Grey Hairs And Red Herrings: IBM mainframe skills resurgence is a triumph of Developer Relations

A couple of weeks ago I went to New York City as a guest of IBM’s mainframe group for an analyst summit. You may think mainframes are long gone by now but if you use a bank, or book a flight, or use the Post Office, you’re using a mainframe. These systems continue to be the basis for a huge percentage of transactions worldwide. System z isn’t just about legacy though- 20% of new sales are to run Linux workloads.
I am interested in mainframes – they have quite literally defined my career. I have written before about the effective framing job IBM was doing in terms of mainframe skills resurgence – mainframe = youth. But I was still taken aback by the level of aggressive self-confidence from IBM leaders at the event about the mainframe skills issue. The mainframe has suffered a lot over recent years over fears about the greying of the workforce- the human resources equivalent of the year 2000 problem. Basically the mainframe workforce was getting older, and more expensive, which was a hobble on new mainframe skills. After all, why would you invest in new workloads on mainframes when all the kids out of college were used to Windows or Linux, Oracle, and all the other fruits of the client/server revolution? This frame is a hard one to counter – especially given ongoing retirements in the sector (some people made enough in year 2000 remediation to retire comfortably.)
But according to Tom Rosamilia, general manager of the z business:
“The [mainframe skills] issue is a Red Herring”
Now it would be easy to dismiss Tom’s contention out of hand – except that he didn’t make the claim from a position of weakness, but of strength. I have written before about the the IBM Academic Initiative for System z, and it is going from strength to strength. There are now 814 schools involved, and just under 33,000 students have gone through the program. They all get jobs. The economic case is really clear. You don’t learn mainframe skills to futz around. The program may be academic, but its benefits are not…

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James, aka @Monkchips is co-founder of RedMonk, the open source analyst firm, which specialises in developer advocacy and analytics.