In an earlier post this summer, Anthony Critelli and Alex Belcher touched on their experiences with mainframe education at RIT, and more importantly, how as young technologists they’ve come to understand the mainframe and its continuing importance. In another previous article, we’ve referenced the IBM System z Academic Initiative and popular mainframe education offerings from partner schools like Marist College, which each work to make the mainframe accessible and attractive to a new generation. However, as a proud graduate of the University of Arkansas and native Arkansan, I think I’d be amiss if I didn’t talk a little about the role of mainframe educationat the University of Arkansas and what we do here in Fayetteville to promote the body of skills and technological understanding that today’s students need to be competitive in mainframe roles. Just as our football program (currently ranked #10 in the most recent poll) gets students yelling “Woo Pig Sooie!” with our skills on the field, it’s my opinion that the school is likewise a leader in the classroom for training students in the skills that modern businesses need.

At the University of Arkansas’ Sam M. Walton College of Business, the mainframe is a key component of not just the Information Systems program itself, but the greater college’s technology education offerings as well.  The IBM-donated z10 system operated by the Enterprise Systems group at the college serves up a number of key business applications and datasets that benefit student learning interests across disciplines.

How does that work, exactly?  In my opinion, this is made possible due to three key factors: innovative educators, the modern mainframe’s incredible workload flexibility, and the generous support of Fortune 500 companies in the University’s backyard: companies which understand and advocate the vital importance of all students gaining a practical technology background to be competitive in the 21st century.

Arkansas-grown members of the Fortune 500, such as Walmart Stores, Tyson Foods, and Dillard’s Department Stores have each donated obfuscated real-world datasets from their own daily operations and data warehouses to the college.  These real-world warts and all’ datasets not only enable IT students to learn core technology topics and problem solving on data as it appears in the wild, but access to these datasets can also empower business students to study the technology component of their fields, too.

For example, students in marketing and management disciplines can learn marketing techniques
by using business intelligence tools on obfuscated department store transaction data from Dillard’s, served up by DB2 under z/OS.  For another key example, many students in accounting, finance and logistics can learn a top-down view of their roles and business processes in general via competitive simulations and reporting in the world’s leading enterprise resource planning software, SAP.The SAP courses (which the college hosts on the mainframe in instances of SUSE Linux running under z/VM) have remained popular across all disciplines since their inception nearly eight years ago, as training in enterprise resource planning suites offer both valuable application skills and exposure to some of the practical aspects of executing modern business processes.

Again, at Arkansas, the mainframe helps empower all of these capabilities to drive serious educational benefits for students, in addition to the usual IT topics like programming & design.  Did I mention that these educational opportunities have been provided to programs internationally which partner with the college—not just those local to the University of Arkansas?  This is a bit of a testament to the scale, security, and reliability that the modern mainframe can provide.In this case, the mainframe is a significant driving component in the education of hundreds of students each year across a variety of the applications that truly run businesses today, and it does it all while sharing those learning opportunities to a wider audience at other schools in other locations.  Today’s modern mainframe is immensely capable and powers many of the world’s best organizations, and the University of Arkansas business technology curriculum keeps that in mind.

This arrangement really demonstrates that the mainframe is a key platform in an ideal mix to give students the technology tools they need to be competitive across business disciplines today:  it helps drive teaching in business process understanding and the technology aspects of traditional business disciplines.  And for IT-centric students, the mainframe can help deliver education for more practical skills in more areas than you might expect:  business analytics, ERP, Linux, web development, modern and legacy applications, and more!

Students who want an emphasis in enterprise Information Systems can progress to write programs in languages such as ABAP, COBOL, Java and .NET to integrate their mainframe-hosted projects with a variety of other enterprise technologies, such as Teradata-hosted warehouses or Microsoft SQL Server-hosted databases.

Two Enterprise Systems courses in particular are offered at Arkansas to specifically teach the mainframe in depth.  With a bit of a call-back to Akram Wahab’s recent post on IBM’s Rational software offerings for the mainframe, these courses both use a mix of the very nice Rational Developer for z graphical tools and good ‘ol green screen to provide an easier route to understanding what the mainframe can do.  With access to the Rational toolset, students new to the mainframe at Arkansas get a great balance of accessibility and familiarity through development tools they already know, while enabling them to gradually build comfort in getting down and dirty with a more traditional terminal for building deeper skills.  Personally, I really liked the experience of having both means to develop my applications when I was in the program’s two mainframe courses.

The first Enterprise Systems course, an introductory one, focuses on some of the essential basics, like getting comfortable with TSO, ISPF & JCL in z/OS, and building a website with an associated web application in virtualized SUSE Linux.

The second, a more advanced class, focuses on building transactional applications much like what a bank, retailer, insurer or logistics firm might use to conduct their daily operations.  Teaching students some elementary COBOL basics, DB2 essentials and CICS transaction server administration skills, the class helps students understand how the key transactional systems that run the world are architected and administered.  Furthermore, students can learn how to roll their coursework into web services to be used online or in a set of practical business services to be accessed by other systems.

Having been a graduate of both the Information Systems undergraduate and graduate programs, it’s my opinion that the University of Arkansas is an excellent champion of the ideals developed and supported by the IBM Academic Initiative for System z.  For students, I’d say it’s a true win-win to say “Woo pig sooie!” and make the choice to learn real business computing as a Razorback at Arkansas!

To learn a little bit more about how the University of Arkansas uses the mainframe to educate students, check out the University’s Enterprise Systems site and have a listen to this great IBM developerWorks interview with Enterprise Systems head Dr. David Douglas and Dr. Paul Cronan, MD Matthews endowed chair and director of the school’s MIS program.

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“Walker, your treads are
the path and nothing more;
walker, there is no path,
the path is made when walking.”

Seven years ago, I had little idea of what life would hold for me or my professional future. Back then, I was self-assured 19 year-old Computer Whiz working as a Systems Administrator and taking vocational training in C programming and Oracle database administration. I thought that I knew everything about computers, and I planned to begin a degree program in Computer Engineering in anticipation of moving on to bigger and better things.

I discovered how surprising life can be when IBM offered me the chance to take a quick three-week boot camp in something completely new: the IBM System z Mainframe. At that point, I really didn’t know anything about mainframes, but like any good technology geek, I couldn’t pass up the chance to learn something new. During the first week, I intensively studied Job Control Language (JCL) and started to learn about topics like batch processing.  During the second week, I began to learn about various critical aspects of z/OS systems, including storage, operations, ISPF, SDSF, and JES2.  During the third week…

Well, I didn’t actually get a third week, as three of the trainees in the bootcamp were then pulled aside and selected to interview with IBM for employment as a Computer Operator.

Two were selected (I was one of them ).

On my first day as an IBMer, I learned that I had a choice between two open positions. One position would allow me to learn batch and the systems administration of UNIX systems, and the other would allow me to focus on administering z/OS systems among large mainframe clients, which were mostly banks.

It’s not very difficult to discover what my choice was.

Despite the fact that I had only just begun my IT education, IBM gave me a great opportunity to enter in the vast and incredible environment of the Mainframes.

Over the next months, I was definitely the newbie on the mainframe team, but I gradually learned the various components of the System z mainframe while picking up the mainframe mentality. Despite previously having minimal knowledge about mainframes, I discovered many of amazing attributes of IBM System z, including:

  • The mainframe’s traditional ISPF interface (“Intuitive and Simple Panel Facility”).
  • The orders, operations and monitors (such as SDSF) that allowed me to easily track the progress of processes and control the actions of the system.
  • The clear messages in the mainframe’s JOBLOG & SYSLOG and good documentation that helped me understand what was going on.  I actually continue to think that IBM has the best documentation of any IT vendor.

These experiences led me to realize that I really wanted to become a Mainframe Systems Programmer and resulted in where I am today.

If I had to offer advice to a young IT student thinking about mainframes, I would suggest the following:

  • Read the free IBM Redbook Intro to the New Mainframe: z/OS Basics where you can learn the core concepts of mainframes and Enterprise Computing.
  • Enroll the Master the Mainframe Contest where you can get hands-on experience working in a mainframe environment.  Although this program started in the United States, it is now expanding to Europe, India, China, Brazil, and many other countries.
  • Follow the IBM Academic Initiative, which is working hard to promote mainframe education worldwide.

There are way more opportunities available to learn the mainframe now than when I took my IBM Mainframe boot camp seven years ago, but I think that, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you learn. Who knows?  Maybe this could turn into your “big break” like it did with me.  

I hope you enjoyed my insights as a young Millennial Mainframer and don’t miss my next article!  If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to comment below. You can follow me on Twitter at @Guirix and join my ongoing discussion on Cloud Computing on the Mainframe at Cloud Mainframe Computing!

About the Author 

Álvaro Guirao López.

MBA Entrepreneurship (In Progress), Innovation & Entrepreneurship Business School
B.S in Computer Engineering, King Juan Carlos University.

Álvaro entered the Mainframe world when he starting working as a System z Computer Operator at only 19 years old. Over his career, he has learned the great capacities of mainframe hardware and software while promoting up the mainframe systems programming ranks in the banking sector. Álvaro currently runs a consultancy dedicated to helping various clients throughout Spain in the areas of mainframe technologies and systems programming

Mention the mainframe to your average computer user, and you’ll often illicit a nostalgic discussion about huge machines that occupied entire rooms, accepted input in the form of punch cards, and required the use of gigantic drives that couldn’t hold much data. Many people will even tell you that the mainframe is dead. We would have thought the exact same thing before our freshman year as undergraduates at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). However, as we quickly learned, the idea that the mainframe is somehow irrelevant in the modern computing world couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although we were only freshman at RIT, straight out of high school, we were afforded the opportunity to take a large scale computing seminar class during our spring quarter. The class, which was part of the IBM Academic Initiative, followed the Introduction to the New Mainframe: z/OS Basics IBM Redbook and provided a solid introduction to the IBM mainframe environment. Aside from the fantastic technical information that the class provided, it also afforded an opportunity to see the incredible computing power of the mainframe paradigm and its relevance to modern businesses. These weren’t the mainframes of nostalgic memories that were unable to compete with the processor in your cellphone. Instead, the modern mainframe presents an entirely new computing paradigm. It’s a paradigm that focuses on the exceptional power, customizability, redundancy, and support that the modern enterprise computing environment needs to remain competitive.

The mainframe is optimized for performing two types of mission critical workloads for any enterprise: batch jobs and online transaction processing. Batch jobs require no human interaction. Tasks such as generating business reports are usually run as batch jobs. The incredible power of the mainframe allows for hundreds of terabytes of input, all stored on redundant disks and accessed via high-speed I/O channels, to be processed seamlessly at impressive speeds. Although completing batch jobs is essential for any business, most workloads require interaction with an end-user, often through a specific application or web interface. The mainframe allows for these types of online transaction processing workloads and can support thousands of simultaneous users. The mainframe isn’t just limited to one type of job. It can be set up to handle both batch jobs and transactions depending on the workload requirements of the specific time. Mainframes provide an unparalleled way to handle the workload needs of the fast-paced business world.

The workload processing abilities of the mainframe are met because of its ability to be completely customized. As we learned during a trip to IBM in Poughkeepsie, each mainframe is made to order within 24 – 48 hours to meet the specific requirements of the customer. Everything, from the type of processor to the ISPF user interface on z/OS, can be customized to meet the needs of the end-user. Specific processors exist to meet specific needs, and can be activated on an as-needed basis by IBM. Furthermore, the mainframe is able to support the legacy applications that many businesses rely on. The fast-paced world of modern business computing demands a system that can be customized and scaled to meet real-time needs, and the modern mainframe completely satisfies this requirement.

The computing power of the mainframe would be irrelevant to modern businesses if it lacked the exceptional redundancy that it provides. Virtually everything, from power supplies to central processors, have some form of monitoring, healing, and backup abilities. There is always two (and often more) of every essential component for fail-over purposes. Systems can further be arranged in Sysplex configurations to increase redundancy across greater distances. Overall, the redundancy of the mainframe ties together its other core features and ensures that they are available to all users at all times.

So all of these technical facts about mainframes are cool, but why should millennials care about studying the mainframe? Well, there is certainly no shortage of jobs in the mainframe world. In fact, mainframe expertise is in high demand among many employers. There is no doubt that many jobs are available for those who become proficient with mainframes. The following list provides a solid overview of typical job positions in a mainframe setting.

The major roles on the mainframe system include the following:

System Programmer – The roles of the system programmer include installing, customizing, and maintaining the operating system. They plan hardware and system upgrades and make system performance tuning to meet required levels of operation. They also install and upgrade products used on the mainframe. They must be skilled at debugging software problems on the system and are responsible for maintaining middleware such as DB2 or CICS.

Common tasks performed by the System Programmer includes:

  • Planning hardware and software system upgrades and changes in configuration
  • Training system operators and application programmers
  • Automating operations
  • Capacity planning
  • Running installation jobs and scripts
  • Performing installation-specific customization tasks
  • Integration-testing the new products with existing applications and user procedures
  • System-wide performance tuning to meet required levels of service

System Administrator – The system administrator performs the day-to-day tasks that maintain the critical business data that resides on the mainframe. They often work directly with the application programmers and end users to make sure that the administrative aspects of the applications are met.

Other tasks performed by the system administrator may include:

  • Installing software
  • Adding and deleting users and maintaining user profiles
  • Maintaining security resource access lists
  • Managing storage devices and printers
  • Managing networks and connectivity
  • Monitoring system performance

Application Developer – The application developer designs, builds, tests, and delivers mainframe applications to the company’s users and customers. This role may be further broken down into application designer and application programmer. Based on business and end user requirements, the application designer creates a design specification which the application programmer codes. In addition to creating new application code, the application must be thoroughly tested. The programmer is also responsible for maintaining the mainframe’s current applications.

System Operator – The system operator monitors and controls the operation of the mainframe hardware and software. The operator starts and stops system tasks, monitors for unusual conditions, and ensures the health/normal operations of the system. They are responsible for ensuring that new applications from the system programmers run smoothly on the system. New applications are typically given to an Operations Staff along with a run book of instructions. This book identifies the specific operational requirements of the application, which operators need to be aware of during job execution. The operator is also responsible for starting and stopping the major subsystems, such as transaction processing systems, database systems, and the operating system itself.

Production Control Analyst – The production control analyst is responsible for making sure that batch workloads run to completion without error or delay. The production control analyst ensures that changes follow the proper procedures. This control of change is necessary in order to ensure the mainframe availability and performance.

Now that you know more about the responsibilities and tasks that correspond with each role, check out the System z Job Board located at This site clearly shows just how many jobs are available in case there was any doubt. It provides a great resource to search for and apply to jobs. As you will see on the site, there are many other job positions than just the positions listed above. For example, you could work on the mainframe as a database administrator, Java programmer, COBOL programmer, J2EE Developer, etc.

Anthony Critelli and Alex Belcher are students at the Rochester Institute of Technology and members of the Millennial Mainframer team.  They have recently completed their freshman year, and they are looking forward to using their well-earned summer break to study COBOL and prepare for the zMastery certification.  For more information on Anthony, Alex, and the rest of the Millennial Mainframer team, please visit the Staff section.