Creating The Next High-End Generation

Attrition is robbing the market of people with the skills to run high-end servers and other complex systems, so companies such as IBM and Unisys are looking to turn students

October 19, 2005

5 Min Read
Network Computing logo

When Leonardo LeTourneaut applied for an internship with IBM in 2003, he had an undergraduate degree and four internships on his resume. What he didn’t have, however, was exposure to a platform like IBM’s iSeries mid-range computers, or experience working on a business project from conception to completion.

LeTourneaut landed a three-month IBM Speed Team internship, during which groups of four students are assigned to work on projects on the iSeries platform. The students in LeTourneaut’s team completed a grid-computing e-commerce application designed to help small and medium-sized businesses handle peak traffic on their web sites. The group researched the problem, developed a solution and then presented their work to a group of IBM colleagues. For LeTourneaut it was a three-month immersion in the real world of business. “Projects in school are not as involved,” he said. “The best part was working on something from conception to the finish.” The internship paid off for LeTourneaut: IBM offered him a full-time job as a software engineer on the iSeries platform.

IBM is one of the most visible technology companies offering programs aimed at developing enterprise-level skills among college and graduate students. Using traditional internships along with web-based contests, blogs, and collaborative projects, the companies are trying to create a buzz about enterprise systems that may initially seem dull to the college crowd. In addition to exposure to mainframe and mid-range systems, the programs offer students a chance to work with professionals from a variety of disciplines such as marketing, finance, and human resources, that they would not likely encounter in the classroom. The technology companies benefit by creating a pool of talent for recruitment – IBM’s goal is to hire 70 percent of its interns -- and by positioning themselves as attractive employers to young IT professionals.

“The majority of college students know the desktop [PC], but they don’t understand the comprehensiveness of servers across corporations when they come in,” says Linda Grigoleit, iSeries worldwide marketing program manager. The intensive Speed Team internships create awareness of an entirely different class of computer systems, she says. The interns also hone business, project management, and communications skills, Grigoleit says. Unisys Corp. has also reached out to college students in an effort to foster enterprise-level skills. Earlier this year the company launched the TuxMasters Invitational, a contest in which college students are challenged to make improvements to the Linux operating system. Under the contest rules, students had to select a project using the Open Source Development Lab’s technical capability guide for Data Center Linux, a lengthy document that includes a laundry list of features needed to strengthen Linux’s enterprise features, says Derek Rodner, Linux program manager for Unisys. Forging connections between the students’ research and the actual needs of the business community was a goal of the contest. Unisys board member James J. Duderstadt, who is president emeritus and a professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, urged the company to expand such opportunities, Rodner says. “A lot of college students are doing excellent research, but it’s in a bubble. We wanted the students to interact with the open source community and with the business community.” For those unfamiliar with the workings of a data center, the Data Center Linux list was a little daunting, says Dr. Jeanna Matthews, an assistant professor of computer science at Clarkson University and an advisor to the students who won the first TuxMasters competition. “Some students aren’t familiar with enterprise needs, Matthews says.

To get the TuxMaster competition off the ground, Unisys marketed the program to a group of 16 universities with which it has existing relationships and it promoted the contest at the Linux World trade show. In the first round, 10 teams from 8 different universities submitted projects. The winning submission came from a team of two Clarkson graduate students who developed a database exploration tool that aims to make database queries more efficient. Matthews says working on real business problems brings an added level of rigor to the students’ work. “I try hard to give students a taste of the computing real world,” she says. Clarkson students have won several other computer science contests in recent years and the recognition from private businesses is a great motivator, Matthews says. Unisys has launched a second round of the competition and winners will be chosen early next year.In an era of iPods and wireless networks, drumming up interest in big iron among college students is an ongoing challenge. SHARE Inc., an independent user group of IBM customers, is working with Big Blue to attract young IT professionals to mainframe careers. “We’re trying to overcome the misperception that the mainframe is dead,” says Robert Rosen, president of Share. With much of the mainframe workforce heading to retirement age, Rosen and others worry about a potential shortage of skilled workers in the years ahead. In August, Share and IBM launched the zNextGen initiative, which is an effort to offer mentoring, networking and career guidance to students and young IT professionals interested in mainframe work. “As businesses become more reliant on computer systems, security, reliability and availability are important, and they are all hallmarks of the mainframe,” said Rosen. “This is really front line technology.”

IBM has taken several other steps to meet its goal of training 20,000 mainframe professionals by 2010, including an academic initiative to provide professors and students at more than 150 colleges with mainframe access and a related curriculum.

Perhaps more important than imparting technology skills, the corporate-sponsored education and training programs offer students the chance to learn how technology can be applied to improve business. “From our customers, we hear that they need bright graduates who understand IT, but who also understand the business and how to solve the problem of translating business requirements into technology,” says IBM’s Grigoleit.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox
More Insights