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Maintain Your Competitive Edge

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


For a lucky few, the cliché might be true that, “Who you know matters more than what you know.” For most people, though, what you know plays a larger part in career success. But proudly citing arcane and obsolete skills—like the ability to wire colorful EAM plugboards or code keypunch drum control cards blindfolded—won’t earn an interview. While those skills don’t appear on current resumes, too many people do rely on outdated tech wizardry for advancement or even job survival.

Knowledge and skills aren’t just requirements for finding a new job—they're essential for keeping the one you’ve got or advancing in it. Whether you’re staying or going, with the pace of technology evolution and advancement, what you know this year is a smaller fraction of necessary knowledge than it was last year!

Even worse, applicant volume leads to outsourcing and automating hiring and staffing decisions; job websites rely on matching keywords with people’s attributes. Some companies and recruiters do this by scanning/analyzing resumes or mining skills databases. So listing position-relevant classes and certifications can get you through such filtering and eligible for serious consideration.

While career management is challenging, there’s a bright side to it: many companies downsized during the Great Recession. And some did this to excess, cutting staff below needs—or letting senior staff go and finding themselves without necessary expertise.

But just as learning-by-osmosis didn't work for us in school, it's not the best strategy for staying current on technology. So what's the answer? Here are suggestions for individuals in two categories (personal actions and resources to exploit), and for managers.

Personal Actions
Remember that learning new skills prevents stagnant “Groundhog Day” careers—repeating the same experience and accomplishments year after year.

1. Set specific goals and plan toward them according to your needs and resources. For example:

  • Anticipate skills requirements based on staff turnover/promotions or planned IT changes.
  • Attend one or more classes/conferences each year.
  • Subscribe to and read a new industry magazine.
  • Be familiar with IBM’s extensive libraries, including manuals and Redbooks publications.
  • Gain practical experience by applying what’s learned—on the job or, if necessary, in a test sandbox.
  • Learn and solidify knowledge by teaching/presenting—perhaps with a senior colleague—at conferences, formal classes, webinars or brown-bag lunches.
  • Join mainframe LinkedIn groups and participate in discussions.
  • Round out your skills. If you’re an applications programmer, learn aspects of your OS’s structure and operation. If you’re a systems guru, study user interface design. Understand your IT operations, whether staffed or lights-out.
  • Find or start a local mainframe user group; book speakers from among members and local/national vendors.
2. Even if “who you know” gets you consideration—or on top of the resume pile—meaningful class credentials and current skills let you stand above the crowd.

3. Make your prime directive “never stop learning,” don't try to coast on stale Rexx or JCL 101 classes.

4. Emphasize valuable business and leadership topics. No matter how technically skilled you are, don’t be a pure technologist.

5. Read voraciously, and not just in your specialty. As a mainframer, read about Windows, tablets and Linux. As a career z/OS expert, understand Linux and z/VM to support it.

6. Be ready for discussions and questions outside your main activities. For example, if you’re a DBA, don't dwell exclusively on schemas; understand security and recognize technical terms such as format-preserving encryption.

7. Use mentors and colleagues to focus learning. Ask peers in your company and industry —and other industries—what they’ve found most valuable and what hasn’t been worth the time or money.

8. Understand instructor credentials. Seek active, practicing professionals rather than lifetime academics who might lack industry insights and contacts.

Personal Resources
1. Research low-cost nearby training opportunities such as adult education and community colleges. Even with catalogs in libraries and community centers, these are often undiscovered gems.

2. Check the references of training organizations you’re considering. Request contacts at and beyond your career stage. Use LinkedIn and other social media resources to find people citing credentials from these organizations and reach out for feedback.

3, Ensure services don’t end with last class session. Ask about ongoing placement, coaching and networking support.

4. Explore online courses as an alternative to those requiring travel.

1. Encourage and support staff training, else people continue using OSs, applications and tools in old ways, and fail to benefit from sometimes-costly upgrades. Encouraging personal development supports morale, improves productivity and enhances loyalty. And training provides a break from normal work routines; employees finish refreshed and ready to apply what they’ve learned.

2. View training as an investment, rather than expense. For example, current z/OS facilities (COBOL, PL/I, Assembler, C) combined with free HTTP servers can avoid licensing expensive Web software.

3. Close the generation gap by helping younger and older employees learn from and work with each other, perhaps through a mentoring program. The former understand mainframe thinking and underlying system structure; the latter intuitively use mobile devices and social networking. Combined, these are building blocks of modern enterprise systems.

4. Use conferences and classes to raise employee skill levels, avoiding the need for expensive outsourcing and consultants.

5. Remember that IBM training, a key component of the mainframe ecosystem
since the System/360 days, includes diverse offerings:
6. Explore relationships with local colleges/universities involving IBM's Academic Initiative. If none are participating, work with industry and institutions to create resources. Explore online:
7. Target employees for leadership and management classes to help leading technicians grow into more responsible roles.

Take comfort from the resources available. Googling "mainframe education" and "mainframe training" yields about 8 million hits each. "mainframe training online" and "mainframe training free" provide about 4 million hits each. Seek and ye shall learn!

Finally, for the process oriented—individuals and managers—here’s a flowchart to keep in mind:

Motivation —> Commitment —> Training —> Skills Mastery —> Success

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with, and written about technology
for decades. Email him at