A daughter follows her father into a mainframe career

Kristine Harper, 27, grew up getting inside knowledge about mainframe computers -- and their career potential

Kristine Harper and her father, Tom, both work on mainframe computers. BOSTON - Kristine Harper was about 12-years-old when her father took her to his office to take part of a "take your daughter to work day." Tom Harper said his daughter was less than enthusiastic about his profession that day.

"She said Dad, I love you, but if this was the last job on the planet, I wouldn't want it," said Harper.

But as a 17-year-old high school senior, Kristine turned to her father for help in completing an independent study program. Tom Harper's task: to teach Kristine about computer programming.

He started teaching how to program in the Assembler programming language. "Once she got her first program to run, she was hooked," said Tom Harper.

Today, Kristine is 27 and works in the research and development office of her father's employer, Neon Enterprise Software Inc. in Sugar Land, Texas.

The job gives Kristine a large role in the mainframe world -- a world that is in need more youthful expertise. In fact, she is an organizer of the IBM Share user group's zNextGen project, a group of some 700 under-30 engineers looking to improve mainframe technology skills and find places to use them. The "z" in the title represents IBM's Systems z mainframe computer.

The zNextGen project, which marked its fifth anniversary at the IBM Share user conference here this week, aims to help its members through career development, networking and mentoring programs. The group began with 30 members.

A major problem facing many business that still rely on mainframe computers is an aging workforce of experts in the technology. Many mainframe professionals were born in the Baby Boom era . Many are now nearing retirement age.

Replacing them will be difficult because academic programs in recent years have catered mostly to the interest of most post secondary students in PC-centric technologies.

Kristine Harper said she hears mixed reviews about the overall tech job outlook due to the stagnant economy, but "on the other hand I've heard that companies are searching and desperately trying to find new mainframers" to fill jobs "left open because of retirement."

The IBM zNextGen project grew out of social event held in a Boston bar, Dillions, located near a Share conference held five years ago in the city. That event attracted 30 mainframe professionals under 30 years of age.

While many of her age group peers headed straight into PC-related IT work, Kristine said she "grew up in an environment where I lived without any of the stigmas, so I had a different view of the mainframe. I was exposed to how powerful and how exciting it is from day one."

Kristine's mother, Carol Harper, is a retired software developer and longtime Share member, leading Kristine to joke that she attended her first Share conference in utero.

Citing the fact the world's financial systems run on the mainframe, Tom Harper said he sees a bright future for her daughter. "If you unplugged all the mainframes tonight, nothing would work, not credit cards, not banks," he said.

Tom Harper helped to launch BMC Software and to develop many of its products before moving to Neon where he works on product architecture, and on developing and designing software.

He said he didn't do anything special to create a family interest in enterprise IT, and says that as with any parent's career, children "just naturally get curious."

A son Warren, age 19 and an intern at Neon, is also attending the Share conference this week. "I had the opportunity to learn from my Dad -- and it's not very often you get to learn from one of the best in the business," said Warren.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

Read more about mainframes and supercomputers in Computerworld's Mainframes and Supercomputers Topic Center.

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