Mainframe Training – Through the looking glass
Pitfalls of the Mainframe Training Programs
100% Overseas Placement Guarantee
What to do?
Which institute to join?
The reason for the current mainframe boom is the Year 2000 problem. Since the human content of a Y2K project is very high, there is acute shortage of mainframe professionals (almost of 85% of the Y2K problem is on the mainframe platform). The demand-supply gap is so huge that the market value of the mainframe professionals has risen and will continue to rise in the coming years. This increasing demand for mainframe professionals both in India and abroad has created a mainframe boom which can be evident form the rising number of mainframe training institutes.
We will examine the mainframe training process. Almost all the training institutes have many things in common. Barring a few, most of them have started offering the mainframe training in the last couple of months. The syllabus is also the same for most of them (Mainframe Basics, COBOL VS II or COBOL 370, CICS, DB2 and/or IMS, Y2K strategies, etc.). The course fee usually ranges between Rs. 20,000 to Rs.80,000 (But you will end up paying more!). The faculty in most institutes (there are a few institutes that have competent faculty) are students of the previous batches. Almost all of them guarantees 100% overseas placement. But the saddest part is that most of them does not have a Mainframe!
PITFALLS OF THE MAINFRAME TRAINING PROGRAMS
Now you must be asking how one can conduct mainframe training without having a mainframe. Here an institute that does not have the luxury of having a mainframe uses something that simulates the mainframe environment on a PC. MVS Workbench from Microfocus is one such software. But these workbenches were invented to reduce the load on the mainframes and save precious CPU time. They could be used to offload development and maintenance of mainframe application to PCs, develop or maintain them on the PC and then run them on the mainframe. So these workbenches are basically tools for enhancing the productivity of the mainframe programmer and reduce the mainframe CPU usage. One can download the programs that he wants to work on to a PC and do the necessary modifications, test those applications in the PC and then when every thing is fine, upload the programs to the mainframe. So the workbenches will have about 70% of the functionality of the mainframes, but it is not equivalent to a mainframe. So what was developed as a productivity improvement tool is now used as a training tool. There is nothing wrong in that. Pilots are first trained on simulators before given training on the actual aircraft. In our case this actual hands on training on mainframes is the component missing in most training programs. So a person who has undergone training on the workbench will be equivalent to a pilot trainee who has done his simulator training but has not got his training on the actual aircraft that he is supposed to fly (in most cases he has not even seen the aircraft).
The syllabus for any course must be designed with the target audience in mind. In the mainframe training courses the candidates enrolling have very diverse educational and technical backgrounds. A typical batch can include people with more than 8 years of experience to freshers who are just out of college. It can contain students who possess postgraduate degree in engineering to people who have a bachelor’s degree in commerce. There can be people who have been working in software organizations and are very familiar with computers and programming languages to people who are using computers for the first time. So preparing a syllabus for such a diverse group is a very difficult, if not impossible, task. One thing the institutes can do is to put people with similar experiences and backgrounds in the same batch.
The typical syllabus as I mentioned earlier will consist of mainframe basics, JCL, VSAM, COBOL, CICS, DB2 and/or IMS, Y2K concepts, etc. Yes, these are mainframe skills, but by becoming proficient in these languages and skills (which is a very difficult task to accomplish in 2 months) will not make one a mainframe professional. A mainframe professional needs to know a host of other things. He needs to know how to write the requirements analysis document, how to do the systems design, how to write the specifications, test plans, how to conduct unit, module and integration testing, how to execute programs in a mainframe environment, etc. But the syllabus of most of the training institutes does not contain all these.
100% Overseas Placement Guarantee
Now comes the most interesting part. The 100% overseas placement guarantee. The main mainframe market is the Unites States. Most of the people who join the mainframe course have USA as their final destination. Yes, there is demand – but for qualified professionals. With a two months mainframe course, one will not get a job abroad. The minimum experience required is more than 12 months of actual software development. So many institutes doctor the resumes of the trainees, by converting their pervious experience as mainframe experience and making them fake mainframe professionals with 2 or more years of experience. A doctored resume, if done properly, can get one a job abroad. But getting to USA and working there is a totally different ball game. To work in USA one need a work permit (the H1 visa). The H1 is issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). To get an H1 you have to clear, among others, two evaluations by INS; the Educational evaluation and the Technical Evaluation. INS has the nasty habit of rejecting people with 3 years bachelor’s degree or a diploma if they don’t have considerable experience in their relevant profession (in our case the mainframe profession). The experience required for a candidate who have a low score in the Educational evaluation can range from 3 years upwards depending on the individual’s educational qualification. So to get the H1 if you fake your experience, then you will be inviting trouble. One thing is that, if INS finds this out, you will never get an H1. Second, when you say that you are a mainframe professional of say 4 years experience, your employers will expect a lot from you and if you are not able to live up to there expectations, you will have to come back. For a person who is going to a foreign country, to adjust to the climatic and cultural changes itself is a challenge. A crisis in the workplace also can wreak havoc and can create a lot of problems.
WHAT TO DO?
So what should one do? Since there is the Y2K problem and hence the mainframe boom, it does not necessarily mean that you also have to join the bandwagon. So first do a self-analysis. How good is your present job? Are you satisfied with it? How good are your growth opportunities? Do you think you have the aptitude for the mainframe profession? Have you got a plan after the boom? Do you think you will be able to make another career switch? If you think that you should join the mainframe course, then don’t wait, JOIN immediately, because in most institutes the courses are booked till the year end.
Which institute to join?
Now which institute to join? It is definitely better to join an institute, which offer training on the actual mainframes (IBM ES 9000 or 3090). But the fee will be higher in those institutes. If you can’t get into an institute which have a mainframe, then the next criteria should be quality of the teaching staff. An experienced mainframe professional can, even with the workbench, teach you a lot more about the mainframe environment than a person who have never worked in the actual mainframe environment.
Almost all institutes offers unlimited lab time, may be on the mainframe or on the workbench. But before enrolling one should clarify whether this 24 hour labs are free or whether you will have to pay extra for using the computer after the official lab timings.
Regarding the 100% placement guarantee, one should get the following things clarified: Where will be the placement – will it be in India or abroad? If it is an overseas placement, whether it is a permanent position or will it be for a particular project on completion of which you will have to come back. On what type of visa that you are being send to US? Is it an H1 or B1 (Business visa). If you are being send on a business visa the maximum period that you can stay in US is 6 months which in some cases can be extended for another 6 months. But working in US on a B1 visa is illegal, even though many companies do it. This is because, you are not supposed to get paid when you are in US on a B1 visa. Since you are not supposed to get paid, you don’t pay any tax. So if you are in US on a B1 visa and are getting paid, then actually you are evading taxes (a person going on an H1 visa has to pay around 30% percentage of his salary as tax). So check this out before you accept the offer. Another thing you should ask is how much money (salary) that you will be getting? Are there any other benefits like medical and dental insurance, paid holidays, etc.? Falling sick, in US without a medical insurance can be a very expensive affair. All these things you should clarify before you enroll for the course. You can also ask how many people have been placed so far, what are the companies in which they are placed how long they have been in US, etc. This can be cross-verified with students of the pervious batches.
One last piece of advice, it is always better to join a domestic software company and work for a couple of years before you go abroad. Since the mainframe boom will be there for a couple of years even after year 2000, spending 12 to 18 months on the actual mainframe environment and that too in a good software development organization can make you a thoroughbred software professional. So once you have gained the experience, you can fly off to greener pastures with greater confidence and self-assurance.
Alexis Leon, DQ Week Madras, 7th July 1997.