In downtown Detroit, cars and people swarm streets and sidewalks. The daytime melody of live music reverberates through Campus Martius Park. At the riverfront, office workers on lunch jog alongside Detroit’s incomparable early modern and contemporary skyline, once again populated with businesses.

Alec Lindner, a senior at Vanderbilt University, didn’t know much about this Detroit before moving here in May to intern at Compuware for the summer. It’s a far cry from the Detroit of one decade ago, let alone from Nashville, where Vanderbilt is, and from Lindner’s home state of Texas.

“I’d always been interested in the city, and Compuware looked like an interesting place to work,” Lindner said.

Over the summer, he and three other Compuware interns lived in a midtown Detroit apartment from which they would seek out a new perspective of the resurging city. Likewise, curiosity spurred each of them to seek out a new perspective of the mainframe as opposed to another platform.

“I didn’t know much about the mainframe before looking into Compuware,” Lindner said. “I knew what it was in an abstract sense, a big box, a big computer, but I didn’t really know what it was used for.”

Like Detroit’s story, critics once resoundingly claimed the mainframe’s heyday had passed. But Compuware is proving the mainframe can be removed from its outdated culture, processes and tools and brought into the modern domains of Agile and DevOps.

Transforming Inexperience into Success

Devin Berchtold, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, admitted he didn’t know what to expect coming to Compuware, aside from being told he’d be doing a lot of programming in Assembler.

“It has been an interesting challenge, but not as tedious as it seems,” he said. “You really get down to the nitty-gritty and see what the machine is doing at a very low level.”

Before Compuware, the interns hadn’t worked with the mainframe or learned about it in any capacity. Despite their inexperience, they were able to transfer over unique areas of knowledge and non-mainframe programming skills to be successful.

As Lindner discovered, “The syntax is different, but the main concept, stuff like branching and memory management, definitely transfers over.”

Joe Barton, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, already had x86 assembly experience. “Getting that lower level experience gave me better idea of what to expect programming here,” he said.

Zack Patterson, a senior at Grand Valley State University, learned early on his love for problem solving, which led him to minor in philosophy, could be a boon to his technical role as an intern.

In a philosophical sense, Agile seems like the way to go about life, to constantly reassess and reevaluate where you are and to create these feedback loops.

“You can do anything with philosophy, critical thinking skills and knowing how to approach new ideas,” he said. “And as an intern, I’ve been doing a lot of JCL stuff, writing tests, figuring out how to make our programs usable by somebody else.”

Grasping the Agile Mainframe

As a summer project, the interns worked on building a message conversion utility that takes Compuware product message files of one type and outputs them in an easier format for technical communications staff to put into manuals or onto the web. While the project itself was at the core of the internship, the Agile tools and processes the interns used to carry out their tasks were just as important.

“In our first sprint meeting they told us we had to have a deliverable in two weeks. I thought, ‘That’s a stretch,’” Barton said.

Despite initial suspicions, it didn’t take long for the Compuware interns to see their work produce results.

“When we actually polished up all of our code and looked through it, we had 3,000 lines made from scratch, and it’s helping the company,” Berchtold said. “That was a cool milestone, something to be proud of.”

As summer moved along, new ideas and needs for extra functionality for the messaging utility cropped up, increasing the interns’ workload.

“As we went along we realized for our utility to be useful it had to work with all of these products, so we had to be able to adapt as we went along,” Barton said.

This provided the interns a chance to really leverage their problem solving skills and implement some fundamental Agile practices. Through regular participation in daily scrum meetings and completing multiple two-week sprints, the interns learned how viable mainframe agility is. They witnessed on a daily basis what Compuware has claimed to be possible for over two years.

“Coming at this even from a non-computer-science perspective, just me generalizing in a philosophical sense, Agile seems like the way to go about life, to constantly reassess and reevaluate where you are and to create these feedback loops,” Patterson said.

Leaving with New Perspectives

Although Compuware’s interns arrived in Detroit with hardly any concept of the mainframe, it only took a few months for them to realize the knowledge and skills they had were enough.

“Anyone who’s a programmer, what they really enjoy is problem solving, so really once you get past the syntax, around the housekeeping work, you’re able to get to the meat of a problem,” Lindner said.

Patterson compared the constant problem solving he carried out at Compuware to a previous internship he had held, noting stark differences in the processes he used in each role.

“In the previous internship, the problems we were solving were already solved. I was simply looking up online what the solution was and then plugging that into my code,” he said.

“At Compuware, with the mainframe, it involves a more creative process. The only thing that prevents you from getting to your goal is logic. There are only so many instructions you have with Assembler, and that appeals to my sense of problem solving more.”

By the end of summer, after months of adapting to a new city, workplace and computing platform, Compuware’s interns had made strides at improving their programming skills and business acumen.

“I’ve definitely come a long way in terms of my skills in programming,” Lindner said.

Preparing to head back to their respective cities for one last year of college, it was apparent they would take with them a new perspective of their potential career trajectories, and a new perspective of the mainframe.

“Looking back, this was a really solid, enjoyable internship,” Barton said. “I’ve learned a lot. That’s the main takeaway. There were a lot of experiences I’ve never had before, too, like living in a new city.”

Detroit was a new city for the Compuware interns, but it’s also becoming a new city to itself. And like Detroit, the mainframe is becoming a new platform equipped with the familiar culture, processes and tools millennials need to be successful, regardless of their experience levels.

Photo: Jason Heien