Strategic CIO // Team Building & Staffing
News
3/20/2014
09:06 AM
Connect Directly
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Mainframe Brain Drain? Not In Heart Of Texas

The computer science department at Texas State University still offers a full course in COBOL programming, in part to help students differentiate themselves on the job market.

10 IT Job Titles We Miss
10 IT Job Titles We Miss
(Click image for larger view.)

CIOs looking for the next generation of mainframe IT talent might want to skip over MIT or Stanford and book a recruiting trip to San Marcos, Texas.

The reason is simple. The Department of Computer Information Systems and Quantitative Methods at Texas State University still teaches COBOL programming, with an ample dose of job control language (JCL) on the syllabus to boot. It's just a single class in a broad, software development-focused department. Yet it's remarkable because it's an uncommon find in university course catalogues these days.

Dr. David Wierschem, the department chairman, said that, even though there are a handful of US university programs focused on the mainframe, usually offered in conjunction with corporate partners, they're the exception, rather than the rule.

"There are only a few left in the country that are doing that," Wierschem said in a phone interview. "The fact that we still teach COBOL is perplexing to many people, but we see a demand, and we push it for our students to take as a differentiator."

Local employers along the I-35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio, such as the enterprise mobility platform company ClearBlade, have begun to reap the benefits of Texas State's COBOL offering. ClearBlade COO Brian Hall said it has hired 8-10 interns from the school during the last year, and three of them have gone on to become full-time employees. That's a considerable chunk for a company with fewer than 20 people. Also, ClearBlade's demand for mainframe skills isn't driven by internal systems. Rather, its Fortune 500 target market still depends heavily on the mainframe, which means ClearBlade developers must know how to ensure its platform plays nicely with customer systems.

[Bump up your profile by writing a LinkedIn blog. Read LinkedIn Blogs: 5 Dos & Don'ts.]

"Our core business is enabling mobile and IoT applications to gain access to core systems of record. Many if not most of those systems are running on big iron and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future," Hall told us in an email. "Finding iOS [and] Android developers [who] know what a CICS transaction is [is] more difficult than you might think."

There's a reason more universities aren't offering coursework in COBOL and other mainframe skills: There aren't enough employers pushing for it, even if they know they face a serious labor shortfall as a generation of mainframe experts hits retirement age. Though IBM encourages mainframe training for students with its academic initiative, Wierschem said that alone isn't enough to move the proverbial needle in universities.

"That's coming from the supply side of the software and the machines. It's not coming from the demand side of the employers." IBM and other vendors can offer as much free hardware, software, curriculum support, capital, and other resources as they like, but unless employers become more vocal about their mainframe-related needs, students won't be drawn to coursework designed to develop those skills. Wierschem is betting employers will change.

IBM supercomputers.(Source: Wikipedia)
IBM supercomputers.
(Source: Wikipedia)

"What I see happening is there are going to be several large, multinational companies that wake up one day and say, 'Doggone it, all of my COBOL programmers have retired or died.'" He's not being dramatic; Wierschem went on to relay a story a friend told him a year ago. "He said: 'You know, we're in a bad problem right now because, in the first draft, all of the COBOL programmers retired and we hired them back as consultants. The problem now is they're dying, and you cannot hire them back from death.' Unfortunately, businesses are not being aggressive in addressing this issue."

Even locally, ClearBlade is somewhat unique in its active, public hunt for young IT pros with mainframe skills. When he took over as department chairman, Wierschem worked with his IBM contacts to invite more than 100 Big Blue customers in the area to meet and discuss their mainframe training and hiring needs, with an eye toward possibly building Texas State's course offerings. Only three companies showed up, and those that did said the single COBOL course was enough; they would train new hires internally on other necessary skills.

Wierschem, like many others, predicts the mainframe will be a mainstay in many corporate environments for a long time to come. "If you look at the costs of what it took to put those systems in place, and how effective and reliable they are, to replace them is going to be huge investment in time and money," he said. "I do not see it going away any time soon."

Likewise, Wierschem says the demand for IT pros with mainframe skills not only exists today but will actually increase over time as more of the current workforce hits retirement age. However, until employers demand more mainframe employees, academic programs will be driven by faculty and student interests -- the students are the customers, after all -- and COBOL will get the short shrift.

"They're going to be teaching what the students are interested in and what's going to attract the students, which is the 'gee whiz, wow!' stuff," he said. "The mainframe is [perceived as] old and boring, so students don't want to take it. We're one of the few schools that actually try to push our students to do it, because we know there's going to be increasing demand for it."

Of the 23 graduating students in Wierschem's department last year, 14 had jobs lined up, eight had yet to start looking -- "which made me want to pull my hair out, but that's a separate issue" -- and one faced employment challenges as a deaf international student. Job placement depends on a lot of factors, but Wierschem says learning COBOL improves a young IT pro's chances, because the skill appears on fewer and fewer resumes.

"It's a differentiating factor for them. It really helps them get interviews," he said. "The fact that they have these skills, employers recognize value in that. They don't all go into working in COBOL [full time], but it gets them in the door."

There's a reward beyond a paycheck, too, for students and teachers alike. Wierschem said several students who'd struggled with the COBOL course -- often because it's different from the languages to which they're accustomed -- later landed internships and continued to use skills from the class in job settings.

"They're enjoying it, and it's kind of like a shock and a surprise to them that, hey, this is cool, and it's not what you think it is," Wierschem said. "It's kind of rewarding knowing that we're doing something right by helping guide students into that career path, because it's going to be a great opportunity for them because demand is only going to go up and up."

Engage with Oracle president Mark Hurd, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, General Motors CIO Randy Mott, Box founder Aaron Levie, UPMC CIO Dan Drawbaugh, GE Power CIO Jim Fowler, and other leaders of the Digital Business movement at the InformationWeek Conference and Elite 100 Awards Ceremony, to be held in conjunction with Interop in Las Vegas, March 31 to April 1, 2014. See the full agenda here.

Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses. View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Madhava verma dantuluri
50%
50%
Madhava verma dantuluri,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/24/2014 | 12:52:35 AM
Good
This is a good refresh and wonder where its heading.
Pooua
50%
50%
Pooua,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/21/2014 | 6:40:34 PM
Re: Everything old is new again
Well, that's what I hear, though I don't think of it in the same category as programming. I did take a class in Information Storage and Management (using EMC's textbook), and I've taken a class in SQL. I'd like to get into this area, but I'm having a tough time getting my foot in the door. I've heard of Nosql, Hadoop and others, but I haven't had the chance to learn them. I recently started a free, online course from Microsoft on their Hyper-V software.
anon2757656426
50%
50%
anon2757656426,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/21/2014 | 2:51:47 PM
COBOL Is More Relevant Today Than You Think
I work for a company that specializes in COBOL technologies, and it never ceases to amaze me of the people who profess to be IT professionals, how little they know of what really goes on in the back-office of most large corporations.

While the advent of the internet and before it client/server computing heralded lots of new languages and technologies for building front-ends, communication layers and services, these for the most part have only been used for new development. The legacy back-office systems where most of today's large corporations perform order processing and financial transactions are still to this day majority COBOL. If you look at statistics you'll see that more than 70% of all business transactions performed each day around the world are processed by COBOL. There is no way you can perform an ATM or point-of-sale transaction these days without touching COBOL somewhere during that transaction.

This is not because these companyies are lazy and simply haven't gotten around to replacing COBOL yet - there are two main reasons. First, these systems are mature and have been highly customized for decades to tailor them to each company's needs. And since they often comprise code bases in hudreds of thousands if not millions of lines of code, and play such a crucial role in company's bottom line, it is both extremely risky and extremely expensive to replace.

The second reason they haven't been replaced is that they work! They are extremely efficient and performant at what they do. As we like to say, COBOL runs very close to the metal. It has no expansive framework umbrella ala Java or .Net, so the code is very performant. Built a web service that can process thousands of transactions a second? Could you scale that to millions of transactions a second? Probably not, but there are COBOL systems that do that every day.

The other reason COBOL got a bad rap through the years is that it was locked away on the mainframe, accessible only through green screen terminals. The mainframe was/is an expensive and proprietary platform. But there are solutions that allow you to take COBOL systems off the mainframe and run them on distributed platforms. Additionally there are plug-ins for both Eclipse and Visual Studio that allows development to be independent of the mainframe as well. Additionally there are COBOL variants today that allow you to code in and interoperate with OO frameworks such as Java and .Net.

So while COBOL has been around a long time, it has not remained static, and is just as relevant today as any other technology within your IT environment.
hho927
50%
50%
hho927,
User Rank: Moderator
3/21/2014 | 1:10:27 PM
Re: Everything old is new again
The trend now is 'big data', the cloud,nosql, mobile app dev. Overseas can do html,java cheap so you can't compete.

They need only senior programmers 4 C,C++,VB LOL :). There is a shortage so they push to import more workers.
Pooua
50%
50%
Pooua,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/21/2014 | 11:40:19 AM
Re: Everything old is new again
Yes, the IT world is all about trends, and it seems I'm always behind the curve. I've never seen a time when COBOL was the hot language (I came along too late for that), but I've watched as C, C++, Visual Basic and now Java have been the in-demand languages. I hesitated to invest much effort into Java for years, because I had seen how fickle employers are. 

Incidentally, I started out with HTML 3.0 in 1996, and I just completed a class last year in HTML 5 with CSS 3. That was interesting. I graduated with two computer degrees (Computer Science and Computer Systems) last year, and now I've been unemployed for several months. I'm not impressed with IT's career opportunities. 
Pooua
50%
50%
Pooua,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/21/2014 | 11:29:30 AM
Pardon My Incredulity... COBOL?
I took COBOL and JCL with VSAM in 1991. At the time, my junior college had an IBM mainframe (I think it was a 390), and our labs were conducted on terminals. My class took a tour of the room housing the actual mainframe, where the operator advised us to find a different line of work. She was serious. In the years since then, the school got rid of their mainframe, replaced by networked workstations. 

I did pretty well in those classes--a "B" and an "A"--but I went on to several other programming languages. My favorite was the C programming language, but I've also taken x86 and MIPS Assembly, Pascal, C++ and Java. Although, at one time, about 75% of all business programming was in COBOL, I've rarely seen a request for someone trained in it. About the only thing anyone wants these days is Java programmers. 
Gary_EL
50%
50%
Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
3/21/2014 | 1:33:53 AM
JCL
I shuddered when you mentioned JCL.

I had no idea it was still being used to access those mysterious mainframes that everybody knows about but almost nobody talks about any more.

Maybe I just had bad instructors, but when I was introduced to JCL decades ago in college, I just hated it. It seemed like a black art, with no logical explanations available and no readable documentation. Those that were good at it would not share their secrets, and kept all of us fearful and dependent. How different from the modern computer environment, academic or professional, where as long as your head is bloody from banging it on the wall from trying, help always seems to appear. It turned me off of computers for years, until the original IBM PC appeared, for which I was glad to spend thousands of dollars for at the time.
danielcawrey
50%
50%
danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
3/20/2014 | 3:13:00 PM
Re: Everything old is new again
This is interesting. There will obviously be a COBOL market that will pay highly for talent, but it is a very specialized subset. Fortune 500 companies will have to pay for this of course because they are tethered to it.

But I'm not sure that if I were a student today that I would want to concentrate on something like this. 
hho927
50%
50%
hho927,
User Rank: Moderator
3/20/2014 | 3:00:33 PM
Re: Everything old is new again
IT world is a bit crazy. You have to catch the trend and make money.

Back then, a few of my friends took only html and got jobs with high salary. A few other took only Java and got hired. (No wonder Java is a mess and so are lots of websites) I stayed in school for 4 years and it surely doesn't pay off.
alexfiles01
50%
50%
alexfiles01,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/20/2014 | 2:41:28 PM
Everything old is new again
So funny. In the late nineties and early aughts I was told to take COBOL and similarly older languages I'd learned off my resume, as they were no longer relevant. (This and similar advice re-routed my career path quite a bit, btw). Now it seems like they're back. Glad to see COBOL is still useful, and all the best to the students! 

P.S. Students, just be glad you don't have to learn it on punch cards ;-)
2014 US Salary Survey: 10 Stats
2014 US Salary Survey: 10 Stats
InformationWeek surveyed 11,662 IT pros across 30 industries about their pay, benefits, job satisfaction, outsourcing, and more. Some of the results will surprise you.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest - August 27, 2014
Who wins in cloud price wars? Short answer: not IT. Enterprises don't want bare-bones IaaS. Providers must focus on support, not undercutting rivals.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Archived InformationWeek Radio
Howard Marks talks about steps to take in choosing the right cloud storage solutions for your IT problems
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.