Dear IT graduate, just one word -- mainframes

Imagine today's computer science students experiencing the kind of cocktail party thrown for Benjamin Braddock by his parents in the 1967 movie The Graduate. As the students wonder about what the future may hold, various older figures sidle up with one-word suggestions about possible careers. Java, Linux and Internet you'd expect to hear whispered, but mainframes? Not so much.

"The mainframe has had one of the worst PR campaigns of the last 15 years," said mainframe analyst Mike Kahn, managing director of research firm The Clipper Group. "In the mid-90s, the mainframe was declared dead by the industry and that wasn't so far from the truth."

The mainframe's value proposition was completely out of sync with what was going on in the mid-90s as companies embraced PCs and decentralized their business operations, Kahn points out. Today, however, many organizations are looking once more at recentralizing their IT functions, so the mainframe is swinging back into favour in some quarters.

Opportunities in big iron in the western world are also on the rise as companies look to replace the staff who've been tending the computer behemoths and are now heading for retirement. At the same time, companies in China and parts of Eastern Europe and elsewhere have recently bought or are looking to invest in mainframes as they beef up their computing power.

Through work with educational institutions and companies and under the banner of its Academic Initiative, IBM has committed to having 20,000 mainframe-trained professionals in the global market by 2010. Big Blue hopes to double the number of universities and colleges around the world signing up for its zSeries mainframe courses from last month's 150 to 300 by the end of this year. Of course, it's no altruistic gesture. If you factor in sales of associated software and storage, analysts estimate that IBM's mainframe business generates around 25 percent of the company's revenue.

"It's not an issue hiring people with mainframe skillsets, but we are having difficulty in finding young people [with those skills], said Murray McBain, vice president of technology at the Royal Bank of Canada, an industry sponsor of the IBM mainframe program. He has been working with the faculty at Mohawk College, one of the Canadian educational institutions offering the IBM course in big iron.

When addressing computer science students at Mohawk, the first thing McBain did was to bring them up to date on mainframes and their role in today's computing world.

"When we talked about Java, SOA (service oriented architecture), and multiple operating systems, you could see it clicking," he said. "They weren't falling asleep on us, we were using terms they understood."

When he visited the college, McBain took three of his senior managers with him, each with between 15 and 25 years experience working with mainframes so that the students could appreciate that "real people are still working on mainframes", he said. Next up will be taking the experience he's had at at the college and replicating it with other schools, he said. McBain believes IBM's message about why students might consider studying mainframes becomes much more powerful when the vendor visits universities together with one or more of its customers who use the zSeries machines.

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