''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.