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Growing the Mainframe

How you can support students—and the vitality of the platform

7/20/2011 8:56:56 AM | IBM has a number of initiatives underway to educate students about IT’s best-kept secret: the mainframe. During my tenure with IBM I’ve served as a University Ambassador, introducing the IBM Academic Initiative, System z program (z AI) to nearly two dozen universities throughout the country. I’ve also organized several mainframe exploration days at events such as the IBM System z Technical Conference (zExpo), SHARE and WAVV.

When speaking with both high school and college-level students, I cover the basics: what a mainframe is, who uses it and what kind of career opportunities exist. The majority of students are unaware of what an IBM System z mainframe is, much less how important the computing platform is to industry and to their daily life. These students don’t realize the advantage they can have in future employment opportunities should they pursue an education that includes mainframe topics.

The experience of meeting with students and educators has taught me a great deal. As members of the System z community, you can also share your knowledge and help students develop skills to keep your systems running well into the future. The following are some ways to get involved and help maintain the vitality of the platform.

Master the Mainframe
One way IBM works to garner student interest in the platform is the Master the Mainframe contest, which is held each fall semester. The program has grown from around 750 participants in 2005 to more than 3,537 in 2010. In 2007, the contest was opened to high school students with more than 1,000 participating each year since. One high schooler won the contest the first year it was open to non-college students. Visit the website to see how awed and excited the students become when they’re exposed to the mainframe through the three parts of the contest. (OK, the prizes are exciting too!)

Once students are exposed to the mainframe, either through the contest or classes, they begin to realize the value the platform brings to businesses as well as career opportunities for themselves. This, of course, is one of the reasons I promote grass-roots marketing of the mainframe to high school students. IBM has more than 900 schools worldwide teaching mainframe topics, but for those programs to succeed, students need to choose from these participating schools. Visiting my local high schools, I work to direct students who are interested in taking mainframe topics to these participating schools. A list of these z AI schools can be found online.

Exploration Days
With similar goals in mind, I help organize the Mainframe Exploration Days at events where a live IBM mainframe will be up and running. Working with conference teams, we invite local high schools and colleges to the event. After a brief presentation on “IT's Best-Kept Secret,” we encourage students to head into the exhibit hall to meet vendors and conference attendees and explore mainframe careers.

Academic Initiative
IBM has developed 45 classes for the z AI collegiate program. Academic institutions receive these materials free of charge to educate students on mainframe topics. You can help expand this program and support the growth of the mainframe community. The easiest and most common approach is to use existing connections or networks.
  • If you’re an alumni of a school and know the faculty, give your favorite professor a call and tell him/her of your desire to talk to them about your successes around the mainframe, that there’s a growing need for skills and your company is interested in working with the school.
  • If you have a child attending a college or university, you might utilize his/her contacts, or just call the computer science or business xchool chair and offer to chat with them about this opportunity to add breadth to their students’ knowledge of the real world.
  • If you don’t have a personal connection, you can utilize an online directory to help you find the best person to contact.
If faculty members are interested in hearing more, e-mail IBM ( and someone will be happy to contact the school (in person or on the phone) to discuss the z AI program.

Once the program is seeded, several next steps should be considered. First, consider offering internship or scholarship opportunities to students who participate in classes that contain mainframe topics. One of the questions faculty members always ask when considering teaching System z topics is, “How will the mainframe community help fill the class seats?” If a class doesn’t meet minimum student numbers schools cancel the class. Internships and scholarships are an incentive for students to take classes, even if they have to compete for those benefits. In addition, if you or your teams have technical skills, consider offering to be an adjunct professor or guest lecturer. Offering any or all of these will show faculty you’re serious about supporting their program. I myself serve on two computer science advisory boards for schools I worked with; it’s a great way to stay involved at a high level.

Recruiting and Hiring
Of course, a major show of support is that your company will recruit and hire students who have successfully completed mainframe oriented coursework. As you can imagine, without this support, the programs won’t flourish. In April 2011, the System z Job Board was started. Found at, the board is designed to connect IBM System z clients, IBM Business Partners and other businesses with students and professionals seeking System z job opportunities.

It takes two to tango! I encourage you to get involved in bringing mainframe topics to schools you may have an interest in, evangelizing the program to high school students to interest them in attending participating schools, and most of all, log on to the new Job Board and hire some of the great talent being groomed to keep your business growing.

Marc Smith is the IBM Relationship Manager for the newly formed IBM Destination z community. Marc can be reached at

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Barry Schrager
I have been involved in MVS since before it was announced. In 1972, IBM flew me to Poughkeepsie to review their new MVS (it was internally called MVM in those days) Operating System and provide feedback. Also in 1972, I started the SHARE Security Project which formed the data security requirements for future IBM Operating Systems. When RACF did not meet those requirements when it was introduced in 1976 and I was told by the IBM Representative to the project that they could not be accomplished (Protection by Default and “algorithmic grouping of users and resources” – RACF Generic Profiles), I developed ACF2 to prove these were achievable. RACF (and Top Secret) now meet those requirements.

I was also employed by the University of Illinois for ten years, taught classes in Computer Science, and left my position as Assistant Director of the Computer Center to develop ACF2. At the University of Illinois I created the first TSO Job Submission and Retrieval product, the JES2/TSO Interface Package which was licensed by IBM internally for their datacenters and also used by General Electric as the backbone for their entry into the IBM Timesharing business. The leading product in this area these days is IBM’s SDSF.

So, I know both the mainframe industry and know the higher educational issues.

Our (the mainframe community) problem is not only getting new Computer Science students to understand mainframes, it is getting the business students to realize there is a mainframe which contributes greatly to our business society. These students are graduating and know only Windows and maybe UNIX, but their computer world revolves on servers with those two operating systems. Over the last few decades, they have gone on to get their MBAs and are now leading business and divisions of businesses and would not know a mainframe if they bumped into one (of course it has changed so much that many of us might not anymore). They are involved and often control where to put new applications and whether to migrate old ones to the “newer” platforms.

IBM has to reach out to a larger section of the student body besides the Computer Science community in order to help assure the mainframe’s future.
8/8/2011 1:27:38 PM
Jim Michael
I've followed this important issue for nearly ten years now and I applaud the efforts that IBM, SHARE and others are making to help attract young people, and tose changing careers, to work in the mainframe environment and to help colleges prepare the for careers in this field.

I am also very impressed by the efforts of zNextGen ( over the past six years to provide a community where these folks can get the support they need to succeed and advance in their chosen careers. Their monthly meetings and the networks they build with each other and seasoned mainframers provide a year-round community for those new to the mainframe. The programs they provide at the SHARE conferences, like the one next week in Orlando ( offer these new mainframers an excellent opportunity to increase their skills and expand their professional networks!

With collaborative efforts like the Academic Initiative and communities like zNextGen, I hope we will continue to make great progress in attracting people to the excellent careers on the mainframe.
8/8/2011 1:28:58 PM
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