Crossing the IBM Z Skills Gap

Credit: Leah Fasten

Creative approaches build skills development and promote career opportunities for new mainframe professionals

By Adam Oxford

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Hundreds of people from more than 35 cities in a dozen countries around the world came together in the biggest annual celebration of coding for IBM’s mainframe platform—Legends of Z. The event, held the week of Oct. 5, drew participants from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Sacramento, California, and challenged young developers to be creative as they designed code for IBM Z mainframe systems.

Legends of Z is part of a coordinated push by IBM to help young software engineers understand the potential of pursuing a career on the ultimate business machine. It’s a way of addressing a key challenge in IT recruitment today: it’s for enterprise applications, mobile platforms, network security or database management, businesses are digitizing, and they need the staff to do it.

To attract the best, you have to do something to stand out.

“When I hear clients tell me that they can’t hire people, I know something must be wrong. Every single college undergraduate these days has more computing experience than the original generation of mainframe engineers had when they started, because they’ve grown up with technology.”

Thomas Klinect // Senior research director, Gartner

The Growing IBM Z Skills Gap
At the same time, the talent pool isn’t being replenished fast enough to sustain current supply, let alone meet future requirements. As the baby boomer generation retires, it leaves behind a demographic hole to fill. Pew Research and the Social Security Administration calculate that 10,000 boomers in the U.S. hit the age of 65 every day. The trend is expected to continue for the next decade. The supply of new engineers isn’t keeping pace with the growing demand.

What this means for mainframe, say analysts at Forrester Consulting, is that almost a quarter of specialized staff have left the industry in the last five years alone–and 63 percent of the positions they have vacated have not been filled.

Adding to the pressure, mainframe use is growing fast, as the platform continues to prove itself uniquely reliable and well suited to modern real-time data management, blockchain and analytics. In Forrester’s survey, 64 percent of decision makers currently using mainframe systems said that they planned to move more than half of all their business-critical applications to the platform in the next year.

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Addressing the IBM Z Skills Gap
So what can be done to help address this growing skills gap for mainframe? Thomas Klinect, senior research director, Gartner, says that for a start, employers need to think more carefully about their messaging.

“When I hear clients tell me that they can’t hire people, I know something must be wrong,” Klinect says, “Every single college undergraduate these days has more computing experience than the original generation of mainframe engineers had when they started, because they’ve grown up with technology.”

Klinect has studied the way mainframe job adverts are constructed and sees a fundamental problem with the perceptions that employers are creating.

“Job adverts are written with very negative language, giving the impression that they’re just looking for people to manage existing systems and not change things,” Klinect says.

That’s not an enticing prospect for young engineers looking for a challenge, he continues, and it doesn’t reflect the reality of the work, which is evolving rapidly now that the same tools can be used to develop for IBM Z as for distributed platforms.

Building Excitement for IBM Z
Klinect believes that everyone within the mainframe ecosystem has a vested interest in challenging these perceptions and helping drive recruitment, as IBM has been doing for years.

“IBM has been working with customers and developers around the world and do many different things,” explains Director of IBM Community Advocacy and ISV Success Meredith Stowell. “The challenge isn’t getting people interested in the mainframe. As soon as people know about it they are intrigued. The technology is like this hidden gem, sitting in the corner running some of the most critical workloads around.”

IBM’s flagship project is the annual Master the Mainframe competition, which is open to students worldwide. Master the Mainframe is structured as a series of online tutorials followed by coding challenges, which are split over three stages. Complete all of the challenges from Stage 1 and you progress to Stage 2, and so on.

Troy Crutcher has been part of the Master the Mainframe team for 14 years and has served as program manager for the last five.

“It started off very small,” Crutcher says, “With about 200 students in North America only. Last year, we had more than 17,000 registrations worldwide.”

No previous coding experience is necessary, Crutcher explains, as the idea is to get students learning the basics of mainframe programming, and introduce them to more complex problems until, by the end, they are thinking like a systems programmer.

Incentives are offered along the way. The first 300 students to complete Level 1 earn, for example, a $25 gift card, and more valuable and unique prizes are awarded to those who finish Level 2.

Completing Level 3, meanwhile, requires putting together a report in the manner of a data scientist, which will then be presented to a panel of judges. Crutcher says that 200 students made it to the end last year.

“We show them everything,” Crutcher says, “From security to Db2*, so they learn a little bit about a lot of things. The content changes every year, based on the needs of industry. If we get feedback that a particular language or skill, like Java* or COBOL, is in demand, we’ll try to build that into the challenge next year.”

A 2016 Master the Mainframe competitor in San Francisco, California. Credit: Leah Fasten

Mainframe Match Making
During the competition, students are encouraged to sign up for IBM’s Talent Match network, which aims to connect employers to prospective employees with a particular skillset. As students complete challenges, they’re awarded badges, which are automatically added to their Talent Match profile.

These digital badges have become so respected by employers, says Stowell, that the Master the Mainframe courses have now been made available throughout the year and not just during the competition, which is usually in the fall semester.

“Now employers can use these materials for internal training,” Stowell says, “And academics can integrate them into their curriculum all year round.”

Going Beyond Universities
Around 3,000 schools and universities are using Master the Mainframe content, Stowell estimates. These include colleges such as the Sir Syed University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi, Pakistan, where more than 100 pupils have earned certifications through IBM courseware.

Outside of academia, these online resources are also helping create other ways for developing a talent pipeline.

“We’re working a lot with apprenticeship programs, and continuing education programs,” Stowell says. ”We’re seeing more and more employers thinking outside the box and using these tools to increase diversity and inclusion.”

Stowell cites several examples, including a four-year apprenticeship scheme run by U.K.-based Barclays bank and Manchester Metropolitan University. Through the scheme, trainees gain on-the-job experience and a formal degree.

St. Louis, Missouri, non-profit LaunchCode has developed an innovative approach to apprenticeships. LaunchCode recruits on behalf of other organizations, taking on the responsibility of training staff before they go to work for the client. It aims to improve workforce diversity by recruiting people from outside of the IT world, and at the same time removing much of the risk of hiring relatively inexperienced tech workers.

LaunchCode was approached by Express Scripts, a firm that manages prescription plans online, to help fill 40 COBOL developer roles and 50 IBM Z specialists. Working with online training provider LearnQuest, it designed a course that helped fill 29 of those jobs from the first cohort.

Developing a skills pipeline that brings in people from outside the current talent pool is important. To sustain it requires engaging the community of Z engineers to evangelize their work and share their knowledge, so that the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated. That will mean supporting inspirational individuals like Jan Sądek, a Polish developer who has created 89 assignments and 503 exercises that he shares at Mainframe Playground.

“Demand for mainframe skills is high in many countries, but training is hard to come by. I know that Mainframe Playground is popular in India where a lot of mainframe jobs are outsourced,” says Sądek, “I'm a big supporter of lifelong learning and free knowledge concepts. I've learned tons of valuable stuff from the freely available resources regarding my work and other areas of life. Mainframe Playground is a way to give back the ‘goods’ I’ve received from others.”

Overcoming the IBM Z Skills Gap
Even with all this activity, of course, the challenge of building a skills pipeline is going to remain for some years. Perhaps the most hopeful indication that it will be overcome sooner rather than later, though, is that it’s being taken so seriously all around the world. Mainframe Playground reaches a global audience, and Legends of Z gets bigger and bigger every year, as people who have taken part in Master the Mainframe take their lessons home and spread the world (see “Winning Master the Mainframe,” below).

It’s people like Sądek and David Ntekim-Rex, who having engaged with mainframe are eager to share their enthusiasm for the platform with others. A combination of grassroot activists and structured programs spearheaded by IBM and its partners will, together, begin to grow the talent pool exponentially over time.

Winning Master the Mainframe

A friend told David Ntekim-Rex, now a systems intern at IBM in Nigeria, about the Master the Mainframe competition in 2017. Before participating, he says he knew “next to nothing about mainframes” but he went on to be a winner of the competition that year.

We recently caught up with him to ask him a few questions about the competition.

Q: What kind of time commitment did it require?

A: The competition ran for about four months, so there is room for comfortable self-pacing. However, I got frustrated when I ran into problems. I didn't really know people knowledgeable about mainframes. It was, therefore, difficult to get help. So, I halted my activities in the competition.

Later, I decided I was going to complete it by all means and so I stuck with it: Googling, reading, using StackOverflow, and so on. I've heard about some people that finished Part 1 and Part 2 in just a few days, but I spent a whole month eating, drinking and sleeping Master the Mainframe to complete all of the challenges.

Q: Would you recommend the competition to others?

A: Yes, absolutely. In fact, this year, I held a Legends of Z meetup, which was co-facilitated by some of my course mates in the university.

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