Cracking the code for mainframe programming

Richard Whomes, Director, Sales Engineering at Rocket Software, explains why universities and businesses need to team up for next gen coders

The demand for people who can program computers is on the rise, and schools and universities have been responding to this by increasing the opportunities for students to learn coding. But, mainframe-oriented courses are hard to find in universities, and businesses are investing less in this area than they were. With governments and businesses alike so reliant on mainframe computing, it is unwise to neglect these skills; for example, 90% of airlines run on mainframes. 

The advanced age of most mainframe programmers, many of whom will be vacating the job market soon, presents a challenge as well as an opportunity. Schools, universities and businesses all need to encourage a more holistic coding education where mainframes aren’t disregarded. So, how can we encourage people to learn these skills? 

Why code for mainframes?

Mainframes are used throughout the world in industries as diverse as banking and retail, as well as in government bodies such as the Pentagon in the US. The more telling statistics are that 90% of credit card transactions and $5 billion worth of ATM transactions go through IBM products per day. What’s more, 90% of Fortune 100 companies rely on mainframes. So do 23 of the top 25 retailers in the world, all ten of the top insurers, and more than 225 state or local governments worldwide.

Mainframe technology is often best placed to handle newer technologies such as the cloud. IBM, for example, has just launched its new line of z systems: the z14. The z systems started to become associated with cloud infrastructure after the z13 and LinuxONE were launched. The power and reliability of mainframes makes them ideal to host a cloud environment and the world’s most trusted platform for the digital economy.

Demand for mainframe programmers is about to take off

10,000 baby boomers are retiring every day. It is overwhelmingly this generation that was trained to program mainframes. Compounding the issue is the expectation that 20% of mainframe programmers will retire in the next five years. It is vital that graduates about to enter the job market are equipped with well-rounded coding skills so they can confidently take on multi-platform roles.

The demand for comprehensive coding skills doesn’t look likely to subside so it is up to universities and businesses to react and help with supply.

Make sure the kids are alright

Universities need to include a modern mainframe component to computer science courses that focus on enterprise computing and devops. The migration from mainframes to other platforms hasn’t happened in the way some thought it would, and now opportunities for young people to diversify their coding skills have dried up. However, universities and businesses can act to improve coding skills in important ways.

Using languages and tools with which students are already familiar is now easy on the modern mainframe; Python, PHP, Java, Node.js, Git and more are all available. A job on the modern mainframe is starting to look no different than the jobs these students are already doing. Many programmers could do work on one without ever knowing what complexities hide below. Nonetheless, the need for a new generation of multi-platform programmers is still pressing.

Business-university partnerships

There is a need for businesses to invest in education so their intake of graduates will be fully prepared for the demands of the job. IBM is, unsurprisingly, one of the companies leading in this area. Its Academic Initiative program has been investing millions of dollars in 1,000 universities across 67 countries to provide a mainframe education for students. One of the most recent sign-ups to this programme is Manchester Metropolitan University, which will introduce a mainframe-specific degree course beginning this year.

As well as the more formal courses, IBM also holds a ‘Master the Mainframe’ challenge, which aims to promote computer science and is open to school and university students across 38 countries. Programmes such as this are pivotal to introducing the word mainframe to the youth vocabulary. It’s an uphill battle to bring the next generation onto the mainframe if they don’t know it exists.

Have a hackathon

Much like the ‘Master the Mainframe’ challenge, an open hackathon can encourage students and more qualified developers to build on their skills in a competitive environment. One such hackathon is our APT Rocket Build Academy taking place this summer, which seeks to give university students in the UK MultiValue database experience.

The demand for comprehensive coding skills doesn’t look likely to subside so it is up to universities and businesses to react and help with supply. Making tools available to staff or students means mainframe programming is a less daunting task. Most of all, businesses can partner with universities to offer courses and competitions to ensure coding remains a priority in education as it is in business.

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