When I interviewed for my first job to develop on IBM z Systems mainframes three years ago, I had no idea what a mainframe was. I was fresh out of college and I wasn’t there because I had any experience with COBOL or REXX. The extent of my knowledge of the mainframe was limited to pop culture references hidden in old movies and TV shows—inaccuracies included. No, I was there sitting across from a pair of mainframers because they were looking for problem solvers.
By now, there’s no question that I’m a mainframer. While the transition took some time, the mainframe is not as foreign as I initially believed it would be. As time goes on, I’ve even found success here. But most of that success comes from strong communication early on. It’s not always easy to talk about the mainframe to someone who has spent the last four years of his or her life using Java, Python and Ruby.
We did communicate, though. Because, when you get down to it, all software engineering jobs share a similar mindset. Just as good developers can jump from one language to another, they can also learn to work in different environments. The mainframe is only a mystery to millennials because it appears so different.
So how do you talk to a recent graduate about the mainframe? By finding a common ground in language. Anyone new to the field is unlikely to use the same vocabulary as established professionals, so initial conversations can be incredibly daunting for them. Recent graduates are used to directories and files, not qualifiers and data sets. The nouns are different, but the functions are the same. Directories are designed to organize files and make them easier to find and apply rules to them in groups, among other things. That’s not much different than qualifiers. Data sets have records (not lines), organizations (not types) and many different formats. When you use modern terms for these features, comprehension becomes easier. Speaking a language that both parties can understand is key to getting your ideas across successfully.
Fortunately, not all words need to be replaced. Many of the other features of the mainframe are identical to what students learn in their computer systems classes: A mainframe is a computing system, after all, so things like CPUs, RAM, OSes, caches and the like are all things you can incorporate into this common language. My mentors didn’t refer to DFSMS on day one. Instead, they explained the functions it provided and pointed me to a video explaining how to store my socks
. In my experience learning about the mainframe, the times I was most successful were when I forgot I was even using it. The bottom line is that there is a lot more common ground than most mainframers and non-mainframers realize.
Introducing New Language
A rule I like to follow is to explain the function of the subject before introducing its name or acronym. After all, there’s nothing like a three-letter acronym—which even has its own acronym of TLA—to introduce unnecessary confusion. This advice is equally true for any conversation, not just one about the mainframe. If you are introducing a new term of any form, establishing context goes a long way to describing its use. Teachers have been teaching vocabulary this way since long before the mainframe existed. The mainframe comes with its fair share of vocabulary.
Communicate, Don’t Speak
As any expert on communications will tell you, speaking is only part of communication. To make sure your information is clear, you need to listen in a variety of ways as well. Questions—both yours and theirs—are important. They’re the perfect tool to get a glimpse into someone else’s mind. Reading their body language can also be helpful. How glazed over are their eyes? Do they seem to be actively listening? Are they expecting further explanation? Listening to their verbal and nonverbal communication goes a long way towards making the conversation meaningful.
To some, most of this advice will be summarized with “use their words,” but such an assessment misses a greater point. Communication is not an easy thing. If humans were good at communicating, this comic
on how projects really work wouldn’t exist, the game of telephone would have never taken off and there wouldn’t be countless (profitable) programs on how to communicate effectively. If your goal is to talk about the mainframe to a millennial, the best place to start is at the basics. And you can’t get more basic than nouns, verbs and adjectives.
Kyle Beausoleil is a 24-year old engineer for Rocket Software. He has worked on a variety of projects on z/OS predominantly dealing with storage solutions. He also often visits Massachusetts colleges attempting to reach out to students who have never considered a career on the mainframe and helps interns with the transition from the classroom to the office.