Michelle Yeager and Hayley Owens on COBOL Programming
Reg Harbeck talks with COBOL programmers Michelle Yeager and Hayley Owens on their history with COBOL, what brought them to IBM Z and where else they’d like to take their technology careers.
By Reg Harbeck11/04/2019
Michelle Yeager: Yeah sure, so my name is Michelle. I grew up in North Jersey and went to a pretty small high school. I always loved technology as a kid. I always wanted the latest cell phone or camera or anything and I actually took a few Java programming classes in high school. I liked those so I knew I wanted to major in computer science. I went to Penn State, majored in Information Sciences and Technology with a minor in Security and Risk Analysis. During my time at Penn State, I took a variety of business and technical courses but they were all Java programming. When I was in college, I didn't even think about the mainframe. I didn't even know it was a still a thing. So when I graduated, I was pretty set on being a business analyst just because that was my role in prior internships but I wanted a rotational program just to try different roles and see what I really liked. So, I joined PNC Bank about two years ago and it was a three rotation program. The rotations were application developer, infrastructure analyst and business analyst. My first rotation was the application developer and it was basically just an intense COBOL programming course so my first day I was so scared because I had an older intense trainer and I was like I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't know what PFKeys are so my first week was a little rough but after programming in COBOL, I really liked it and actually both of my parents were COBOL programmers.
Reg: Oh, neat.
Michelle: As soon as I told them that, they're like, “Oh my God, that's awesome. We did that, you know, 30 years ago.” So that was pretty cool to have something in common with them.
Michelle: Yeah, so after that rotation I really liked it. I did the other two rotations and I still just loved COBOL. I mean in that training course we didn't really learn too much about the functionality of the mainframe. It was mostly just focused on the language. So now I've been in my new role for about a year. I love it so far. It's exciting.
Reg: Cool. So now Hayley how did you end up being a COBOL programmer?
Hayley Owens: So my story is pretty similar to Michelle's. I also grew up in New Jersey and I actually had no idea what I wanted to do. I started attending Rowan University which is a school in South Jersey. I entered as an undecided major because I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. When it came time to finally pick a major, I just looked through the list of what they had on the school's website and saw Management Information Systems. I thought to myself I don't really know what that is so I picked it because I thought the less you know, the more there is to learn. So when I graduated—well also when I was in college—there was no mention of the mainframe. I didn't know what it was. The programming courses were more like HTML, Visual Basic, css, SQL; we did a lot of database and since mine was Management Information Systems, it was more on the business side so like Michelle I also thought that I would be in a business analyst role but was really interested in getting into something more technical. I started with PNC Bank in their Technology Development program because I thought it would be a good opportunity to see what the different roles were like being a business analyst versus an application developer. Also like her, I went through a COBOL training course. We were not in the same rotation. We took it at different times but we had the same instructor. The instructor was really great and I fell in love with COBOL too. It was really exciting knowing something new and there was so much to learn. Just like when I picked my major, I was like “This was something I'd never heard of before and it would be great to learn.” Then when I finished the program, Michelle and I both got hired onto the same full-time team and we've been working as COBOL developers here on loan servicing applications for just almost a year now.
Reg: Cool. Is that when you first met each other when you ended up working together?
Michelle: Yeah, well it's funny because a friend of mine from my small high school actually went to college with Hayley. There were only four of us that were placed in this development program in Philly so my friend was like “Oh you know Hayley's doing that.” I'm like “There's no way. There are only four of us. There's no way.” And sure enough she was doing it so we actually met the first day at orientation which was in Pittsburgh. I felt like as soon as we met we became really good friends. It's fun working together, to have a buddy.
Reg: Now it's funny. For those who don't know the geography of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia where you work is a quite a fair ways from Pittsburgh but it seems like Pittsburgh is a pretty important part of your story so much so that you ended up going to SHARE at Pittsburgh together which I gather was your first SHARE. How did that happen?
Hayley: I was invited, my boss sent me to an IBM workshop back in October for a new platform that they were thinking of, new software they were thinking of buying from them and while I was there, I talked to some of the IBMers and was telling them how I was into the mainframe and just asking about how to learn more and get more involved with it. There's definitely a small number of people on the mainframe who are very young and it is intimidating being new because everybody has been working on the platform for a longer time. They are all experts. So someone mentioned to me about the zNextGen program and how I should attend the SHARE conference because it was a great way to get involved, to learn more so I was able to learn about it through that and then came back and asked our boss if he would let us go. Of course he wanted to sponsor us learning more and our development so that's how we got to go.
Reg: Cool. Now that was Hayley who was just talking right?
Reg: Yeah, okay. Michelle, any addition thoughts on how you guys ended up at SHARE?
Michelle: No, I mean I basically just got to go because Hayley went to that little conference I guess and our manager, I mean Hayley and I are one of the few younger, newer mainframers I guess so she thought it would be great if both of us went and met new people and gained more knowledge.
Reg: So what did you get out of SHARE? What are some of the neat things that you observed or some of the value that you got? Let's start with Michelle.
Michelle: Well I like the zNextGen group. Where we work it's a lot of people that have been working on the mainframe for many, many years, you know fresh out of college, or maybe they didn't even go to college. They've been using it for a long time so it's a little frustrating sometimes because we're so new and there's just so much to learn. There's just such a learning gap so going to SHARE was awesome because we met a lot of people our age. Everyone was basically in the same boat. No one learned the mainframe or learned COBOL in college. Like we all had—most of us had computer science or MIS backgrounds but it was just really cool to meet a lot of people with similar backgrounds and how we all just learned it on the job.
Reg: Cool. Hayley, additional thoughts, other things you got from SHARE?
Hayley: zNextGen was definitely one of the best things I thought about it. Also just not with regards to people at work just when I go off and tell my friends “Hey I work on the mainframe” and they don't know what I'm talking about or my family will say “They still use that? You should try to switch to new stuff.” It was nice to hear about how relevant it still is. I think someone mentioned that 80-90% of the world's economy’s data is still stored on the mainframe and how many CICS transactions there are per day. So knowing that with good validation that we're on a good path. It was great to see. I know here at work everyone is always so willing to share everything they know and they're excited that someone is willing to learn it from them and that was the same at SHARE. It was so nice.
Michelle: Everyone was also so excited.
Hayley: They were so excited to meet you, so excited to hear where you were from, very more than willing to do any help you need, share any information you wanted. You know you made contacts with people that maybe could help you when you saw them in the future. Just being part of that community, it really made me proud to work on this platform.
Reg: Cool. So now as we look forward since you're very much in the beginning of your careers, maybe if I can get you each to give me some thoughts about both where you'd like to see your career go and where you think the mainframe both in terms of technology and the culture needs to go. Maybe I'll start with Hayley.
Hayley: Okay. Yeah, I would definitely like to stay on the mainframe. I think I’d, since we've been working mostly in batch COBOL programs, I'd love to get more into CICS. Definitely learning about that at SHARE made me realize that’s how we're connecting to all of the outside API’s, how we’re making ourselves relevant still with newer technology so being part of that inspiration would be really great. I think just in the future of the mainframe some things that are really important. I think it was great that me and Michelle were hired as a pair, having someone who is going through it with you definitely helps because it’s overwhelming and it's nice to have someone on your team who's your age and going through the same thing as you. I think there's very little awareness when you're in college that this is an option and I think I would love for people to know more about how they can get into this. I know that IBM has that Master the Mainframe. It seems like people at SHARE are really working toward spreading the word and getting new people involved but it's so important. When you put in perspective about how much it is still used, how relevant it is, how much of an impact you can make, I think people would be interested in joining.
Reg: Cool. Michelle, what are your thoughts both about your future and the future of the mainframe?
Michelle: Yeah, I would definitely agree with everything Hayley said basically but I mean I would love to go back to Penn State or any college and talk about how important the mainframe is because I remember one session we were in, they were talking about how most young people are addicted to their cell phones, social media; they were saying if everyone got rid of their social media, the world would still go on but if you got rid of the mainframe, many things would be affected. So I guess for the future for me, I really like just programming in COBOL. I'm really into that now so I probably want to stick with that for a few more years and then maybe I'd go back to the distributed side since I did learn Java in college but for right now I'm really into COBOL. I mean like Hayley said too, I like CICS. We learned a lot about that.
Reg: And as you may be aware, there's of course also Java on the mainframe so you might be among the people who really are part of bringing the distributed and mainframe world together in the future.
Michelle: Right, yeah. Yeah, it's really great. And there was—I mean people were surprised Hayley and I still work on a—I guess a green screen you'd call it. There are so many new things that—
Hayley: —New tooling to use.
Michelle: —Yeah, new tools like we heard of the z/OS Explorer and that was cool. So I think the mainframe is never going to go away. I still have a lot more to explore as well.
Reg: Okay. Well it's been a real pleasure to chat with both of you. Any last thoughts either of you wanted to share?
Michelle: I just hope maybe more colleges talk about the mainframe and how important it is, and push more kids into it because I think it's a great field to be in right now. We're in high demand. I just think people don't know enough about it.
Reg: Okay. Let's see. Was that Hayley?
Michelle: That was Michelle.
Reg: Sorry. Hayley, any final thoughts from you?
Hayley: I think Michelle summed it up pretty well. It was a pleasure talking with you.
Reg: Okay and a pleasure talking with both of you. Great to know and I look forward to seeing where your careers go next.
Michelle: Thank you.
Reg Harbeck is a mainframe enthusiast who has worked IT and mainframes for over three decades. He's the chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics ltd. More →
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