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The road to become a new “Mainframer”

By Javier Estrada Benavides posted Aug 10, 2021 07:52 AM


The road to become a new “Mainframer”
Manik Kainth

Mainframe, a word that is still unknown for many university students pursuing computer science, software engineering or even unknown for the recent graduates too. Most of the people who are working on Mainframes or those who are retired never thought of being a “Mainframer” when they were in their universities or started to work in the IT.

Taking the decision

Generally, the recent graduates get to know the word “Mainframe” when they start looking for a job in the IT market. Slowly out of curiosity when they actually start to look about the Mainframe then there is a lot of information on web that enlightens them about the legacy of Mainframe, what an awesome platform it is & its excellent history. However, there are lot of articles available that describe Mainframes as the machine of the old times with ugly black screens without any future and no opportunities for the new comers despite of the fact that 85 % of the daily transactions such as ATM withdrawals and credit card payments still go through the Mainframe. Similar thing happens even with the people who are already working on some other platforms like distributed or cloud computing etc. It is considered to be a bit risky for the working professionals to switch from other platforms to Mainframe as for them they need to start from scratch or as a newcomer and that doesn’t seems to be a viable option for them.

So, it is a bit tough to make a decision and pursue a career in Mainframes with this little piece of information as most of the universities don’t have any Mainframe course. Moreover, the closest thing to a Mainframe if someone could have in the university is the COBOL programming course and that too is very rare. For the working professionals it is quite confusing but the experience they have in programming in other platforms is sufficient to kick start a career in Mainframes.   

Taking the first steps

After taking the first step of choosing a career in Mainframes, the next thing is to look for a job. Most of the time when the candidate is appearing for an interview for a Mainframe job, the newcomer is afraid of Mainframe specific questions and has a fear of rejection. What the candidate needs to understand is, most of the companies hiring for a junior Mainframe position are not looking for Mainframe specific knowledge, as they are already aware of the fact that the candidates are newcomers to the world of Mainframes. The company looks for good programming, analytical and communication skills, and if these conditions are met then it won’t be a problem for them to teach the newcomers about Mainframe. Moreover, most of the companies have Mainframe specific training planned for the newcomers.

Choosing a role 

The next question that comes in mind is about the job role in Mainframe. It is a huge platform with different kind of job roles and this is mostly cleared at the time of the Mainframe training or after completion of the training.

Training covers the application development & system administration part or it depends on company to company.

Those who enjoy writing code will start to enjoy coding in Mainframe specific languages as well like VSAM, COBOL, REXX, JCL, CICS, and ASSEMBLER. These languages are easier to learn. The only thing you need is programming skills and understanding of the syntax, which is a common approach whenever someone starts to learn a new language. You can also use C, Java and many other languages to write codes on Mainframe. Therefore, the candidates who feel comfortable in writing code can choose the application development part.

Those who enjoy topics like system administration, scheduling tasks, maintaining the system, etc. usually opt for the administration part. Under the administration part, it includes z/OS, Db2, Storage, Security, CICS, Linux on Z and network (VTAM) administrations. These are the most critical job roles in the Mainframe and to perform the duties of the administrator you sometimes need to know the application development part too. This administration area on its own is so big that you will not see usually a z/OS administrator also taking care of the Db2 administration tasks. All of these administration roles are independent of each other but you have to be in sync at all times.

Therefore, during training one can have an idea about what they want to take as a role. The thought of switching platform or doing something different from what one has studied is changed. A clear view and clarity is there, and the new comers realize the decision they took wasn’t wrong as Mainframes have a lot to offer.

The first days in a new world

As a new comer, you need some time to adapt to the Mainframe environment. It takes time but eventually people learn. The basic training provided by the companies is just a gist of Mainframes and in the longer run you will explore a lot. Every day is a new learning, from writing code to bug fixing, from IPL’ing the system to applying maintenance, from scheduling jobs to purging outputs.

New comers sometimes don’t like to work on the old ISPF, TSO panels (black screens) as they are fond of the latest IDE’s and different kind of frameworks. Mostly because of this mindset people believe it is an old and dull system but that is not true at all. There are so many other IDE’s available on the market like Zowe and Visual Studio which you can use to access the Mainframe and get the work done.

You can use a mixture of Python and REXX to automate things as well in Mainframe. You can use other scripting languages to make your day-to-day tasks easier. You can do your daily tasks without logging into the Mainframes using the latest IDE’s and with the automation stuff you can get some things done just with a single click.   

The platform also has the capability of machine learning, cloud computing and it even offers a distributed environment as well. Therefore, Mainframe is not a concept of old times and it is constantly being updated according to the market needs. When you hear about the concept of virtualization then you may not believe that it was first implemented in a Mainframe.

Basically, once someone gets familiar with the Mainframe and knows the rich history then you can imagine that it is here to stay and it will remain for a long time.

Growing up in the new role

Some people believe that after some amount of time the learning process becomes stagnant in Mainframe and it gets boring. That is not true as well because none can say that they know everything in Mainframes. If you talk to some Mainframe experts having more than 30 years of experience then they will also tell you that they don’t know more than 10% of Mainframes. So, there will be always an opportunity to learn and enhance the skills in Mainframes.

There are lot of courses and certifications if someone wants to enhance their skills. Moreover, completion of those courses & certifications not only give boost to your knowledge but also gets you a better job role with a very good salary.

Closing thoughts

One thing that is so widespread is that most of the Mainframe force is retiring soon and they need younger people to pass the Mainframe torch. So, now is the best time to be a “Mainframer”. The Mainframe is far from dead, and a new generation of IT professional needs to be steered into working on this platform.