Over the last 15 years, the push to client/server computing and, more recently, Web-based computing, has created an entire generation of IT professionals that have little or no skill for managing mainframe and large enterprise data centers. While there is no shortage of workers now to run these centers, this area will create an employment boom in just a few years as those toiling on mainframes hit retirement age.

For new consultants or consultants looking to change direction for more lucrative opportunities, now is the time to get the skills required to work in enterprise data centers. In doing so, you can differentiate yourself from the masses and the newly tuned skills could ensure longer-term job security.

What prompts the need for mainframe skills
As corporations made the move to LAN-based systems, much of the development effort focused on client/server computing. “Like many companies, we’re putting a lot of development effort into Web applications, and we’re looking at Web-services-based applications,” explained Richard K. Williams, an MIS director at a New York financial institution. “But, for the most part, these applications serve as front ends to our mainframe applications. Most of our Web and client/server development is designed to give employees and customers access to information on those mainframes through browsers.”

Williams said that while client/server and Web development efforts are the bulk of the application development work in his company, there is still a crucial need to maintain the mainframe applications and the equipment those applications run on.

“We’ve got a core group of people with these skills, but I don’t see many new [IT or MIS] people coming along who have what’s needed to run our data center,” he noted. And this lack of replacement personnel in the pipeline means job security for the MIS director. “I keep (kiddingly) telling my family I’m being held hostage by my company and will never be able to retire,” said Williams.

Others concur with Williams’ assessment of the situation. “Over about the last 15 years, most applications have been written using higher-level programming languages like C and C++, as well as Java, more recently,” said David Morgan, a systems engineer at the IT consulting company Dwyer and Associates. “But many mainframe applications and operational programs are written in COBOL, JCL, PL/1, or CICS—programming languages that few MIS [staffers] know.”

Don’t forget the equipment maintenance needs
Maintaining the applications is just one challenge; maintaining the equipment running those applications is another. For example, many IT people simply don’t have any experience working in traditional raised-floor data centers, which are designed from the ground up with the care and maintenance of the computing systems in mind.

“We’ve seen departments grow their computer efforts from a single server to racks of high-performance, high-density clusters,” said Evan Theodore, MIS consultant at a New Jersey pharmaceutical company. “Yet, they treat these systems as if they were some old desktop computer.”

For example, he noted that often little care is given to basics such as the power or cooling requirements of these clusters. “I’ve come across [departmental clusters] sitting in hallways, where they’re using rotating fans to try to cool the thing,” he said.

Mapping out the career path
If you want to develop or beef up your mainframe and enterprise data center skills, you have a couple of options. First is formal training. Many colleges offer certificate-level data center courses and programming courses in COBOL, PL/1, and CICS.

A second option is to look to industry groups for help. For instance, the Association for Computer Operations Management (AFCOM) recently announced a new program called the Data Center Knowledge Initiative. The program’s purpose is to deliver training and educational resources to help IT professionals hone skills and help companies deal with the lack of mainframe skills in the marketplace.

The initiative has three cornerstones: training, new technology, and management practices. For the training segment, AFCOM has teamed with Marist College, which offers a certificate program in this area. Professionals who want to beef up their enterprise data center skills can take online courses through Marist and take the hands-on portion of the program at the biannual AFCOM conferences.

For the new technology portion, the program will ask vendors to share product knowledge. “We’re asking vendors to highlight products they have available today to tell us where they fit in,” said Brian Koma, AFCOM’s vice president of marketing. “We’re asking them to highlight the technology that overcomes some of the limitations of managing data centers.” For instance, he points to the remote management of servers and mainframes using handheld devices as an application of newer technology to enterprise data center management.

For the management practices part of the initiative, AFCOM is looking for best practices to share with those participating in the data center program. Koma said that he’s seeing some innovative approaches to getting people interested in and moved into data center careers.

“One organization is using the ability to train [workers] in mainframe skills as an incentive,” said Koma. “[Some managers] may have plateaued in their careers, perhaps reaching some maximum pay level. Retraining [these managers] in mainframe skills gives them a different and higher-paying career path.”