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As a shortage of developers with mainframe skills looms over the industry, IBM and some of its partners hope to renew interest in the big systems through partnerships with universities, new programs, new tools, and support for modern languages and architectures.

Motivating the move is that, while IBM’s mainframe business has picked up, the work force of developers who write applications for the mainframe has dwindled, company officials said.

Indeed, Geoff Smith, an IBM z/OS information strategist at the company’s mainframe development lab in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said that within 10 years, the IT industry will experience a decline in system programmer talent.

In particular, programmers with experience in IBM’s z/OS mainframe operating system will be retiring, and inexperienced college graduates will be entering the work force, Smith said during a talk at the Share user conference of IBM IT professionals here during the week of Aug. 14.

Jim Sievers, chief architect at San Diego-based JME Software and a longtime mainframe developer, agreed. Sievers said he has been coming to Share events for more than 30 years and continues to see friends leave the work force.

Meanwhile, Smith said that, based on a survey from the Share conference in Anaheim, Calif., in 2005, a major concern among attendees was the skills gap between aging mainframe talent and newcomers entering the market with little or no knowledge or experience on the mainframe because fewer colleges teach mainframe-related courses anymore.

IBM is addressing this skills challenge by creating programs to educate and train people on z/OS, make it easier to manage z/OS, and simplify the development and deployment of business applications on z/OS, Smith said.

IBM’s Academic Initiative for System z now features more than 250 colleges and universities worldwide, delivering mainframe education to more than 10,000 students, Smith said. IBM also has helped develop 12 enterprise system courses as well as a System z mastery exam that became available this year, he said.

In another effort to attract and retain new talent to the mainframe ranks, IBM joined forces with Share to start zNextGen, a community for new mainframe professionals. IBM and Share officials announced the community at the Share conference in August 2005, and the first meeting took place in March 2006.

Kristine Harper, a systems programmer with Neon Enterprise Software, in Sugarland, Texas, and program manager for zNextGen, said she has found the fledgling group’s role in helping the new generation of mainframe professionals to network and in helping recruit new talent invaluable.

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“I came to my first Share when I was 18, and it was very intimidating,” said Harper, who is just one year out of college but interned at Neon for five years before taking a full-time job there after graduation.

Saying there is a shortage of new talent entering the mainframe ranks is “the understatement of the year,” Harper said, adding that “it’s really hard to find somebody at this conference without gray hair.”

Michael Bliss, director of worldwide technical support for System z, is also IBM’s executive sponsor of zNextGen. In an interview here, Bliss said IBM’s reason for getting involved in the program is twofold: to provide a community for new mainframe professionals so that they can interact with and learn from each other, and to create an agenda that both IBM and Share can help them address.

zNextGen is just one way to help both new hires and professionals being retrained for the mainframe world assimilate “and leverage an army of experienced mentors,” Bliss said.

Next Page: Stigma.

Indeed, today’s mainframe professionals, particularly COBOL programmers, “have a wealth of best practices and implementation skills that remain applicable to new development environments,” said Pamela Taylor, a director and vice president-elect of Share and a solutions architect at a subsidiary of a Fortune 50 company, in an interview here.

Taylor said she believes part of the reason new graduates are reluctant to join the mainframe ranks is that there is a stigma attached to mainframes as being “not cool.”

College professors attending Share suggested a change in terminology, Taylor said. The professors said that “mainframe” still has a ring of “old and out-of-date” but that “large-scale computing” or “large-systems computing” are accurate descriptions of the environment as well as more appealing to young professionals looking for good career opportunities, she said.

Meanwhile, for people already in the work force, IBM offers a z/OS Basic Skills Information Center to help retrain workers on mainframe technology, Smith said.

But IBM is not stopping at education and training. The company also is working on building a set of new tools to empower developers on the mainframe and to help programmers in older technologies such as COBOL move to more modern architectures.

Laurence England, manager of application tooling for IBM, in Santa Teresa, Calif., said his goal is to help enhance IBM’s mainframe tools and help build a community in which third parties can participate and extend the capabilities of the tools.

This tool set must be all-encompassing, covering run-times, testing tools, building tools, debugging, SOA (service-oriented architecture), modeling, and execution and scripting languages, among other functions, England said.

IBM currently offers WebSphere Developer for zSeries, an Eclipse-based IDE (integrated development environment) for mainframe applications. However, England said the new tools IBM is working on will need to “amplify the skill set” that new developers are coming out of school with—including open-source and Web technologies.

Michael Connor, IBM’s product line manager for zSeries languages and developer tools, said COBOL programmers need to develop skills in modern application architectures such as Java, XML and SOA.

Taylor said the next generation of developers not only will need to know a variety of languages but also be able to develop for a platform-neutral world, as SOA and Web services become more prevalent.

COBOL programmers also have ongoing opportunities to support and enhance existing applications and to integrate them with new user input devices, newly developed applications, packaged applications, Web services and so forth, she said.

“The next generation of application developer is simply not your father’s application programmer,” Taylor said.

Wayne Duquaine, director of software development at Grandview Systems, in Sebastopol, Calif., and a longtime Share member, said he sees a future in PHP for mainframe developers because it is popular and easy to learn, has a quick development time and good performance, and easily integrates database processing with HTML and XML processing.

Moreover, Duquaine said he believes that “if PHP can prove that it will scale nearly as well as Java on a mainframe, then absolutely it will be a hit—because it is faster and easier to learn and use than the J2EE [Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition] stack.”

Through a partnership with Zend Technologies, a PHP distributor, IBM has committed to making PHP available on its zSeries computers.

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