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Generation Z Mainframers—Not the Unicorns We Think They Are

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:25 PM

Not long ago (or so it seems), I was two floors below where I’m sitting right now, interviewing for my current job. I didn’t know it then, but what I considered my greatest weakness—a decent amount of knowledge for a newly minted computer science major but zero experience on mainframes—would become one of my biggest assets in the coming conversations.

Now that I’m one of the people asking the questions, I can tell you that hiring new mainframers is different than choosing programmers and engineers in other areas. That’s because almost no new graduates have any mainframe chops; they don’t know COBOL, they most likely don’t know machine language, and most importantly, they’ve probably never even seen a mainframe computer. So how can hiring managers assess whether or not a candidate is any good when he or she has absolutely no relevant samples of work to show? 

Before I go into how companies can go about finding great mainframers fresh out of college (or just a few years out of school), let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: young applicants won’t have IBM z knowledge or experience. That means that even the best candidates will require a lot of training after they’re hired. In addition, because every organization is different, the questions, traits and priorities listed below might need to be tweaked.

With that out of the way, let’s point out the biggest principle to follow when outlining your approach: Millennials are people too (citation needed). Seriously, when the onboarding process begins, this generation of new hires will be no different than the last, save for a few minor details. The only variable setting this interview apart from those in other industries is that applicants haven’t worked with big iron before, so many of my proposed questions should come as no surprise.

With all that in mind, here are some questions you may want to ask:

“What kind of platforms have you worked on, and what made you like one more than another?”
As one of the first technical questions you ask, this will likely shape the interview. Keep the candidates talking if it looks like they want to, because their answer is crucially important. Assuming that they have no z/OS knowledge, we want to discover how well they’ve moved between platforms in the past. Pay attention to how they describe these platforms rather than which platforms they’ve described (though, UNIX is a plus). Any applicant who can identify similarities, differences and patterns between platforms can likely thrive anywhere. On the other hand, people who seem welded to a particular language or system may not be as adaptable.

“Can you tell me about a project you’ve worked on where you had to move past a roadblock?”
This is another meaty question. Applicants face a lot of learning ahead, so you need to know how well they can handle getting stuck. Look for a candidate who has no issues asking for guidance; I cannot overstate how vital it is to find someone who is comfortable asking coworkers to share their expertise. Admitting that you don’t know something, and utilizing all resources to find the answer is a skill any individual can use. But here, in the land of IBM Redbooks, it is invaluable. Lone wolves tend to have a lot of trouble learning from their peers and bosses.

“What is your approach to learning new material effectively?”

Anyone who learns by doing will have a great advantage over other applicants in an environment where seemingly alien green-screen terminals are a standard means of accessing your machine. Award bonus points to anyone who suggests finding an expert to consult. If they know how to find the resources that will help them, the number of roadblocks these candidates are likely to get stuck on drastically shrinks.

“What holds your interest better—systems or applications programming?”
“Welcome to the mainframe!” should not sound like a threat to your new hire. Despite their proximity, systems and applications programming are very different; many engineers might love one systems and applications program, but struggle to find the same passion for another. In practical terms, this means that hiring an applications developer to fill your systems programming position is a recipe for frustration. That’s why you need to be up front about the role your new hire will fill. You want them to be engaged.

Millennial and Generation Z mainframers are not the unicorns people think they are. The simple truth is that people with all of the required skills to work on IBM z already exist, but traditional interview techniques will not find them. We have to target the flexible, talented software engineers who don’t yet have mainframe experience. Those who show the ability to solve problems on any platform are not nearly as rare as we’ve been led to believe.

Kyle Beausoleil is a 25-year-old engineer for Rocket Software. He has worked on a variety of projects on z/OS predominantly dealing with storage solutions. He 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.