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Grey Hairs And Red Herrings: IBM mainframe skills resurgence is a triumph of Developer Relations

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A couple of weeks ago I went to New York City as a guest of IBM’s mainframe group for an analyst summit. You may think mainframes are long gone by now but if you use a bank, or book a flight, or use the Post Office, you’re using a mainframe. These systems continue to be the basis for a huge percentage of transactions worldwide. System z isn’t just about legacy though- 20% of new sales are to run Linux workloads.

I am interested in mainframes – they have quite literally defined my career. I have written before about the effective framing job IBM was doing in terms of mainframe skills resurgence – mainframe = youth. But I was still taken aback by the level of aggressive self-confidence from IBM leaders at the event about the mainframe skills issue. The mainframe has suffered a lot over recent years over fears about the greying of the workforce- the human resources equivalent of the year 2000 problem. Basically the mainframe workforce was getting older, and more expensive, which was a hobble on new mainframe skills. After all, why would you invest in new workloads on mainframes when all the kids out of college were used to Windows or Linux, Oracle, and all the other fruits of the client/server revolution? This frame is a hard one to counter – especially given ongoing retirements in the sector (some people made enough in year 2000 remediation to retire comfortably.)

But according to Tom Rosamilia, general manager of the z business:

“The [mainframe skills] issue is a Red Herring”

Now it would be easy to dismiss Tom’s contention out of hand – except that he didn’t make the claim from a position of weakness, but of strength. I have written before about the the IBM Academic Initiative for System z, and it is going from strength to strength. There are now 814 schools involved, and just under 33,000 students have gone through the program. They all get jobs. The economic case is really clear. You don’t learn mainframe skills to futz around. The program may be academic, but its benefits are not.

IBM had representatives from Bank of America and Fidelity Investments at the event, and it was interesting to hear them talk about how things had changed. They used to compete for aging mainframe talent – rather than hiring new graduates, but that has all changed now, given how many new students are available. It was also interesting to hear about retraining – it turns out graduates in languages (not the computer kind) make pretty good systems programmers.

IBM also had a young black guy, an alumni of the program, at the event: I was taken aback when he grinned sheepishly and decribed it as caring. Caring? An IBM mainframe education program? How about that… And diversity is one of the factors I really like about IBM’s efforts – North Carolina Central University is a strong supporter.
The latest initiative from IBM is Systemzjobs.com. They must have been reading Stephen on enterprise skills marketplaces. Educating students is just the first step. IBM then helps them get jobs in match-making fashion.
It would be interesting to try and pull together some data to find out if the median age of a mainframe systems programmer is now falling. IBM could maybe help with that. But all in all, things have definitely changed.

Finally I just want to comment on IBM’s skills revitalisation efforts in terms of developer relations. The thing about DevRel is that its easy to confuse developer interest, with a great developer program. That is, Apple, Facebook or Google hardly need a program at all – developers are going to target their shiny APIs regardless.Of course these firms run great developer conferences, and things like Google Summer of Code- which hooks into academia. I recently spoke to one of the smartphone platform vendors and they were looking to establish an academic program on the cheap – they really thought there was a way they could bootstrap an education program to target their platform without paying for it. I think the phrase is good luck with that.

IBM, on the other hand, has taken an unfashionable platform and built a successful skills program for it directly targeting a great economic opportunity- a likely career in financial services. IBM has invested heavily, and is getting a return on its investment. Younger cooler platforms could learn a lot from IBM’s mainframe developer relations efforts. Seems funny IBM would stop worry about a greying workforce issue in its centennial year…


  1. I had the opportunity to speak with the young man that went thru the program and was now working at Depository Trust…he was a bit embarrassed to say that what looked like a kind of not cool decision to his classmates looked way different now that he was gainfully employed and earning a nice salary and his classmates were looking for work. He described himself as a “black sheep” in his family – but now garnered bragging rights from his mom!

  2. James, you’ve made my day/week/month. The 360 was the new kid on the block when I was a 1460 and Univac programmer at John Hancock Life Insurance. In those days, all we Ivy League liberal arts graduates were right in the recruiting cross-hairs to become programmers, and I had a leg up because I’d started out to be a nuclear physicist, moving to English Lit when it became apparent that I didn’t have the critical spark. I’ve used that early training over and over again, and I too have a lot for which to thank the mainframe and IBM. I’ve always wondered what I might do next….

  3. Great story. Fantastic investment of IBM in helping their customers, young programmers and themselves. Very creative.

  4. […] Grey Hairs And Red Herrings: IBM mainframe skills resurgence is a triumph of Developer Relations –… RT @monkchips i think you might enjoy this alternative take on developer relations and skills shortages […]

  5. How nice it is to hear about a whole other side to the developer world. These days it seems I’m surrounded in tweets, blog posts, and talks that say the center of the universe if the much trumpeted startup. Having worked in that world, and a one like you describe in your article, I can say it sure is nice to have a bit of job security. Kudos on the article!

  6. […] To close out today’s post, I would like to point you to a friends blog.  He’s an analyst that is an excellent writer.  James does a very nice job of summing up what’s happening with System z skills in his blog post Grey Hairs And Red Herrings: IBM mainframe skills resurgence is a triumph of Developer Relations  […]

  7. Interesting article…just wondering what the reference to “a young black guy” had to do with the story? Were you making a point about diversity?

    1. conrad- absolutely. to me the paragraph is totally unambiguous, but evidently others have been confused. of COURSE i was making a point about diversity. ” diversity is one of the factors I really like about IBM’s efforts – North Carolina Central University is a strong supporter.”

      in this industry african americans are dramatically under-represented, and North Carolina is a great organisation helping to shift that.

  8. […] of long term viability and maintainability is the IBM mainframe. It’s a really amazing story. IBM invests directly in university programs today, for example, to ensure there is still a stream of new graduates with much needed sysprog skills. […]

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