They’re the grizzled, unglamorous veterans of the computing world, middle-aged men and women who don’t create best-selling computer games or dazzling special effects for the movies. All they do is quietly run the most important computer systems in the world.

They operate mainframe computers, the ”big iron” machines that run businesses and governments all over the planet. Mainframes issue Social Security checks, track credit-card purchases, and oversee the nation’s air-traffic network. They’re immensely powerful computers, and immensely reliable, routinely running around the clock for years at a time.

But many mainframe operators have been at it for decades, and they’ve begun to realize that their time is running out.

”Some of us started dying,” said Robert Stanley, 56, director of research for Air Traffic Software Architectures Inc. in Ottawa. ”Heart attacks and the like. Thirty years of Twinkie-eating.”

Stanley sits on the board of directors of SHARE Inc., an organization of mainframe computer users which is meeting in Boston this week. Founded in 1955, SHARE is probably the oldest computer users’ organization on earth — in more ways than one. Indeed, Stanley said that 80 percent of the 1,300 conference attendees are 40 or older.

Amid concerns that America doesn’t produce enough technically trained young people, mainframe computer users and developers are especially concerned. Most computer science students concentrate on small-computer technology, such as Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating systems, or the popular alternatives Unix and Linux. Few have been trained on zOS, the operating system that runs IBM Corp.’s massive mainframes.

One of the few young people at the conference, 26-year-old Lamonia Whitaker of Columbus, Ga., never had to learn about mainframes while earning her computer science degree at Columbus State University. ”I don’t even think they offer mainframe courses anymore,” said Whitaker, a database administrator at Total System Services Inc., a credit-card processing firm.

Stanley and other mainframe partisans say that media hype is partly to blame. During the Internet boom of the late 1990s, many industry pundits declared that mainframes were obsolete, destined to be replaced by clusters of smaller, cheaper machines using personal computer technology. Indeed, smaller computers supported many of the hot Internet companies like eBay and Amazon.com. Students clamored for training in Windows and Unix technologies, and colleges redesigned their course offerings.

But the pundits were wrong. Traditional mainframe users have remained loyal to the technology. That’s good news for the venerable computer giant IBM Corp., by far the leading maker of mainframe machines. After getting clobbered in desktop computers by nimble businesses, IBM recently sold its money-losing desktop computer business to the Chinese company Lenovo Group Ltd. But IBM still makes lots of money from its mainframes. According to the research firm Gartner Inc., IBM sold $4.5 billion worth of them in 2003 and $5.3 billion last year.

By Hiawatha Bray

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