Mainframe Group Gains Momentum

ZNextGen, an organization aimed at young mainframe programmers, has gained significant momentum since it was created roughly two years ago through IBM and its user group, SHARE, according to its leaders.

"We started out ... [with an informal gathering] in a bar with 30 or 40 people there, and we now have over 350 members from over 100 different enterprise systems companies in 12 countries," said Kristine Harper, zNextGen's project manager and an assembler programmer at Neon Enterprise Software in Sugar Land, Texas.

As a young woman in her 20s, the University of Arizona 2005 graduate doesn't fit the archetypal mold of a Big Iron lifer. But she entered that world at birth: Her parents have both worked as mainframe programmers.

"Basically, I'm a nerd at heart, to begin with. It definitely takes a certain kind of personality to work on mainframes," she said, adding, "It's in my blood and I got an early start. I pretty much was not exposed to all the stigmas around mainframes."

Harper said the raw power a mainframe possesses holds far more interest for her than Web programming, for example. "You get to learn something new every day ... it's really nice to know I'm in a career where I can walk into work and never say I know everything."

Justin Bastin, 27, another zNextGen member, studied computer science in college but wasn't lying awake at night, dreaming of a life at the helm of a System z. "I knew I wanted to go into IT, but what platform, I didn't know."

After putting out resumes for a while, he heard from a professor that Sherwin-Williams was looking for a mainframe programmer, and eventually landed the job.

"You really are always learning something new," he said in agreement with Harper. Bastin added that the stakes are also high with a mainframe -- the proverbial beating heart of a company's IT infrastructure.

"If you have a problem, with the mainframe it's not as simple as you just reboot. You cannot reboot in the middle of the week. Once you figure that problem out, it's very rewarding," he said.

IBM, of course, is interested in preserving its lucrative System z business -- something that would prove difficult if the supply of new programmers dries up.

"Bringing new people to the platform is a big part of the mission ... keeping the skills pipeline full is important to IBM," said Michael Todd, an IBM Academic Initiative System z adviser who works with the group. "It's been a concern for a few years, and we heard that from our customers."

There are a number of zNextGen-related tracks planned for SHARE's conference in Orlando, Florida, in February.

IBM, SHARE and zNextGen are also rolling out a new recruitment tactic -- a document containing photos and profiles of zNextGen members, which will be distributed to university students.

Its contents are telling of the need zNextGen is trying to fill: There are plenty of twentysomethings featured, but a fair number of older people as well -- veteran mainframers who help foster the program.

Harper, for one, does not seem daunted. "I'm definitely very happy and pleased by the growth of our group. It's grown significantly but not so fast we can't handle the growth rate," she said.

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