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Future Mainframers

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:38 PM


"Because it’s good for you."

Remember being told that when you were a kid—or perhaps even more recently?

"Eat your broccoli."

"Clean your room."

"Do your homework."

"Get a degree in a good field."

"Get a career that will support a family lifestyle."

"Work for a quality employer."

If you’re a mainframer, there’s a good chance you complied with many—maybe even all—of these. In fact, if you’re a career mainframer, you’re likely to be exactly the kind of person who’s prone to take such advice seriously—even if you may have been initially inclined to resist such encouragements.

And, if you’ve since become a parent, you’ll know how it feels to be on the other side of these imperatives, encouraging your own next generation to behave in a manner that will help them to have good and healthy lives.

But there’s one more imperative that even “mainframe families” rarely dictate to their young: “Become a mainframer.”

A Certain Career Type

The most important reason is probably that most people are cut out for different lifestyles and careers than mainframing—even as a brief phase in a longer career. It takes a special kind of nerdy work ethic to survive and thrive in a mainframe career – let alone enjoying working with coworkers who have that same sort of personality. The insistent focus on details that are much more important than they seem. The refusal to change things in production without going through a painfully slow official process. A reticence against being “promoted out” of a place where you’re surrounded by so much responsibility and so little affirming attention from management and the rest of the organization.

And yet, every so often, we do encounter younger people and wonder whether they might enjoy making such an important, if invisible, contribution. Generally, you have to know someone pretty well to draw such a conclusion about them, given the deep integrity, competence and focus needed for the context.

In my life, one particular family member has just finished a degree in a relevant field and is now interested in learning more about the mainframe to discern if it’s a field she might be interested in pursuing, particularly given my great interest in this area. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to make some observations about the journey into becoming a mainframer as I’ve observed it and may be of relevance as she finds her way forward. Her name is Kristen, and she didn’t take any mainframe courses in her degree.

That’s fine since, no matter how many people take university degrees that include mainframe courses, there will always be a substantial portion of the mainframe workforce that got into the field from a different background. In my case, for example, I took a Computer Science degree where the closest thing to a mainframe course I had was a COBOL programming course, and then successfully applied for a job in a mainframe environment half a year after graduating.

The first thing I need to do, then, is help Kristen discern whether mainframe is right for her before she jumps head first into a new field that, so far, she just finds interesting. And my very first step here is actually the reason she’s interested at all: sharing what I care about.

Share Your Interests

This is more important than most people seem to realize. “My cup runneth over” isn’t just an expression of well-being and plenty. It describes the circumstance where you are so happy with something good you have that you automatically share it with others. And we all do this with things we really care about.

For example, if someone has a favorite hobby, when you talk with them, no matter what the subject of your conversation, have you ever noticed that it seems to unconsciously wander over to the subject of that hobby? That’s their cup of happiness overflowing to you.

Likewise with the mainframe: when you start getting excited about what an awesome platform it is, what an excellent history, role and future it has, and what a great career it can make, that will naturally overflow from you.

To borrow a fishing analogy, do this enough and you’re likely to get a nibble or two from people who might be potential mainframers. Give them “more line”—share about the technology, history, career and why you’re excited about the future of the platform.

I know: this isn’t easy if you’re a natural introvert like most mainframers. But, you know, the world of model train hobbyists is full of awesome introverts too, and it doesn’t take long to find out about their favorite hobby, does it? So fill yourself up with attitude, insights and ideas, and let them overflow to those you trust.

Of course, returning to our fishing analogy, you still have to reel them in if you’ve caught a live one. How do you do that?

Have a Conversation

The first place I like to go is the “Big Iron” video series on IBM Systems Magazine. Even better, offer to watch it with them rather than sending them the link. Kristen and I did this, and it led to some interesting discussions and, best of all, she was even more interested in the prospects of a mainframe career.

Now the discussion intensified, as I shared my insights from my background in computing and mainframes, using analogies to compare different aspects of the field to non-computing insights she already had. In other words, I was listening, adjusting and mentoring.

In fact, those are two of the most important things you can do to bring someone on to the mainframe: invite them—make them feel welcome, wanted and like they belong—and mentor them—making the connection between what they already know and are comfortable with and the new context and insights you want to share with them.

It’s important to treat them with respect, not condescending because they don’t yet know what you’re sharing. One good way to do this is by asking questions about areas they do understand and then making analogous connections to IT and the mainframe. For example, you might suggest that computing can be seen in terms of three basic layers: hardware, operating/utility software and applications, and then map that to the body, the autonomic nervous system and the thinking part of the brain.

Get Involved

In any case, it’s important to be listening. Have confidence in your experience and understanding, and look for ways to connect that with the experience and understanding of your family member, encouraging them to keep asking with gracious and considerate answers.

At this point, I brought in my buddy Troy Crutcher, the point person for IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest, which has mainframe challenges people can do, no experience necessary.

While the contest is only open to students Troy notes that there is a Learning System that those who are no longer in school but want to participate can use. It’s the same thing as the contest, just not eligible for the prizes, but participants are eligible for the IBM Open Badges for Parts 2 and 3.

So, maybe no free trip to Poughkeepsie or SHARE, but still an excellent opportunity to learn through some very interesting challenges—click on “Try the Learning System” button instead of the “Join the Virtual Contest.”

Oh, I mentioned SHARE there. Yes, that’s the other important opportunity, and one I’m planning to do: bring Kristen to SHARE in Sacramento and register her for the Mainframe Academy on Sunday, where she can learn all about the mainframe as a beginner from some of the best people in the industry. Other options are participating in local and regional mainframe groups and events.

Of course, to share one of my favorite Winston Churchill quotations, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Once Kristen has been immersed in these experiences, she should have a much better idea of whether she feels at home in the world of mainframe, and if so, I can take her through the wealth of other online resources. Some day I might even dare to connect her with IBM-MAIN but maybe not until she has a job that requires asking the kind of questions that our friends on that mailing list are so fond of answering by suggesting you look it up first.

To find out more about how well this is working, come to SHARE in Sacramento and I’ll be glad to introduce you to Kristen and she can tell you what she thinks of this whole mainframe journey so far.

Reg Harbeck has been working in IT and mainframes for more than 25 years, and is very involved in the mainframe culture and ecosystem, particularly with the SHARE Board and zNextGen and Security projects. He may be reached at