Many long-time mainframers began their careers when employment was as robust as their everlasting computing platform. For years—decades—mutual respect and loyalty between employer and employee provided secure lifetime work for many people. Unfortunately, that was then, this is now; things have changed, and not for the better.
It’s easy to resent that work-related beliefs and behaviors that once led to successful/enjoyable/lucrative careers no longer do, or to simply deny that anything is different. But denial isn’t a plausible recipe for anything good; reality eventually catches up, sinks in and wins.
So, no matter where you are in your mainframe career—new arrival or seasoned veteran—here are career-preservation tips for 2013 and beyond. These days, if you don’t look out for yourself, nobody else will. And it’s easy to be sidelined, underemployed or worse. Don’t let that happen to you.
Cultivate Positive Personal-Success Skills/Traits
• Learn to learn (love to learn!). The world is too complicated and changes too fast to ever know it all. The most useful system-programming skills are being a quick study and knowing where to find answers.
• Learn to communicate. However much you know, it’s more valuable shared. And the more valuable YOU are, sharing.
• Learn to teach. Whatever you know, you’ll learn it better by teaching it and seeing it through others’ eyes.
• Learn new office/work-related technologies. Mirror the mainframe’s connectivity by understanding how non-mainframe and non-IBM technologies connect to it. Don’t just master the mainframe—master its ecosystem.
• Don’t gratuitously disparage other technologies/specialties. Life/work/success aren’t zero sum games (that is, your success and mainframe credibility don’t require others’ failures). Learn from others’ expertise and understand the basis for their opinions and decisions.
• Bridge generations. Learn from those older and younger. My favorite image of the generation gap is experienced people believing that progress stopped with the last system they learned, and youngsters thinking that the tech world began with their first system. Both are wrong and each can learn from the other.
• Get out of your comfort zone and see where that leads. It may be a dead end or it may open unimagined career doors. Don’t get the same year of experience year after year, even if that’s what’s expected or encouraged.
Facilitate On-the-Job Success
• Be a team player. It’s a cliché because it’s essential.
• Credit others’ work. Most achievements build on the work of others. Note this in reporting progress or acknowledging praise.
• Quote others accurately, minimize paraphrasing and never guess. Avoid misunderstandings and misattributions.
• Fulfill promises (up, down and laterally). Be believable and reliable.
• Be visible. Being brilliant in the back room wastes most of the illumination. You needn’t be an obnoxious glory hound to let people know what you’re doing and why it matters.
• Be a creative and self-sufficient self-starter. Find opportunities to contribute and problems to solve; don’t just follow orders.
• Anticipate requirements and problems. Understand where technology fits within your organization, so you’re ready to match it with business requirements.
• Develop “street cred.” The more varied your experience (see Technology, below), the more you’ll be positioned for success.
• Build relationships with customers and vendors.
• Don’t “stovepipe” yourself. Don’t be a blinder-wearing specialist (network, database, storage, tuning, security, etc.). Each discipline relies on the others, so the more “languages” you speak, the more valuable—and independent—you’ll be.
• Don't fool around. Long ago, attempting to play a minor joke on a friend, I crashed a production VM system. With great authority comes great responsibility.
Technology Matters, Too
• Understand application and system design, architecture, testing and usage. Contrary to the old joke, users don’t exist to test system programmers’ system programs. Systems exist to perform useful work, so understanding the implementation food chain helps get your job done.
• When testing new functions, use regression testing to verify that what used to work still does. Don’t install things that break other things.
• Solve problems, don’t just report them. Fight the deskilling of system programming; help users and vendors debug and fix things.
• Take backups. Before making changes, always have a what-if plan. Don’t go out on a ledge without a clear path back.
• Don’t be a technology lone wolf. Get second opinions on important matters. A sanity check can avoid disasters, and another perspective can save time or improve a project.
• Document what you do. This is as much for your benefit as for anyone following in your footsteps.
• Use configuration-management (CM) tools to keep order and avoid chaos. Mainframes are too complex to manage informally. Even for subsystems you handle alone, CM discipline will save you time and make it easier for you to advance.
• Don’t copy code unless you understand it. Otherwise, you may have to learn it under pressure when it breaks.
• Read manuals cover-to-cover for systems/products/tools new to you, then read change summaries. Yes, this can be tedious. Yes, this will surprise you and others when you learn valuable but subtle features.
Market Yourself Beyond Current Employer
• Network online/offline. Get to know colleagues at other companies, in other industries. You’ll have a better perspective on local, industry and general trends and opportunities.
• Be visible. Speak at user groups, write for industry magazines and websites, chime in on discussion lists. You never know when someone who’s seen you or read your work will have an opportunity for you.
• Volunteer. Most industry organizations rely on contributed help. The more effort you put in supporting such organizations, the more benefits—tangible and intangible—you’ll get.
• If you apply for a security clearance, retain your data to use again. It’s much easier updating such material than recreating it from scratch.
• Don’t annoy people who might hire you; be professional in everything you do. That means avoiding flaming on industry lists, not asking confrontational or show-off questions in conference sessions, etc. People have long memories; hiring (or not!) decisions can be influenced by years-ago actions.
• Restrain nostalgia, reminiscing, war-story telling. Yes, those were the good old days. Indeed, kids now don’t appreciate technologies on which their newest fads are based. But no, most people don’t care about decades-old technology challenges or triumphs. So keep nostalgia in its place, shared with like-minded people. On a related note, in (especially online) discussions, stay on topic: Don’t digress with “That reminds me of when ...” shaggy computer stories.
Do these suggestions guarantee uninterrupted employment, frequent raises, a corner office and a gold watch (or iPad)? Of course not, but they’ll improve your odds for a better career. And other than winning a lottery (not the Nigerian kind!) or marrying a billionaire, they might be the best plan. And finally, a useful if-all-else-fails suggestion from another experienced practitioner: Outlast bad management.
Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.