Editors Note: If you are considering Marist College Mainframe Certificate, then check out the free Marist College Intro to Enterprise Computing MOOC at https://mooc.marist.edu/web/ecc.  Look out though, as you may end up getting hooked like Keith Shaffer, and earn your Associate, Professional, and Expert certificates!

In the fall of 2003, I interviewed at a large insurer for a database administrator position.  I knew a bit about databases, but other requirements of the job were completely unfamiliar to me – including the operating system that was being used.  Strange acronyms like TSO, ISPF, JCL, and DB2 left me scratching my head – and this was before you could Google anything.  As part of the interview, I had the opportunity to shadow one of the DBAs.  I watched him navigate through the unfamiliar screens and sat trying to figure out what he was demonstrating.

I showed promise and, after I was hired, worked very hard to learn systems that descended from technologies older than I was.  But even equipped with a strong drive and helpful encouragement from colleagues, learning how mainframes operated was a massive effort.  My employer, who hadn’t hired someone without existing mainframe skills in over a decade, did not have a formal training plan in place.  In defense, this wasn’t uncommon.  When I started my career in data processing, groups like IBM’s Academic Initiative and SHARE’s zNextGen were in their infancy and weren’t well known.  Instead, I relied solely on coworkers for training.  It took several months to understand what I now consider the “basics” of operating in a mainframe environment.

In 2007, I heard about an organization at Marist College called the IDCP or the Institute for Data Center Professionals.  The particular program that caught my attention was the z/OS Systems Programmer track of their “Enterprise Systems Education”.  I had never taken any online courses, so I was skeptical of how much could be conveyed outside of a classroom.  A link to their website provided background information on all of the instructors, including their impressive accomplishments.  When I showed this to my coworkers and manager, they thought it was worth pursuing and so I enrolled in the system programming track.

The program’s intended audience is wide.  Students come from a mixed background – varying by age, experience, and of course, geographic location.  The systems programming track is three years long and each year is broken into three courses referred to as modules.  The first module is the “Introduction to z/OS and its Major Subsystems”.  This module, like the eight that would follow it, offered a variety of ways to learn.  Each week, the instructor would provide students with a lengthy presentation that included audio commentary and technical documentation to read.  IBM RedBooks, IBM White Papers, and industry articles were often used.  Students were encouraged to post questions, as well as thoughts, on a Marist online forum.  The forum was particularly helpful, because students with previous experience often provided an alternative way of understanding a concept.  In addition to the slides, readings, and forum postings, we were also assigned 1-2 long-term projects, such as essays/reports.  At least one of the reports required me to interview several subject matter experts (“SMEs”) that I worked with.  This not only helped me understand the technical material, but it gave me an opportunity to develop closer relationships with coworkers and have a better understanding of the work they perform.

Of course, every good class inevitably comes with quizzes and tests.  At the end of each week, the instructor would post a quiz.  The quizzes were usually a combination of multiple choice and fill in the blank responses.  Additionally, a midterm and a final exam were also provided.  The midterm and finals were usually 5-6 open ended responses that required a good deal of writing.

Some modules lent themselves well to hands-on work.  Those courses would be accompanied by labs, in which we connected to Marist’s z/OS systems.  The z/OS Installation, DB2 Fundamentals, and z/OS Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability (which also focused on assembler language) all involved regular lab assignments.  In another course, z/OS Performance Fundamentals, we reviewed performance aspects of z/OS environments.  In that class, we were able to either use the instructor’s sample data or even review data provided by our own shop.

Although the workloads varied by module, the Marist curriculum was thorough and demanding.  On average, I dedicated 3-4 hours each week to reviewing the assigned material; and even more during midterms, finals, and major long-term deadlines.  Instructors are always available to assist and provide any clarification of the material and help you advance your understanding.

Importantly, the material covered in several of the modules pertained directly to the work I was undertaking at my employer.  In particular, z/OS Installation, z/OS Advanced Topics, and z/OS Security were all vital areas that I now share responsibility in managing.  Today, I use all of these concepts on a day to day basis and often I refer to the course materials for review.

Given that mainframes are no longer a dominant area of study in schools, the Marist program offers both individuals and employers an invaluable alternative.  Typical mainframe classes are short and costly; pricing of a full year at Marist is comparable to what others offer for a week.  The program also offered me a way to excel my learning without requiring the attention of my technical colleagues.  Marist enabled me to learn the industry-wide practices for many mainframe shops on my own and, afterwards, seek guidance from my colleagues to understand our employer-specific customizations.

For anyone considering the Marist IDCP or a similar program, I’ll end with some advice.  If you’re already familiar with z/OS, then you know what to expect.  If you enjoy it, certainly consider stepping into the Marist program or a similar program at another school affiliated with the IBM Academic Initiative.  However, if you’re just starting to learn z/OS, take you’re time to understand what’s involved to work in a large systems environment.  The entire mindset of working in a mainframe environment is fundamentally different than other platforms.  Decide if z/OS is something that you’d like to devote significant time to learning.  If, after 6-12 months, you’re still interested, then Marist is the best next step for your career.  If you’ve got some experience on the mainframe and decide it’s not for you, that’s perfectly fine, too.  In fact, just knowing the basic terminology and concepts will help anyone be a better technician in a shop that uses mainframes – even if you’d rather focus on other areas, such as project management.

About the Author

Keith Shaffer
B.S. Computer Engineering, Syracuse University
z/OS Associate, Professional, Expert Certificates, Marist College

Keith graduated from Syracuse University in 2003. That fall, he took a position with a large northeast insurance company as a z/OS DB2 DBA. Since 2006, Keith has been within the same company as a z/OS systems programmer. Keith enjoys soccer, photography, and extensive traveling with his wife.
Connect with Keith on LinkedIn

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