend to follow industry buzz wherever it leads -- whether that’s Docker, Spark, or Kendo. Staying on the cutting edge increases your market value, keeps your work rewarding, and helps you avoid the potentially fatal mistake of complacency.

But if you’re really ambitious, it could be smart to go contrarian and add a decidedly un-buzzworthy technology to your resume. In fact, that technology is the very antithesis of buzz, because people have been pronouncing it dead since before you were born.

It’s the mainframe. Here are five reasons to give it a fresh look.

1. Enterprise applications are multiplatform/mainframe applications

The mainframe remains the primary repository of core business logic and data at the world’s largest enterprises. Thus, the most important applications at any large enterprise leverage those mainframe resources on the back end, even if they’re mobile/web/cloud on the front end.

There is a common misconception that mainframe applications and databases can be effectively leveraged while leaving them untouched -- and enterprises can therefore be digitally agile simply by adopting agile everywhere but the mainframe.

This is simply not factual. If you’re using mainframe applications and data on the back end, you are going to have to continually tweak that back end as part of your ongoing effort to stay digitally competitive. You may have to modify a bit of Cobol application logic. You may have to code some DB2 database calls. You may have to adjust some platform behaviors to maintain performance SLAs as you scale back-end workloads in step with rising front-end mobile/web demand.

Someone will always have to work on the mainframe, and the mainframe is not going away. An understanding of and an ability to work with all enterprise platforms -- including the mainframe -- is thus a must for any true full-stack artisan. Mainframe literacy is also essential if you have any hopes of ever playing a lead role in an enterprise’s effort to achieve and maintain competitive digital agility.

2. The emergence of agile mainframe processes and tools

There was a time when the prospect of getting up to speed on mainframe development would have been daunting. Mainframe developers worked exclusively with arcane, “green screen” tools that required extensive, hard-won expertise in both the tools themselves and the idiosyncrasies of the underlying IBM z/OS platform.

Because of these tooling and platform knowledge issues, the only way to become competent on the mainframe was to completely devote yourself to it, and that meant sacrificing any involvement at all with cloud, mobile, or any other technology that captured your interest.

No more. A new generation of mainframe devops tools now provide the same graphical look and feel you’d expect from any other tool that plugs into an Eclipse IDE. These new mainframe tools also offer built-in intelligence that insulates developers from the underlying idiosyncrasies of Cobol, PL/I, Assembler, DB2, CICS, and the like.

Some of these tools even integrate right into continuous delivery toolchains built around the likes of Atlassian, Jenkins, SonarSource, and XebiaLabs.

Rather than embarking on a years-long learning curve before you have the slightest clue what you’re doing on the mainframe, you can now quickly put your agile design, coding, and QA skills to work on the most important computing platform at any large enterprise.

3. Hands-on engagement with the best-engineered platform in human history

The mainframe platform itself is often poorly understood by those who only know of it through rumor and myth. IBM mainframes are, in fact, remarkable works of engineering. Enterprise mainframes around the world collectively execute more than 1.15 million CICS transactions every second of every day -- the equivalent of all Google searches, YouTube views, Facebook likes, and Twitter tweets combined.

Mainframes are also extremely efficient from an economic perspective. In distributed and cloud environments, additional workloads often generate extra incremental costs, including infrastructure and staff. In the cloud, these costs can translate into higher monthly bills.

The mainframe, on the other hand, can handle more workloads, often without additional infrastructure or staffing. All that’s required is a bit of provisioning and configuration of existing capacity -- because, yes, the mainframe has always virtualized allocation of platform resources.

And when was the last time you heard about a mainframe succumbing to a malware attack?

Developers challenged with use cases requiring optimal security, megascale, and screaming performance with five-nines reliability may be better off with a tried and true platform.

4. A sense of mission and higher purpose

If you’re a professional programmer, most likely you aren’t motivated by finances alone. You also demand a sense of mission and purpose in your work.

It’s hard to think of any work that’s more mission-driven than mainframe development. After all, mainframe applications and data provide the foundation for the global economy. Few jobs can compare in magnitude to enterprise mainframe development. Global banking, global insurance, and global retail all depend on it, as does air travel, nearly universally.

This is especially true as large enterprises across all markets face disruption by new, smaller competitors that are fully exploiting the adaptability offered by the combination of cloud and continuous delivery. These large enterprises have to change or die, so they are more open than ever to renovation of their core mainframe applications.

Simply put, if you want every line of code you write to have the greatest positive impact on the greatest number of people, mainframe development is the place to be.

5. The economics of supply and demand

While mission is a worthy motivator, no one should overlook the financial incentives for developers who achieve literacy in mainframe programming. An entire generation of veteran enterprise mainframe developers is currently exiting the workforce as it pushes past retirement age. At the same time, the demand for mainframe development continues to escalate due to the above-described need to support cross-platform applications with a higher frequency of updates to Cobol, DB2, Assembler, and other back-end resources running on IBM z/OS.

Large enterprises have to fill this skills gap somehow. They are not likely to do so by hiring mainframe-only developers, because mainframe development is almost always done in the context of a cross-platform application. Instead, large enterprises will meet their needs for agile mainframe devops skills both by cultivating mainframe literacy among their in-house IT staffs and by hiring contractors with strong cross-platforms skills that include functional literacy with mainframe devops tools.

The simple law of supply and demand thus makes mainframe literacy much more financially valuable than widely available and commodified skills on more popular platforms such as mobile and web.

Mainframe: The next generation

There’s one more reason developers should consider mainframe literacy. It’s not that difficult. Code, after all, is code. No one needs to be intimidated away by the mainframe. A new generation of devops tools is making it easier for a new generation of developers to visually understand mainframe code and data. These tools also help developers avoid errors and optimize application performance. Equally as important, they bring mainframe development tasks into IT’s broader cross-platform devops toolchains.

You don’t have to make an either/or choice between the mainframe and more mainstream platforms. You can quickly become mainframe literate without sacrificing the currency of your other skills in any way. In fact, it’s exactly the combination of mainframe and mainstream skills that will make you most valuable to large enterprises.

The mainframe is not going anywhere. Large enterprises simply have too much invested in their mainframe applications and data. Replatforming is generally impractical and cost-prohibitive.

The bottom line: It’s a great time to take a fresh look at the mainframe. The need for mainframe-literate developers is greater than ever, and the opportunities for mainframe development are more lucrative than ever. Best of all, working on the mainframe could be much more fun and rewarding than you may have imagined.

Christopher O’Malley is CEO of Compuware.

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