Millennials and Mainframes: How to Bridge the Gap

Model 9’s cloud-based tapeless backup solution for mainframes is a game-changer. “Game-changer” is not a term often associated with the world of mainframes. However, in a recent interview with two key members of the Model 9 team, Gil Peleg, CEO and Adi Shtatfeld, Lead Product Manager, I learned just how passionate the youthful but highly experienced Model 9 team is about bringing the latest technologies to the mainframe platform. They are very aware that Model 9 is unique in the mainframe ecosystem and they have clear ideas about what has to be done to attract more young talent to mainframe shops. Mainframe managers across the industry should pay close attention to their insights.

When I asked Adi and Gil how they found their ways into the mainframe world, their stories were very similar…

Adi: I had absolutely no contact with computers, let alone mainframes, before I was enlisted into the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) at age 18. Somehow I ended up taking the entrance exams for the IDF’s Center of Computing and Information Systems (CCIS), where I met an algorithm for the first time: a logical way to solve a problem. I loved this idea, passed the entrance exam, and after a 6-month general course in computers and information systems, I was assigned to the mainframe unit. I was a little shocked and disappointed at first, but I soon understood that I had been handed an incredible opportunity to get a deep, hands-on understanding of how computers really work. The mainframe is the oldest computing platform around and a lot of thought has been invested over decades into how to optimize its hardware and software architecture for high performance. As a CCIS system programmer, I had to learn and understand how everything fits together.

Gil: Like Adi, I knew nothing about mainframes until the IDF assigned me to the mainframe unit. I had this nagging feeling that this was not what I wanted to do—I wanted to be working in Windows and Linux and all the other sexy computer platforms. But in the army you do what you’re told. After a few days in the unit—and after being moved to sit next to Adi who took me under her wing—I resigned myself to the situation, started reading and learning, and before I knew it, I was hooked on mainframes.

So this is how the Model 9 team can be so young (all under 40 years of age) yet still have 20 years of mainframe experience.

Gil & Adi: Yes, the Model 9 R&D and product teams are all graduates of the CCIS. We all trained or were trained by each other in the mainframe unit. It’s pretty incredible: the IDF takes 18-year-olds and within two years they are running the largest mainframe shop in the Middle East. This is unheard of in the industry, where it can take at least five years and sometimes ten years before you’ll let someone be independent in a production environment.

There is a lot of talk about a skills shortage in the mainframe world. The BMC 2017 Mainframe Report, however, is upbeat about the demographics of the mainframe workforce, noting that 46% of their respondents are in the 30 to 49 age group. What is your personal point-of-view on this issue?  

Gil: I think that the age of the respondents is less important than the number of years of mainframe experience they have. Unlike Model 9 where under-40s already have 20 years of mainframe skills under their belts, in other parts of the world people in their mid-30s will typically have less than five years of mainframe experience. And, as we noted above, it takes longer than that to bring someone to the level of a system programmer, where he or she can take on meaningful system management responsibilities.

Adi: We often see at our customers that there is a severe shortage of experienced mainframe programmers in general, and system programmers in particular.

Gil: Here’s a real-life example. Last week I was at the SHARE convention in St. Louis, MO, which is the largest mainframe event in North America. You look around and almost everyone’s got gray hair and are either about to retire or have already retired but continue to attend SHARE events because they like the community. There are a few young people around, but they’re definitely the exception. Obviously the community is concerned about the situation and in recent SHARE events there have been multiple sessions about how to work with Millennials, how to hire them, train them, manage them.

Would you say, then, that the main problem is basically a generation gap?

Adi: Absolutely — mainframe shops are generally not attractive to Millennials. For example, mainframe hiring tends to be one person at a time. But bringing in one young person among a team of people often old enough to be their parents is a recipe for failure. In addition, the career trajectory in the mainframe world is not fast enough for Millennials, who expect salaries and other compensation to grow quickly as they gain experience. If they don’t feel that they are progressing career-wise where they are, they will go out and find themselves a better opportunity. The bottom line is that the mainframe shops have to learn from companies like Facebook and Google and invest heavily in creating an environment that will attract and retain Millennials. They have to be flexible, they have to accommodate their needs. They need to offer clear and attractive career paths.

Gil: I agree completely. The average mainframe shop is a 100-year-old financial institution with loyal employees who have been there for 30 to 40 years and who are appreciative of the stable job conditions, not to mention the good retirement plans. But Millennials have a different mentality altogether. They don’t mind changing jobs every couple of years. They’re looking for work that excites and challenges them. And they probably care more about the quality of the food and drink in the cafeteria than they do about the retirement plan.

What about industry initiatives to attract computer science graduates to the mainframe world?

Gil: IBM, BMC, CA and other big players in the mainframe world do have academic initiatives in place across the globe to expose computer science students to mainframes and that’s good. But the focus of these initiatives is more on programming for mainframes which, in my opinion, is not the core problem. Any person trained in computer programming can become a proficient mainframe programmer with a fairly short learning curve. The real challenge is training the system programmers who can implement and maintain stable, scalable, high performing mainframe systems and solutions. Without effectively nurturing a new generation of system programmers, the mainframe world is going to continue to struggle to replace the current ones who will be retiring over the next five to ten years. I don’t have any easy answers about how to do that, but a big part of the problem are deep-rooted misperceptions. Everyone in the industry has to get better at doing PR for mainframes.

But what kind of career security can people expect if they choose mainframes? Aren’t mainframes declining?

Adi: In the 1990s there were a lot of people predicting that mainframes were going to go the way of the dinosaurs. They did a lot of damage to the “image” of mainframes that we still suffer from today, even though they were wrong. For example, my first job after the army was with the Israel Electric Corporation. On my first day they introduced me to their mainframe but added “just so you know, though, we’re going to phase it out soon.” That was 20-something years ago, and I can tell you that today they’re still running on a mainframe!

Gil: When I joined the IDF’s mainframe unit, it was one year after the mainframe was predicted to have already disappeared from the world by the famous Stewart Alsop (who said the last mainframe would be unplugged in 1996). Obviously that was not one of his more successful predictions. It’s true that systems of engagement have shifted to other technologies—web, mobile, and so on. But the mainframe continues to be the leading and primary system of record on which the world’s economy is run. Given the huge investment that the world’s leading corporations—banks, insurance companies, credit card processors, utilities, airlines, retailers (Walmart is one of the largest mainframe shops in the world) and more—have in their mainframe infrastructures and solutions, that’s not going to change any time in the foreseeable future. In fact, in 2018 we can say that the mainframe world is growing—more workloads are being shifted to mainframes, more MIPS are being purchased. We recently talked to a global bank that is kicking off a 10-year strategic plan for their mainframe infrastructure. IBM predicts that, worldwide, about 37,000 new mainframe administration positions will open up by 2020. So career security is definitely not the issue.

What else would you say to computer science students or recent graduates to convince them to pursue a career in mainframes?

Adi: If you’re looking to do something really meaningful, to shoulder real responsibility in your work, then mainframes are your best choice. The mainframe you are managing will be carrying out millions of transactions each day that affect millions of people. As a 30-year-old working for Israel’s largest bank, I was part of the team that was responsible for the mainframes that ran the bank’s network of ATMs. I had to think of the consequences of every decision I made in terms of availability, compliance and much more. If I made a mistake, it could end up as a headline in the newspaper.

Gil: I would also add that working on mainframes doesn’t mean giving up the latest technologies. Mainframes may be old, but they are not archaic. They are amazing machines with super-advanced encryption, computing and IO capabilities. And it’s not all COBOL anymore. Today mainframe programmers use Python, Linux, node.js, Java, blockchain. Most of my end-user jobs involved implementing modern technologies on the mainframe using Java, web services, encryption, and so on. There is also a rich open-source mainframe ecosystem: orchestration, languages, runtimes, analytics and more.

A Final Note

Both Gil and Adi would urge computer science students, recent grads, and those already working as software engineers to keep an open mind about mainframes, and use the resources available today online to learn more about their powerful capabilities. Some websites they would recommend are: