Mainframe specialists make the IT 'it' list

Demand for mainframe specialists is at an all-time high, according to IBM Canada

Demand for mainframe specialists is at an all-time high, according to IBM Corp., due to an increase in mainframe investments.

The market share for IBM's System z mainframe platform has grown 17 to 30 per cent over the last decade on a rolling four-quarter basis of the high-end segment priced over US$250,000, according to International Data Group's high-end server quarterly tracker.

The increase is also reflected in the growth of IBM's Academic Initiative for System z, which provides resources to colleges and universities for mainframe skills education. More than 600 schools around the world are now involved in the program, which launched with only 24 colleges in 2004.

A recent IDC survey of 300 mainframe-knowledgeable IT experts and decision-makers using IBM mainframes also reports that "nearly one-half of respondents indicated they plan to increase annual spending on mainframe hardware and software."

"The mainframe is still seen by respondents as a key element of centrally managed corporate data and high-value computing workloads by providing them with a layer of highly controllable enterprise management software," states IDC.

Mainframe skills started becoming a recognized requirement about three to five years ago, said Robert Bird, IBM Systems z platform leader for Canada.

"Our customers were asking us what we could do to assist them within their own skills programs and HR recruiting for that area of their business and that was fundamentally what drove this IBM Academic Initiative for Systems z program," he said.READ MOREWild tales of AS/400 survival

Not only are customers continuing to add and extend existing applications and services, but IBM is attracting new customers who are attracted to the economics of scale that the mainframe platform provides to an organization, said Bird.

"We do have customers that are incorporating for the first time mainframes within their organizations, so we have incremental requirements there and some of our customers are on a very large growth curve where over time they are hiring additional staff to address that growth," he said.

Mainframe specialists are also on the IT "it" list due to upcoming demographics trends.

According to Bird, those currently managing and maintaining the mainframe environment have spent the majority of their careers in this area and are looking forward to retirement. "We've identified a skills bubble and our clients that have mainframe investments today are looking for ways to effectively train and introduce new blood into their organization," he said.

The way IT managers with mainframe skills approach the ability to provision and maintain a key business service determines their value, according to Bird. "Mainframe thinking is all about a robust computing environment," he said.

People who understand the mainframe architecture tend to bring more to the table in terms of systems discipline, system architecture and being able to maintain the service levels and critical business applications for that organization, said Bird.

Individuals working in the IT discipline that display what Bird refers to as "large systems thinking" might be moved from an Intel or UNIX architecture into the mainframe role. "That's how they typically develop skills in house," he said.

"Most organizations that run mainframes today take individuals that show promise," said Bird.

But organizations need to find other avenues as the demographics bubble grows, such as hiring someone with IT skills who doesn't have a mainframe background, someone who took evening courses through continuing education or hiring new trainees that have mainframe background from college or university, he said.

Ryerson University in Toronto provides certification courses on the mainframe for IT professionals who want to enhance their resume or business skills. French speakers can turn to Cégep de Thetford in Thetford Mines, QC, which is preparing to launch an online program focused specifically on IBM's mainframe. The first course is scheduled to run in the spring of 2010.

What makes the mainframe platform attractive, according to Bird, is that it is viewed as a little exotic and unique. "I've been associated with it for 29 years. It's been a fantastic career for me," he said.

"Once you understand the business value it drives, the people who have taken the time to enhance their skills are very pleased to be working in that environment because typically they are working for the Fortune 1000 in Canada," said Bird.

The hottest areas for IT employment today are positions at the front end of the applications development lifecycle, according to Sapphire Technologies Canada.

This includes business, analysts, project leaders, managers, and systems analysts, said Sapphire Canada president Sergio Mateus.

"We see most of the demand being primarily within the applications development field, not so much on the infrastructure side," he said.

As far as mainframe skills go, the national IT staffing firm is noticing increased demand for IT skills overall and expects the demand for mainframe specialists will rise accordingly.

While the firm hasn't detected a particular rise in interest for mainframe skills yet, the demand for mainstream specialists never really decreased to a great extent either, Mateus pointed out. "Even through the downturn, we've seen the demand stay consistent," he said.

"Within large organizations especially, so many legacy systems still have to be attended to and dealt with that the demand has always been there and I think that going forward, that is going to at the very least stay the same, if not increase," said Mateus.

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