Because developers face an environment in which the technology is rapidly changing, keeping a career on track can be a challenge. Combine that with an uncertain economy, and it’s no wonder so many careers get stalled. In this column, we’ll provide suggestions, tips, and answers to your career questions to help you avoid pitfalls and achieve your professional goals.

I am a mainframe application developer with seven-plus years of experience (CICS, COBOL, DB2, and VSAM). During this time, I have been contracting, and now I want to train on other platforms or train on Web-enabling technologies for mainframe-based applications. Any suggestions as to what path I should take?


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Find the Web-centric aspects of your current platform
That’s a great question—and one that’s relevant to many current developers. My experience has been that opportunities are either remaining steady or dwindling for developers who have only mainframe skills. This is especially true when it comes to contractors, since most development and support can easily be handled internally. Only yesterday, I heard from a solid mainframe contractor I’ve dealt with in the past. He told me that he’s been out of work for over a year and has no viable prospects on the horizon.

For additional perspective, I talked with the director of development at a Midwestern Fortune 500 company. Lately, the majority of his projects have involved using Web-enabling tools for the mainframe. Here is what he had to say:

“Some of our mainframe developers have been walking into the Web world by creating mainframe-side CICS modules that accept inbound requests (such as an inquiry) and generate an outbound response message. When these messages are fairly structured, without a number of levels, the CICS module is written to accept the input message in an XML-tagged format and to respond in an XML-tagged format—the normal message format for Web-side applications. The development of code to read and return XML is a good starting point. In addition, I would recommend training on messaging middleware tools, such as MQ Series, Tuxedo, Vitria, etc.”

Derin Bluhm, a consultant from Los Angeles, shared that opinion. Derin is an expert in architecting Web-based systems and database-driven application development. He, too, began his career in a mainframe environment, designing and testing avionics systems software for nine years with the Boeing Company. Since then, he’s served as CTO of several Web-centric software companies. According to Derin:

“Shankar is actually in a nice position. Adding Web technology to his experience will make him very marketable.

“There is tremendous demand for people with several years of experience with mainframe (aka legacy) systems. Given that Shankar appears to have database experience withDB2, he should examine its latest features and explore noted best practices for vending XML data structures. I would recommend that he follow with IBM’s Websphere application server.

“Most of the employers looking for mainframe experience will be institutions like banks, hospitals, etc. or consulting companies that service those market sectors. The projects will invariably require vending the legacy data to some Web service or portal. XML and the associated technologies (e.g., XSL) are the glue that most employers will be applying to translate the core data, accessed through the time-tested COBOL business logic, into Web pages or raw XML data files for use by other integration software.”

It’s certainly not the norm for two subject matter experts to be in such agreement, so that should tell you something.

Then there is the money
I would add that you should be open to a rate of pay that’s less than you’re used to if it will provide you with an opportunity to gain experience in the areas you want to pursue. Don’t be frightened off by some of the rates you may see. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of agents trying to find work for their developers who are on the bench. In fact, the consultant I mentioned earlier has now dropped his minimum acceptable pay rate to a figure that is just over 50 percent of what he was seeking a year ago.

Around for a while
The mainframes are here to stay. Also, it’s possible that as the population of experienced mainframe developers begins retiring—which is already happening—salaries will begin to edge back up again. It’s all a matter of supply and demand. So try to find that middle ground and begin your transition.

Life after mainframe

Have you successfully made the leap from big iron to client-server, Web, or similar technologies? Do you know anyone who has? What advice can you offer your peers who are trying to make such a move? Send us an e-mail with your experiences and suggestions or post a comment below.