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The Greying of the Mainframe Elite 701

Posted by Zonk
from the big-iron-isn't-cool-anymore dept.
bobcote writes "The Boston Globe is running a story about the maintainers of the mainframes getting older and facing retirement. One of the problems is that many computer science programs don't include mainframes in their curricula anymore. From the article: "Amid concerns that America doesn't produce enough technically trained young people, mainframe computer users and developers are especially concerned. Most computer science students concentrate on small-computer technology, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems, or the popular alternatives Unix and Linux. Few have been trained on zOS, the operating system that runs IBM Corp.'s massive mainframes."
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The Greying of the Mainframe Elite

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  • by It doesn't come easy (695416) * on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:20AM (#13407921) Journal
    Here's a link for those of you who would rather not register just to read the second half of the article...

    Who'll mind the mainframes? [boston.com]
    • by Pentavirate (867026) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:42AM (#13408168) Homepage Journal
      I thought the purpose of college was as much to teach you how to learn effectively as to teach you specific skills. I see no reason why CS students coming out of college can't learn the zOS on the job from the people that are currently maintaining it. There's nothing wrong with a little on-the-job training. I don't know about most people, but most of the programming languages I've learned have been because of a specific job requirement and not from learning it at school.
      • by (A)*(B)!0_- (888552) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:45AM (#13408211)
        You raise an excellent point. The purpose of higher education has gotten perverted over the years. A college or university is not meant to teach you how to do a specific task but rather to give you the intellectual capability to learn new tasks. Computer Science isn't about a specific technology [or at least it shouldn't be], it's about the mathematical and scientific background to be able to adapt to new technologies.

        I blame ITT Tech.

        • by SatanicPuppy (611928) <Satanicpuppy AT gmail DOT com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:54AM (#13408311) Journal
          Shrug. Where I went to school we only had practical applications in lab assignments. The only class I had that dealt specifically with programming languages was "Principles of Programming Languages" and likewise the only class I had that dealt specifically with operating systems was "OS Design".

          Even so we were expected to be Unix savvy, and even though it was never taught in any class, if you graduated with a CS degree, you probably WERE Unix savvy, and even better, you'd learned how to pick up a technical skillset in response to related work pressures, something I have used over and over in my life.

          Schools like ITT are really meant to turn out MCSEs and the like. But a degree from a decent 4 year program should still prepare you to move out into the tech world.
          • by Achoi77 (669484) on Friday August 26, 2005 @02:04PM (#13409539)
            a degree from a decent 4 year program should still prepare you to move out into the tech world.

            I agree with you. Unfortunately in the tech world, especially with the fast turnaround employment rate, HR does not want to spend money on training anybody for obscure things, even if one is fully capable of learning the ropes in a matter of weeks and already has a general understanding of it. What companies generally want is people that can do things Right Now The First Time. It really sucks for recent grads. And it's really great for veteran in the field.

            Basically what you are left with is 10% of all tech people that are Googleworthy(companies go after them), 30% of all tech people that are trying to get in the field (this includes people that are genuinely interested and people that are in it for the money, although the latter group is shinking very quickly) and 60% that are absolutely mediocre that just happened to be very very lucky and advanced high enough in the corporate world before the bubble burst where they are considered invaluable resources and have no trouble looking for a job. The problem for the 30% trying to get in, is that the 60% mediocre group has set the standard for the industry's performance/level of expected intelligence, and unfortunately, has been set so low that your biggest asset in the hiring phase is proof you've "been there, done that," not your "potential to do it all."

            • by Richard Steiner (1585) * <rsteiner@visi.com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @03:26PM (#13410218) Homepage Journal
              Based on my recent 32-month unemployment stint after 15 years of designing/supporting a variety of airline applications, it seems that one's experience isn't seen as valuable unless it's also experience with the same set of specific tools and business areas that a given company is working with.

              General industry experience isn't valuable enough to obtain even an introductory interview, and one mainframe platform doesn't translate to another in an employers eyes even if the languages and core concepts are fairly similar.

              There were a few exceptions, but not very many.
        • by WarPresident (754535) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:59AM (#13408377) Homepage Journal
          Higher education is doing just fine, it's the hiring managers and HR drones that don't want intelligent people capable of learning. They just want people with training in the exact position they're filling now. When these people are asked to do more, that's when you find out whether you've hired the type of person who can adapt and learn, or the kind that needs pictures printed on the buttons of their cash register.
          • by aiabx (36440) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:11PM (#13408502)
            Exactly right. You don't need someone who knows zOS, you need someone who can learn zOS. And someone with good marks from a reputable program is presumably someone who can learn.
            (Is there anywhere else in the world that comment would be a troll?)
                    -aiabx
            • by poot_rootbeer (188613) on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:44PM (#13409334)
              You don't need someone who knows zOS, you need someone who can learn zOS.

              You also need someone who WANTS to learn zOS, and possibly end up working with it and it alone for the rest of their career.

              Choosing to specialize in mainframe technology means your employment options are going to be limited to those companies which have mainframes. Specialize in something more widespread, like Unix administration or web development, and you can work for practically anyone.

              All the mainframe experts I know right now are barely past 40, and worried that their jobs will disappear before they hit retirement. I can't say I'd blame a recent university graduate for not following in their footsteps.
            • by crovira (10242) on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:55PM (#13409440) Homepage
              the ability for companies to teach got decimated by the endless rounds of cost cutting.

              HR people are supposed to be part of the solution, increasing the talets of the pool with 'on the job' training, but they are part of the problem because they are driving the need to increasingly specific 'skill sets' for entry positions.

              Entry no longer means, 'getting in, figuring out which way is up, and fitting in making yourself helpful.'

              Entry is now a list of requirements being administered by somebody who doesn't know, or want to know, what a job 'might' entail.

              They went through the same cost cutting (some might say 'throat-slitting',) as the rest of the organizatin and the HR positions are now staffed by the survivors, the once eigteen-year-olds who managed to hang on because they didn't cost enough to get rid of.

              'Knowing' is now everything and 'being able to figure it out' is now worth nothing because it can't be 'measured scientifically' by people who administer the tests.

              I am now an old techie and I am just now getting a bachelor's degree in a non-techie field because I couldn't ever get another job doing what I'm doing right now.

              I was into object-orientation and Smalltalk since 1985 (Methods) and I am closing my career in 2005 with VSE (after having worked with /V 286, /V Win, /V PM, /V Mac & VisualWorks and VisualAge) all without ever getting an appraisal from one of these HR 'survivors' because they wouldn't know an object if they tripped over one.

              I am also aware of the limitations of objects (without relationships, they aren't enough) but I don't care enough anymore to 'fight' the good fight.

              The machines that I've worked on (Wang 2200, IBM 360s, DEC PDP/11s, IBM 370s, Z80, x86s, PowerPCs), the languages I've used (BASICs, Cs, Pascals, ProLOg, Lisps, APL, PL/I, Smalltalk's, PHP), the operating systems I've used (Wang BOSS, RSTS/E, OS/360, CPM, Microsoft pre&post Windows, Mac Linux,), the database systems (VSAM, ISAM, IDMS DB, MDBS III, MySQL, PostGreSQL,) didn't really matter worth a damn.

              They were just means to an end. I just kept the 'end in sight' and the solution was as simple as following a line.

              After 20 years, I figure I deserve a break. :-)
          • Higher education in the programming world will only get you so far. I've done my share of both hiring and programming on both mainframes and minicomputers, and I prefer to hire non-graduates. It makes for less stuff that they have to unlearn so that they can do the job properly.

            Grant you most of my experience was writing and managing an RSTS/E and RSX development lab, but CS graduates simply cannot write good batch code, most cannot even imagine a world where the limits are 16k source files, 48k compile

        • by js3 (319268)
          Not ITT Tech, employers. Have you looked at any job postings lately? They all ask for specific skills, I've known people who have gone to interviews and did well up until the point where they were told the stuff they might do was not on their resume.
      • Unfortunately, most employers don't want to do any on-the-job training at all. They want people who will both work cheaply and already have the skillsets that they are looking for.

        They're really cutting their own throats because of it, but that's what happens when "buisness" people (who don't really know anything about buisness either) run the show.
        • by lcsjk (143581)
          This never ends. When I first started work in the early '70s, an editorial titled "Design Engineers wanted. 10 year's experience. Older men need not apply." caught my attention. Company's want experience, but they also don't want to pay for it. At that time, Texas Instruments was still hiring mostly new graduates and working them overtime (unpaid) for four years until they left voluntarily and that allowed TI to hire fresh new talent with the latest education.

          Companies need experience, but they also nee

          • by Mysticalfruit (533341) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:20PM (#13408584) Journal
            I guess the company I work for works differently. We have our own proprietary operating system and you are expected to know how it works. Luckily we've got a library full of manuals and a test system you can log into.

            As for the engineers, we've got a tiered mentoring and peer review process. Yeah, we have a couple of senior engineers leave a year, but by the time they've left, they've also mentored and cultivated the younger enginners.

            The training perdiciment is the same all around. Nobody wants to pay for training, so the alternative is reading manuals instead of playing Wow...
        • by BrookHarty (9119) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:16PM (#13408544) Homepage Journal
          Unfortunately, most employers don't want to do any on-the-job training at all. They want people who will both work cheaply and already have the skillsets that they are looking for.

          My work is outsourcing most new hires just for this reason, its cheaper to have a vendor do it, and then blame the vendor when things dont get done.

          Our HR department cant hire sys-admins at the companies new lower pay scale, so they have been trying to get helpdesk people to move over. Problem they have, new hires make 30-40K lower than everyone else, and expected to do the same job. Soon as they learn enough, they move for higher pay. Turnover and continous training of new people makes it hard on the older more experienced sys-admins who finally end up leaving for a startup or another company without its heads up its ass.

          We lost most experienced people, except the real old timers (like me) who been here 7+ years who are just waiting for the lay off notices when the company goes tits up due to piss poor management. I could use 6 months vacation on unemployment. (-;

        • These kind of articles aren't the result of in-depth reporting, they're spoon-fed to media by people with agendas. You've hit the mark on the motivation for this fluff to get published. I got suckered into getting certified in Novell Networking back in '95 because of nonsense about a lack of qualified people in a growing field. Yes, mainframe technicians tend to be older- but does this fact indicate anything about future job markets- Emphatically, No!

      • Computing platform and associated support all make up part of the total cost of ownership for systems.
        If corporations consider legacy mainframes to be a strategic part of their solutions, they will pay for the wages and training.

        Therefore... If one reviews where the money is going, mainframes are not viewed by the corporate world as strategic.
      • by Sounder40 (243087) * on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:12PM (#13408509)
        I thought the purpose of college was as much to teach you how to learn effectively as to teach you specific skills.

        Then you don't know jack about the hiring process these days. I've got 15 years experience as a mainframe systems programmer/administrator, I've specialized in performance management, and availability measurement and management of Windows, Linux and Unix systems and applications, I've got a RHCE certification, but because I don't know some specific version of HP/UX or Solaris, no one will look at my resume twice. All a recruiter wants is specific skillz in specific areas. Demonstrated ability to learn on the job is not worth anything anymore. Sure, I can take an entry-level sysadmin job. In fact, that's what I'm going to have to do if I want full-time work.

        No one seems to value the guy who can figure it all out. All they're interested in seems to be specific.

      • by John Harrison (223649) <johnharrison AT gmail DOT com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:29PM (#13408658) Homepage Journal
        I started at IBM in software group doing mainframe stuff. The group had just hired four recent college grads. Everybody else was over 40.

        There were several reasons for this. One was that during IBM's "dark days" in the early 1990's all the young people took the severance packages and fled the mainframe groups. They knew they could learn other technologies and the packages were too good to resist. The older people stuck with what the knew. Then as IBM slowly recovered the recovery didn't focus on mainframe technologies, so new people didn't get hired into those groups. When they finally realized that they did need to hire new people it had been nearly a decade since those old people had trained anybody and they really didn't know how to do it.

        I came in with a CS degree from Stanford and was told by one manager that if I worked in his group I would spend two years debugging other people's code. That wasn't attractive to me at all. Bright people want to go somewhere where they can have an impact, but the older guys saw us as a threat and were very reticent to teach us anything. All four of the people I was hired with left for different either different groups in IBM or other companies. The mainframe world couldn't compete with the glamour of the internet boom.

        Honestly, I spent four months trying my best to learn this stuff but nobody wanted to teach me. I could see that it was going nowhere. There is going to have to be a real culture change if a hand-off of this stuff is going to happen.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:58PM (#13409483)
          > Everybody else was over 40.

          Careful there buddy. Some of us are over 50, and with young kids (I got a late start, how typically geek) are going to be doing this until we're 70.

          As you will learn soon enough yourself, over 40 is not the end of the line, as long as you keep learning and keep current. Bah, I had my hands inside the Unix kernel long before Torvalds even graduated from high school....

          It is not always the case that older people stick with what they know, it is often the case that corporations shovel money toward people that know what they are doing to keep them around. Commonly referred to as retention programs. As long as you have half a brain, there is no risk in it. By the time the door really does close, you have been earning wages above 'the curve' for ten or fifteen years, and you still have marketable skills. (You did keep learning, right?)

          The old guys felt threatend? Weird. All my mentors when I started out of college were 'old' guys, and they were very helpful and very accomodating. But then, part of their performance review was based on their mentoring skills. If I failed, it would have reflected negatively in their pay, so they had a vested interest in my success. All these years later I still respect the time and knowledge they handed over, I learned far more on the job than I did in school. Of course, it was spread over more time, and I did have that nice 'bootstrap' from college.

          Since then, I have been in a few mentoring positions myself. Generally they went well, but a couple of times not. One was either a lack of capability or desire, I could not figure out which. The guy had flashes of brilliance but never completed a single project. The other was purely a personality conflict. Young guy, wet behind the ears, got good grades in school, suffered from a 'god complex'. Too bad, because he was smart, but nobody (and I mean nobody) could work with him. It was always 'his way or the highway'. Apparently we were all idiots and the whole company was damn lucky to have picked him up.

          Hang in there. Careers over the long haul of thirty or forty years have a way of taking paths that you will never expect. Remember to have fun while you are doing this, but make sure you maximize your pay as well. No use in spending so much of your life on the cheap.
        • I had a similar experience, hired into a smaller company that produce turnkey reatil systems from IBM mainframes. The older generation was quite hostile. I stuck with it, and actually got to the point where I was making an impact and writing new systems, not just debugging other people's code, because it was a fascinating world. So many problems that the PC/Server world is just now trying to solve were sovled in the mainframe world decades ago.

          But you were the smart one - my career at that company led no
        • ...and was told by one manager that if I worked in his group I would spend two years debugging other people's code. That wasn't attractive to me at all.

          So if you were offered a chance to debug Linux kernel code for money, that wouldn't be attractive to you at all either, I guess?

          If you're working in the Real World, on mammoth aggregations of code that have evolved over decades, you cannot avoid "debugging other people's code".

          Get over it. Despite a CS degree from Stanford, you're just not that special.
          If

  • by TurdTapper (608491) * <seldonsplan@ g m a i l.com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:22AM (#13407947) Journal
    But to run the latest mainframes, IBM and its customers need a few thousand youngsters to replenish the ranks.

    At this sentence, my first thought was that if IBM wants to make sure there are people to support/run/develop on their mainframes, then why don't they start providing more training? If the colleges won't do it, then they need to take matters into their own hands. And then I came across this sentence:

    Companies are taking matters into their own hands. Whitaker learned her trade at age 18, through an intensive six-month training course sponsored by Total System Services, her future employer.

    Which is great, but I still think that it should be IBM doing the training. If they want to make sure that companies keep buying their mainframes, then they should make sure that there are trained people out there that can go work for a company that is buying a mainframe. It seems completely in their best interest to provide the training at a reasonable cost to get those few thousand youngsters into the ranks.
    • IBM IS training... (Score:5, Informative)

      by mekkab (133181) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:34AM (#13408110) Homepage Journal
      Well, sort of. Here's the group: Share [share.org].

      IBM'ers show up at every conference and present. They are easily accesible. I went for the UserBlue AIX specific portions (and got access to network device driver engineers!), but if you go to the non-AIX,non-eServer HACMP stuff its a whole world of applied mainframes.

      There is a community out there and IBMers are looking after it.
    • if IBM wants to make sure there are people to support/run/develop on their mainframes, then why don't they start providing more training?

      Or what about a decent set of manuals? Way back in my VAX days, I got assigned to work on an IBM midrange system. The VAX had an entire library of manuals (remember the orange books?) while this piece of crap, overpriced IBM system came with something like two manuals. I was the only in-house guy assigned to the project, and spent tons of time trying to find answers t

      • by macemoneta (154740) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:19PM (#13408577) Homepage
        It's been a while since I was a mainframe guy (1977-1995), but IBM has one of the most extensive sets of documentation for their equipment that I've seen for any hardware software. They publish on CD (or did back in the 1990's) - there was too much paper documentation even back then. Absolutely every aspect is documented. Every single error/warning/informational message that any application or OScan issue is documented with explanations and operator actions (if required). Right down to the data structures used by the OS, there was nothing that was left undocumented. You could even pay to get access to the source code.

        The documentation and source code are (or were) revenue generating portions of the business. If your company doesn't pay for them, they don't get them. In turn, this created some of the most exhaustively complete documentation in the world. It is (was?) a thing of beauty.

        • The documentation and source code are (or were) revenue generating portions of the business.

          I can understand charging for access to source code, but the idea that a customer should have pay to learn how to use a product he has been sold is, to me, obscene.

          I've often thought that one of the reasons Java took off like wildfire was because Sun gave away not only the runtime environment & the compiler, but also the API:

          By glancing at a few "Hello World!" tuto

    • by Cletus the yokel (462083) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:52AM (#13408292)
      "if IBM wants to make sure there are people to support/run/develop on their mainframes, then why don't they start providing more training?

      ... It seems completely in their best interest to provide the training at a reasonable cost to get those few thousand youngsters into the ranks."


      You mean something like this [ibm.com]?

      IBM Learning Services have a large selection [ibm.com] of courses available for z/OS.

      I do think that making these courses better available and better publicized to college students would be a great idea though...

      [disclaimer: I work for IBM tough not in the z/OS area. Above is purely my personal opinion]
    • I tried to pick up a job at a big iron shop once.

      They looked at me like I was confused and said that they didn't run windows.

      :(

  • by tpgp (48001) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:22AM (#13407948) Homepage
    Sounds like too niche an area to teach at a university to me.
    • by rdunnell (313839) * on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:35AM (#13408111)
      No, but a lot of universities had classes in various mainframe-type things, "data processing" and the like. z/OS is just an extension of the systems they've been running for decades, renamed to look "cool." So you probably wouldn't have found, say, a System/390 class specifically at a college, but you would have found a lot of data processing and COBOL classes that would have prepared you to work in that environment.

      the college I went to (mid-90's) was phasing those out and bringing in VB and Netware classes. Personally, I think the mainframe-oriented classes were a lot better preparation to work in the IT/IS field than learning how to add and delete users and write "Hello World" with a mouse and a GUI editor.

    • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:35AM (#13408113)
      Actually there are some at the university i study at, as optional subjects, called " zSeries(S/390) operating systems", "zSeries(S/390) architecture and assembler programming" etc...

      -- someone from Europe...
  • But... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by epiphani (254981) <epiphani AT dal DOT net> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:23AM (#13407951)
    Computer Science programs dont teach nearly any applied operating system management. Not that it nessecarily belongs in a Comp-sci program, but if most comp-sci grads cant even navigate linux with any competancy, then why should we be looking universities to fix this?

    My issues with comp-sci programs aside, why cant these younger people simply take the normal approach of learning on the job? Dont worry about it, just start training people.
    • Re:But... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by el_womble (779715) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:57AM (#13408354) Homepage
      "Computer science is as much as about computers as astronomy is about telescopes"

      As for learning on the job - you leave uni, your straight into Job Catch 22.

      You need experience to get the job
      You need training to get experience
      You need money to get training
      You need a job to get money
      You need a job to get experience

      Where do you start? Especially when you concider that companies don't like investing in training, because it means they might have to pay you more (and if they don't you'll move companies).

      I know the laws of economics will kick in, and eventually the skills gap will mean that companies are forced to take risks again... but thats not now. If IBM wants to sell mainframes, they need to give away training.
      • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:01PM (#13408973)
        I think part of the problem is grads setting their sites too high. They come out with a degree, and seem to think they should get senior level work and a high paying job. No, not really. If you have no experience (and a degree isn't experience) you shouldn't expect a high level job. You get a job, you get experience, you move up, maybe at that company, maybe at another.

        One thing to help is to get experience while you are in school. Get a job doing something tech related. Maybe it's a basic tech support job that pays $6 an hour to help English majors find the start menu, but it's work experience and it helps. Maybe contribute to some OSS projects as well. You'll find that you can advance even on those campus jobs. Freshman year you are help desk, sneior year you are doing DB develoment for the department's website.

        So I think we have some unrealistic expactations from both sides. Many employers think that they should be able to get employees with lots of skills that need no training, and not have to pay for it, but many prospective employees seem to think that a degree should be enough to land them a great job.
      • Re:But... (Score:4, Informative)

        by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:20PM (#13409144)
        Where do you start? Especially when you concider that companies don't like investing in training, because it means they might have to pay you more (and if they don't you'll move companies).

        Internships. I make more money than I would ever publically admit to and I blame it all on my college internship. You work for peanuts, or even free, but you gain all that useful on the job experience. Some do it part time and continue to take regular classes, some do it full time for a semester or two. Usually you can earn credits for the work too.

        If you are smart and get in the right internship, you can shave 5+ years off your after-college-earning-curve. If you are lucky, you can find the right niche and really exploit it to the hilt.

  • zOS (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:23AM (#13407953)
    Don't worry, this is Unix system. I know this.
  • by rainmayun (842754) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:23AM (#13407958)
    Getting a computer science degree isn't about understanding every technology that's been built out there. It's about understanding the principles, theories and practices that apply broadly across the field.

    Every other employer I've known with what might be called "specialized" or "exotic" hardware or equipment (and yes, mainframes deserve to be in that category very soon if they aren't already) provided training on that equipment. A sharp student with a good understanding of fundamentals will be able to learn the specifics quickly enough.
  • by Spazmania (174582) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:24AM (#13407972) Homepage
    Is this anything like the frightening shortage of Cobol programmers? 'Cause I think business should demand more Cobol in the CS curriculum too.
    • by Fear the Clam (230933) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:42AM (#13408169)
      Guess what? I got a fever! And the only prescription... is more Cobol!
    • by sedyn (880034)
      Business has a problem with Cobol programmers.

      Academia has a problem with Cobol in general.

      Mix the two and the obvious solution, although potientially quite costly, is to move away from Cobol.

      Furthermore, business shouldn't have any say over what is taught in a CS degree. Because a traditional degree isn't about getting a job. It's about gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I recommend these business start talking to trade schools.
    • Of course is you get new Cobol programmers the companies will jettison the old ones quicker than you can say Abend. We are talking a wonderful job security here for the soon to retire crowd.
      A lot of new stuff is getting written in Java and J2EE so there is a transition going on in some areas. That transition will give a shot in the arm to new software development, a mini boom, over the next 10 years. Hopefully that work will be done at home rather than abroad.
  • Whinge... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gowen (141411) <gwowen@gmail.com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:24AM (#13407973) Homepage Journal
    The lack of zOS training on CompSci courses shouldn't make the slightest difference. Companies could easily hire graduates and train them to the ideosyncracies of their mainframes. Any computer science course that produces people who are only capable of using Unix/Windows and so inflexible that they can't cope with change isn't worthy of the name.

    That isn't to say there aren't a lot about.
  • Why should they (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kevin_conaway (585204) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:24AM (#13407977) Homepage
    When was the last time you saw lots of jobs for mainframe techs? The jobs that are out there are filled.

    CS degrees should be about Computer Science theory and understanding. The rest is just syntax and training.

    The skills they DO teach are the ones that they are most likely going to use in the "real world" at that time. Aside from giving a student a well-rounded education, colleges are also responsible for giving the student skills that will apply once they enter the workforce.
  • by msuzio (3104) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:24AM (#13407979) Homepage
    ''Some of us started dying," said Robert Stanley, 56, director of research for Air Traffic Software Architectures Inc. in Ottawa. ''Heart attacks and the like. Thirty years of Twinkie-eating."
  • It all works out (Score:5, Interesting)

    by overshoot (39700) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:25AM (#13407988)
    Schools don't teach analog electronics any more, either. Which means that old analog farts like me are finally getting ours after decades of being dissed as obsolete.

    After all, there's no such thing as digital. Just as all the old analog dinosaurs were retiring the high-speed digital crowd discovered that maybe everything wasn't all ones and zeros.

    Same applies to mainframes: mainframe technology has been dissed as obsolete for decades. Just as the microprocessors that (mostly) displaced them finally get to where they can use some of that "ancient" mainframe technology, the people who know how to apply it are leaving.

    I'm sure a few will be willing to stay on the job if they're asked nicely enough.

    Karma is a bitch -- especially the "comes around" part.

    • Re:It all works out (Score:5, Interesting)

      by csirac (574795) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:00PM (#13408381) Homepage
      I think you're taking a fairly simplistic view of current EE teaching in general. I know that in my course, of the 8 subjects offered in first year, only one is purely digital.

      I'm in 4th year now. Final semester. And this is the first semester where I can truly say it's all digital; this being the case for the stream I chose (computer systems). The alternative stream is communications (more RF/wireless stuff). This semester is all advanced DSP and CPU design, with digital control theory thrown in too.

      It's not like we spend four years learning how to count in binary. But the truth is, there is a lot of demand for digital electronics, and so a lot of the curriculum has replaced the more archaic, "voodo" analog tricks with it.

      That said, we still learn all about simple BJT amplifiers, with temperature stabalising modifications and all that jazz, all about their structure at an electron level (having semiconductor experts as lecturers help here), not to mention the oodles of op-amp, transmission line, passive filter theory and labs...

      I even had the pleasure of designing, building and testing a microwave signal amplifier that operated at 1GHz, which I would like to think is something worth mentioning considering my stream is supposed to be "computer" specialised.

      I'm a little surprised you think there are EEs out there who belive it's all just "1s and 0s"... I don't think there's a serious professional digital electronics designer out there who is that naive..

      Anyway, I'm off to do more FPGA work...
      • Re:It all works out (Score:3, Interesting)

        by overshoot (39700)
        I'm a little surprised you think there are EEs out there who belive it's all just "1s and 0s"... I don't think there's a serious professional digital electronics designer out there who is that naive..

        Welcome to the real world. In a building with over a hundred engineers, there are only two who could tell you Kirchoff's Laws off the top, and maybe five others who remembered hearing of them at one time. The rest deal entirely in Verilog.

        What's worse, at a nearby major university with over 60,000 studen

    • Just as all the old analog dinosaurs were retiring the high-speed digital crowd discovered that maybe everything wasn't all ones and zeros.

      Pfft. Everyone knows there's no such thing as two.

  • by pjrc (134994) <paul@pjrc.com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:26AM (#13408001) Homepage Journal
    This sound like the corporate hiring mindset, where the objective is to look for a person with specific "training" and "experience" which perfectly matches the anticipated job description.

    Absent is importance placed on "capable of learning", "able to take on new responsibilities", or even just general intelligence.

    It's amazingly short sighted. Technology changes, and within almost any company, there's regular change. Hiring overall good people who can adapt and learn new systems ought to be the mindset, but usually it isn't.

  • by CubicleView (910143) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:26AM (#13408008) Journal
    Simple supply and demand, once there's a demand there'll be a supply. There might be a period of time where people are short handed but I'd say it'd amount to a blip on the radar
  • RE: Other effects... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fshalor (133678) <fshalor@comcastUUU.net minus threevowels> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:27AM (#13408020) Homepage Journal
    Keep in mind, this is everything for us... and most of us don't even know it.

    When you go to the dr's office, guess what's running your insurance data (usually....) ibm.

    A friend's dad is 1.6 yrs from retirement and one of the last of the people in his area that run the zOS machines. It is scarry. Truely scarry.

    I can talk some hardware with this guy, and a little bit of "good comptuing practices" sort of stuff, but I can't touch him for his knowledge of the workings of the code and systems. And *forget* finding those little "google:howto+topic" miracles like I do daily for my linux admin stuff.

    I'm sure most linux savvy ops who know a little about databases could fill in, but there's going to be some issues in the next 5 years or so.

    It reminds me of the Cobol joke... about the bloke who earned so much money fixing peoples cobol systems to make the y2k switch that he was able to buy himself a deep freeze. Only to have the 9999 bug crop up. They unfreeze him, tell him all kind of good stuff that's gone on in the world, and then mention to him that since he had Cobol on his resume he was drafted to rewrite some code by the community. (hehe...)

  • by wheelbarrow (811145) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:27AM (#13408021)
    Our Universities are doing the right thing by exposing students to the technology used to write the large majority of new softwre being written. It would be a mistake to train students to prop up a dying segment of our industry. This is almost like a lament that all of the remaining blacksmiths were getting old in the days of Henry Ford and the Model T. It was true, but so what?
  • No kidding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by El Cubano (631386) <roberto.connexer@com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:28AM (#13408029) Homepage

    Most computer science students concentrate on small-computer technology, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems, or the popular alternatives Unix and Linux. Few have been trained on zOS, the operating system that runs IBM Corp.'s massive mainframes.

    Comp Sci students are not (or should not be) training to be system administrators. That is a vocational program. That would be like complaining that electrical engineers are no longer taught how to manufacture and assemble vacuum tubes. Serisouly, why complain that students are not being taught long obsolete technology?

    Not only that, but the point of a college education (and sadly this is rarely the case) to imbue the students with the skills to think critically, reason effectively and adapt/synthesize information to deal with new challenges. If they walk into a job that requires mainframe skills, they should be able to pick them up as they go. That is, if they have received a quality college education. Other than that, they should be looking to hire DeVry or ITT graduates that have been trained in the vocation of mainframe operations/maintenance/programming/whatever.

  • Getting old (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bryanp (160522) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:29AM (#13408041)
    Yep. To put it in perspective, most of the mainframe people where I work came here from NASA after the Apollo program shut down.

    No, I'm not one of them. At 36 I was a kid when most of them came to work here.
  • Here to Stay (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CleverNickedName (644160) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:30AM (#13408050) Journal
    I work with mainframes myself and I can whole heartedly agree with TFA.

    Mainframes may not be the fastest growing area in IT, but they will be around for decades to come.
    Remember: All your savings and all your bank debts only exist on mainframes. They control your reality. :)
  • by pavon (30274) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:30AM (#13408057)
    One of the problems is that many computer science programs don't include mainframes in their curricula anymore.

    How many of the current mainframe gurus were taught mainframes as part of a curricula? I would expect not very many. In fact, most of the mainframe guru's I have met didn't even have an educational background in computers- computer science as a seperate course of study hadn't barely begun to get off the ground at that point, so they were mostly engineers, scientists and mathematicians who happened to get to work with mainfraimes as part of thier job or studies, and discovered they liked it.

    Schools should not be teaching mainframes, nor should they be teaching MS Windows. They should be teaching CS fundamentals, and providing general-purpose software development experiance. I wasn't an expert in embedded software or Windows programming when I graduated college, having most of my programming experience on unix boxes. But that is what I am doing now, because a company hired me on as an intern and gave me the opportunity to gain experience in the field.

    The problem is not with the schools but with the employers who were too short sighted to apprentice anyone under thier gurus.
  • by jjn1056 (85209) <jjn1056 @ y a h oo.com> on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:34AM (#13408097) Homepage Journal
    As the older people start to retire I am sure younger people in the company will see where the promotion opportunities are and will learn on the job as needed.

    You know you are only in school for a few years, but on the job training goes on your whole career, like 40 years or more.

    Very little of what I learned in school is applicable to what I am doing now.

    Personally I don't think schools should even try to teach such technical skills, leave that for on the job learning or for post college certification training. What colleges need to do is teach people the ability to learn on their own, to have the confidence and the habits needed to go after new fields of knowledge.

    That's why I can't stand it when I see universities teaching Java and C#. By the time those kids get out of school that train will have left the station. Maybe teach that to final year students so that when they do their internships they have the basic skills. Otherwise I would expect someone who is really interested in computers to be playing with all that stuff from when they are much younger.

  • by eno2001 (527078) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:38AM (#13408148) Homepage Journal
    The practical skillset required to admin Unix systems, could provide some people with the skills needed to maintain mainframe systems:

    1. Strong memory to be able to know which command to use in which context
    2. Thorough understanding of logic (this stuff started on mainframes where logic was impreative)
    3. Organization. You can't properly admin a *nix box if you don't keep yourself organized. The same applies to mainframes. Windows doesn't really prepare people for this kind of thinking.

    Having worked on a VAX and a few Alphas running OpenVMS, I can say that the underlying concepts between mainframe OSes and *nix aren't as far apart as Windows is from mainframe OSes.
  • by ch-chuck (9622) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:42AM (#13408165) Homepage
    It's just the payback for the closed source mindset: Mainframes are the biggest players of the secret info game: Pay me $10K and I'll tell you the answer, otherwise your payroll system won't work. Since the keepers of the secrets and the insider priests are dying off, so is the religion they use to control their customers. Meanwhile open systems are growing by leaps and bounds - not with the lush riches of a captive paying customer base but at least it will be around for a LONG time and pay enough to earn a living.

  • by Durandal64 (658649) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:42AM (#13408176)
    This is why my school is introducing a mainframe concentration into its CS program within the next two years, and people graduating with that degree are going to be looking at lots of money. Although, as some other posters have asked, why is this the university's job?

    My profs came out and told us that people like State Farm and Caterpillar had sat down with our CS people and asked them to provide some sort of mainframe sequence. But any graduate of the CS program should be able to pick up mainframe programming through training. It's just another language, after all. These companies should have seen the writing on the wall and hired graduates 5 years ago and had their current mainframe programmers start training them. Then they'd have workers with 5 years of real-world experience in mainframes. That's infinitely more valuable than a " mainframe concentration" in a CS degree.

    These corporations dropped the ball, and now they're looking to universities to pick it up for them. They don't want to have to spend money training anybody. That's all this boils down to.
  • by Johnboi Waltune (462501) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:46AM (#13408227)
    The obvious maneuver for a mainframe expert:

    1. Retire at age 60.
    2. Put together a 40-hour training curriculum.
    3. Take a course on education and public speaking at your local college.
    4. Offer your training services at $300/hr, plus airfare, hotel, and per diem.
    5. Work 1 week per month, and make $12,000.

    6. (Optional) Set up a hot 19 year old college freshman with an apartment and a car, and bang her once a week until your heart gives out.
  • by DuSTman31 (578936) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:50AM (#13408271)

    Personally, I find the concept of mainframe development rather attractive, as I do any architecture substantially different from what I'm used to. I'd really like to get to know how to use and program these machines.

    Problem is, I've no idea how to go about this. It wasn't offered as a module at university, and I don't exactly have one lying around I can play with.

    I recall reading about how IBM donated a mainframe to an english university (reading? Can't remember) for tuition purposes, but I don't exactly want to take a second degree to go about this.

    One thing that strikes me is that backward compatibility on mainframes is legendary (with many programs written for a system 360 still running without modification. This would suggest the use of old machines for training. Would there be any objection to companies donating their retired mainframes to academic institutions for this purpose?

  • by KiltedKnight (171132) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:54AM (#13408303) Homepage Journal
    Nobody wants to work on the mainframe systems anymore because it "isn't cool." It's not the perceived latest and greatest.

    Mainframe computers are designed around a specific purpose: large volumes of repetetive transactions. This is why they are very prevalent in the banking, credit card, and other financial arenas. They handle the bill processing, customer database, etc.

    Sure, you could attempt to blame companies like Microsoft for this, and you would only be partially right. If you do that, you have to add Intel, AMD, Sun, HP, and a whole host of other companies to the mix too, since they all contribute to the "smaller, faster computers are where it's at" attitude. A big reason why this attitude prevails, however, has to do with the "single point-of-failure" issue. When your mainframe crashes, you can do absolutely nothing until the necessary repair work is done. This is where the distributed computing environment works very well.

    Having worked on mainframes in the early part of my career, I know that they were useful then, and still are. They excel at what they were designed to do... large volumes of repetetive transactions.

    It wouldn't hurt for computer science students to learn about mainframes, or even limited resource embedded systems. It would make them better, more well-rounded IT folk.

  • by CarlinWithers (861335) on Friday August 26, 2005 @11:59AM (#13408376)
    This week I met an old-school mainframe guy who started working for IBM in the early 50s. He had some amazing stories to tell.

    The one that I like best involved backing up to tape. Apparently tape backup started not as tape, but as thin steel ribbon. This was some heavy stuff, so they employed 3-5 horsepower motors to spin it. Of course, if the motors weren't calibrated right, the steel tape would often snap. One guy even lost his arm to this tape.

    How's that for nuts? Computer maintainers don't get these kind of injuries anymore I'd assume. What with steel tape being phased out.

  • by wandazulu (265281) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:00PM (#13408384)
    I had a job at a bank several years ago that stored everything on an IBM ES/9000. This was purported to be one of the largest machines of this type shipped from IBM to a customer. The thing was water cooled, had a staff of 10 people to maintain it, and required a hand scan just to get in the room. It ran everything you'd think and scoff at...mostly cobol jobs and a lot of JCL. I was a newbie client-server guy whose world was sybase VB3. As TFA states, there were a number of older folks, some who had been working there since before I was born, counting down the days till retirement.

    I was writing the front end to the banking system, first as a VB3 app and then as a web app (in 1996!). As such, you'd run "jobs", basically like how you'd call a stored procedure, and get back the value. So I'd run the job, and before I had taken my finger off the enter key, the result was sitting on the screen.

    I asked a "little-old-lady" who was days from retirement how it cached the person's value, and how it took into consideration interest, atms, etc. She told me it didn't. It started from the top of the vsam file, and added and substracted for that person till it got to the end. Then it gave you the answer.

    It did this every single time.

    I have never ever ever seen anything that could match that machine for raw IO processing. Add to it the fact that it was used by several thousand people all over the world, *and* it ran VM so there were two identical MVS operating systems, then CICS, then the apps....

    To be honest, I never got the hang of how to even move around in CICS, but I will give mainframes a lot of credit...when you need to shovel a *lot* of data around, there's probably nothing better.

    The fact is people...mainframes are computers answer to gravity...you never see them, barely acknowledge their presence, but you'll miss them when they're gone, because they're the only machines that can handle the staggering loads that would make a cluster of *anything* weep.
    • by Jeff Molby (906283) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:53PM (#13408911)
      the staggering loads that would make a cluster of *anything* weep.

      Tell that to Google.
  • Business opportunity (Score:3, Informative)

    by ewg (158266) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:02PM (#13408409)
    If it's a solid market, then there's a business opportunity to hire mainframe gurus out of retirement to provide commercial training for organizations that need it.
  • by LWATCDR (28044) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:14PM (#13408531) Homepage Journal
    I have to wonder if a free zOS and emulator that runs on Intel wouldn't help a lot. Even better an free zOS for native intel :)
  • by cbdavis (114685) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:36PM (#13408714)
    I got out of college in '69. I got my first IBM-mainframe job that year. There was no mainframe-training in college. There shouldnt be. IBM has a huge education program to train people to use their hardware. I must have taken 100 classes in the past few decades relating to IBM-clone-mainframes. I dont worry about all those gray-haired IBM experts retiring. The market will train new souls to do this work. As for me, I hope I make it to retirement - the last 36 years of work has taken a toll on me physically. I had better retire soon - the workplace does not need us dinosaurs anymore.
  • by FJ (18034) on Friday August 26, 2005 @12:51PM (#13408888)
    Where I work we have a relatively young staff because only about 1/2 will retire in the next 10 years. At 33 years old, I'm the youngest by about 10 years. One of my co-workers told me that I'll be chained to my desk when I'm as old as she is but those chains will probably be made of gold. Whenever any vendor or customer comes on site the first thing they say is "I never see anyone your age doing mainframe work."

    It is a pitty because given a fair chance I bet people would like being an admin once they got past the initial learning curve. The monitoring and automation tools are nothing short of incredible. I can tell what each program is waiting on, what data it is reading, who has higher priority, how long it has been running, how much IO it has done, and lots of other things. I can even alter the memory of the program as it is running (although I'm too chicken to do it). I can also go back in time and get this information from days ago so when I get the "it was slow yesterday" problem I can easily investigate.

    I didn't learn a thing from college regarding the mainframe. College was for general logic, problem solving, and overall data structure. Everything I learned was on the job training. When I started one of the older guys said it takes at least 5 years to make a good systems programmer. Anything less and you have a dangerous person who only thinks they understand what is happening. I would have to agree.

    The mainframe is really nice in some areas. It is an ego rush to fix a problem that is keeping a multi-billion doller company from shipping any new products (I did that yesterday) and the people I work with are great because they are always willing to share experience and historical knowledge. When they retire I'll miss them.

    The price you pay is that many systems have 30+ years of customization in them. They are incredibly complex and very tailored so no two are exactly alike and as a systems programmer I'm expected to be the "final expert" on any problem the users can't solve. This includes finding out why a program that was written when I was three years old no longer reads a PDS properly or why a job that hasn't changed in 5 years suddenly stopped working. It can be lots of fun but it can be frustrating too especially because the bosses really don't want to hear "I don't know" for an answer and "just reboot" isn't even in their vocabulary.
  • Red baiting (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dbmartin00 (226655) on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:06PM (#13409026)
    Everybody knows damn well why IBM doesn't have so many young people pursuing z/OS training.

    At one point, IBM mainframes and their work-alikes were almost synonymous with enterprise computing. Today, that is far indeed from being the case. They're still interesting and useful, but part of a specialized niche market.

    There are plenty of good reasons to learn mainframe technology, but given that the architecture, operating system, heck... everything! are completely proprietary and the knowledge you accumulate is generally not practical any place else (unlike the Unix world, for instance) there is a strong disincentive to "put your eggs all in one basket" and learn mainframe technology. What if IBM discontinues it in five or ten years. Worse, what if it's gone in 15 or 20 when you're too old and tired to learn new tricks?

    I have a deep respect for IBM and its business practices (no really!) But not for the decisions they made surrounding their mainframes. Granted, I can't take potshots because most of this was done thirty or more years ago with no clue as to what the world would like today. Still, building to open standards has always been a sound truth. The more you rely on proprietary tech to lock your customers in -- however you justify it -- the more you ensure that sooner or later you will pay the heavy cost for doing so.

    IBM built its own cage here (or, dug its own grave if you feel like being dramatic.)
  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Brandybuck (704397) on Friday August 26, 2005 @01:36PM (#13409262) Homepage Journal
    Most computer science students concentrate on small-computer technology, such as Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating systems, or the popular alternatives Unix and Linux. Few have been trained on zOS, the operating system that runs IBM Corp.'s massive mainframes.

    My how times have changed. Back when I was in University, we learned computer science, not specific operating systems. Of course we used specifica operating systems. In our case it was 4BSD and VMS. But we didn't have classes in them. We had classes in programming languages, data structures, compiler design, algorithms, etc. That was just the basics. That's what I took because I wasn't a CS major. The majors took additional specialty classes in information theory, networks, artificial intelligence, etc.

    Wordstar, 123 and DOS were on the market back then, but if you wanted to take classes in them you had to go to night school at the junior college. How much of that "education" would be useful today? Why do you think classes in Windows or Linux today will be different and remain be useful twenty years from now? If you really need those classes for your job, then take a night class at a junior college. But don't waste your formal education on them.
  • by melted (227442) on Friday August 26, 2005 @02:27PM (#13409765) Homepage
    They're frikking looking forward to it!
  • BS in my opinion (Score:4, Insightful)

    by marlinSpike (894812) on Friday August 26, 2005 @03:49PM (#13410396)
    This story is a bunch of alarmist hogwash. They said the same thing about the lack of skilled people when the Y2k Bug was supposed to bring the world down. Yes, some of the people stuck doing Cobol were the ones who built the systems, but others were new recruits who found their way there because of... wow what a revalation -- economic opportunity! Guess what? We live in a capitalist economy (well, sort of), which is extremely adept at moving resources to where they are needed, and creating the right incentives. A few years ago, one would be forgiven for thinking that there wouldn't be enough qualified .NET or Java developers to satiate the demand, and that businesses would come apart for the lack of them. Once again, paychecks proved the magnets they are when they reach a certain point, and suddenly the industry was awash with all the qualified architects it wanted. I'm a techie bred on Assembler, C++, Java and C#. Give me the right incentives, and I'll even add Cobol to that list! Everyone else.. have a nice weekend. There are many more pressing things to worry about than mainframes running out of handlers!
  • Show me the money! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by threaded (89367) on Friday August 26, 2005 @05:41PM (#13411483) Homepage
    I'm a contractor, many, many year experience. I've done a few zOS contracts.

    But if there is a choice between a gig doing .Net or one doing zOS, .Net will win, they just pay more, a lot more.

    There are obviously many older types who aren't quite as mercenary as myself, but hey they're not going to be around for ever.

    "America doesn't produce enough technically trained young people", give me a break. Flash some cash man, show me the money.

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