Mainframe sect tackles new roles, old stereotypes

The mission of zNextGen is to provide an opportunity for newcomers to network with their peers, connect with mainframe veterans, and continue their education and professional development

IBM's new mainframe is on display at this week's SHARE conference in Boston, a testament to the relevancy of the big iron in today's enterprise IT environments. Amid the excitement over IBM's mainframe makeover, however, IT pros are concerned about the availability of skilled professionals who know how to run it.

IBM's game-changing mainframe moments

In a survey released at this year's conference, SHARE's member organizations named the aging of the enterprise IT profession as one of the top five issues they're facing.

Statistics about the graying of mainframe experts and a shortage of new talent to fill their shoes are nothing new. Last year, the AFCOM Data Center Institute reported that more than 60% of IT workers with mainframe experience are now at least 50 years old. (Are you an IT geezer?)

Businesses need to have succession plans in place, certainly, but there are reasons to be optimistic, says Al Williams, president of SHARE, an independent, volunteer-run association of IBM users founded in 1955. "Many of us are approaching the age when we can retire," he says. "That sounds like a land of opportunity for young employees."

SHARE is using this year's conference to emphasize how important is it for IT to demonstrate its value to the business. At a show that's known for diving into the technical details, it's a significant message. "We have a very technical set of people who come here, and yet we're dragging them through some keynote sessions that might make their heads hurt a little bit," Williams jokes.

Like many IT professionals, mainframe specialists have had to take on broader responsibilities as budgets tightened and IT departments shrank. "While all of us [at SHARE] probably have a mainframe of some sort, we've also wound up in an enterprise data center environment, being responsible for everything else," Williams says. "Everyone knows we do mainframe, but the reality is we do mainframes and more."

That scenario dovetails with IBM's newly announced zEnterprise system.

IBM's new design allows IT teams to manage diverse server workloads -- running across IBM System z, Power7 and System x blade servers -- as a single, virtualized system from the mainframe console. The hybrid approach is intended to reduce data center sprawl and create a bridge from the mainframe to x86 and Unix server systems. Big Blue, which spent $1.5 billion over three years to develop zEnterprise, calls it the most significant mainframe design change in 20 years.

"With zEnterprise, IBM is taking workload management and extending it to other platforms. This is excellent," Williams says. "If we can take the same sort of management process that allows us to do things, based on our business needs, in the mainframe and reach out and touch the other platforms that we (like it or not) now also manage, that's a great opportunity."

The significance of IBM's zEnterprise mainframe isn't lost on today's mainframe professionals, according to Kristine Harper, a young mainframer who describes herself as "a nerd at heart" who enjoys "spending my days in the code trenches."

"This is our new iPhone announcement, this new mainframe. To all of us out there in this community, on this career path, it's great to hear about all the new and exciting features," says Harper, 27, a software developer at NEON Enterprise Software and the project leader for a young mainframers group called zNextGen.

Supported by IBM and Share, zNextGen is a volunteer group committed to recruiting and retaining young mainframe professionals. It was launched in 2005 with just 30 members and today has more than 700 members representing 200 enterprise companies and 24 countries.

The mission of zNextGen is to provide an opportunity for newcomers to network with their peers, connect with mainframe veterans, and continue their education and professional development, Harper says.

The zNextGen group plays an important role in cultivating new talent, Williams acknowledges. "This is the way we think we're going to grow the next generation of IT professionals, not just mainframers. We're all on that bandwagon."

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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