"I was under the opinion that mainframe was kind of a dying breed; I had never heard of anybody using the mainframe," Smith said. "Everbody got a PC."
But then he took an operating systems class at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, where he learned the ins and outs of the software that powers the IBM zSeries mainframes. He then took a class on assembly language for mainframes, and that is where he first realized that the mainframe is still a viable part of the computing world.
Smith was hooked. His new passion led him to a job as a mainframe engineer at Ohio-based Timken, a $4.5 billion manufacturing company. In fact Timken has made a habit of hiring Malone graduates to work on mainframes.
This trend may not yet be a huge phenomenon. But companies like IBM and baby boomers who grew up working on the refrigerator-sized computers hope Smith's experience will replicate around the world to thwart what IBM zSeries director Mike Bliss has termed a "graying of mainframe skills."
The dilemma is that baby boomer mainframe experts in their 50s and 60s are retiring while most computer science graduates are leaving school fluent in Microsoft or Unix operating systems. Such software typically runs on much smaller, more modular machines.
Clipper Group analyst Mike Kahn said the problems facing mainframe customers are legitimate concerns.
"One of them is: 'Where am I going to get my next generation of systems programmers and analysts because the kids they are getting out of school used to do C and now they do Java, and what good is all of this going to do unless I'm running Windows and Linux?'"
Kahn said cheaper workstations, PCs and other options began to edge out the mainframe in the 80s, leaving the current void of 21st-century mainframe programmers to keep up the legacy systems. Companies like Sun Microsystems continue to make it hard for IBM to sell its machines.
Don Whitehead, director of mainframe migration at Sun, said customers are interested in getting off mainframes for three reasons: Cost, lack of skilled mainframe programmers and the dearth of mainframe applications to meet evolving business needs.
"It's difficult to imagine IBM being highly successful creating a new generation of mainframe programmers," Whitehead said. "It's probably a last-ditch effort to keep them going awhile longer."
But IBM needs it to keep selling its successful, high-margin zSeries systems. Without developers knowledgeable in maintaining the mainframe operating system, companies will be reticent to buy the big machines, let alone stick with them when it's time for an upgrade. They may opt for the smaller Unix or Windows-based systems.
That is why IBM is banking so heavily on its Academic Initiative zSeries program, which lets students and professors go back to the roots of computing and play with a zSeries mainframe.
Launched in 2003, 150 universities, including the University of Arkansas, Indiana State, Northeastern Illinois, Colorado State and others around the world, are now enrolled in the program.
Professor David Douglas of The University of Arkansas, Walton School of Business, teaches two courses around the mainframe. The school recently said it would receive access to a zSeries mainframe, IBM software and training valued at approximately $7 million.
"In this part of the country, we still have a large contingent of mainframe users: Wal-Mart, Datatronics and Dillards all use them as a key part of their transaction processing," Douglas said.
The professor said luring students to the mainframe is a tough "sell" because "they've grown up with a mouse in their hand and a PC." Computer science folks have moved almost exclusively to Unix, while most of the business schools use Microsoft's Windows environment.
This is one of the reasons why very few academic institutions still use a mainframe for their courses, making IBM's donation to his university a blessing.
"The cost of the software alone is too expensive. We wouldn't be able to do it if they didn't donate it," Douglas said.
Timken's Smith said simply that programming on mainframes is enjoyable, noting his company has a regimen for mainframes that makes running the system more efficient.
"In my experience, non-mainframe environments don't have that much rigor or structure to them," Smith said. "When you have a lot of different people working on the same set of programs, you need to have strict standards in place so that you can pick up anybody program and be able to do maintenance or add a new feature."
IBM has its own standards: Its goal with the zSeries program is to have 20,000 mainframe-literate IT professionals -- programmers like Smith -- in the market by 2010.
IBM hopes to double the number of schools involved in the program by the end of 2005.
Article originally appeared on Internetnews.com.