So, you’ve decided to take a job working with mainframes—an excellent choice—but how do you move easily from newbie—the person being sent to the stores for a long wait, a left-handed screwdriver or stripey paint—to mainframe maven—the go-to expert who seems to understand every tiny intricacy of the mainframe and how every bit connects to every other bit? The answer is that, in addition to lots of experience, you’ll need training, coaching and mentoring. But what’s the difference between them?
Let’s take a quick look at the stages a person goes through while learning about mainframes (and, in fact, anything else). The first stage is called unconscious incompetence. This is you on your first day on the job. You don’t know anything about mainframes, and you also don’t know what you don’t know! After a little while of orientation, watching and listening, and your first introduction to mainframes training course, you find that you start to achieve conscious incompetence. This is where you gradually realize just how much there is to learn. After a lot of work, you reach the stage of conscious competence. This is where someone asks you a question and you know that there is an answer. You may be able to solve their problem, but you need to concentrate to think about what to do. Or you may simply be able to look in the right part of the manual. You know what you’re doing, but you do it slowly and carefully to make sure you get it right. The final stage is unconscious competence. This is where you know exactly what to do and get on and do it. You’re able to do it without really needing to think about it. That’s where you want to be in your career.
Training is usually key very early in a mainframers’ career. It could be a video or online training. Ideally it would be human-led training, so that questions can be answered immediately. What it should do is explain the very basics of what a mainframe computer can do and how it does it. It should also introduce the newbie to some common acronyms like CICS, IMS, DB2, RACF, TSO, etc. After the training course, the trainee can go back to work and practice what they’ve learned. Then, at varying times through their career, they can attend more training courses and get more knowledge about certain areas. They may want to learn COBOL or Assembler, they may want to understand more about being a database administrator or whatever, or they may simply want to keep up-to-date with the latest version of a particular piece of software.
Whatever type of training a person goes on, the course contents will generally be decided beforehand with only a small amount of variable material, because it’s important that each running of a training course covers the same material and anyone attending the course will have been told the same facts. And the trainer’s knowledge is (hopefully) passed to the trainee.
Once a mainframer has been trained, they then get their hands on the mainframe. To begin, they’ll be able to do straightforward tasks, but every now and again they’ll come up with something that they’re not sure about. This is where mentoring can be so useful.
A mentor is usually someone with more experience doing a particular job than the mentee, who can offer advice when they notice their mentee doing something wrong or struggling, or who can answer questions whenever the mentee has them. They’re completely role-focused in that they help and answer questions about doing a particular role more successfully. Like trainers, mentors also pass on knowledge to their mentee, but in a more random and less structured way than a trainer would and only when required (meetings, typically, aren’t scheduled). If they don’t know an answer, mentors should know where to find the answer. Sometimes mentors are very senior people with lots of knowledge. Other times they are people only slightly further ahead in their mainframe career who understand the kinds of questions that a newer person will ask.
A coach has a quite a different role. He or she doesn’t need to know about CICS or RACF or mainframes. The role is to help the coachee make decisions about their career and/or issues at work. Coaching sessions usually occur at a fixed time, last for an agreed period of time and have an agreed number of sessions. The sessions have a particular focus, which is usually to achieve some immediate goal. The coaching session should help the coachee to improve awareness, set and achieve goals, which, in turn, will improve their performance. Coaching aims to draw out a person’s potential rather than share technical knowledge. It’s reflective rather than directive, and develops a person rather than gives them information. It enables them rather than trains them.
All three techniques can be very useful to have in a mainframer’s career from newbie to maven. It’s useful to be able to draw a distinction between training, mentoring and coaching to ensure that the right one is used at the right time in that person’s career.
Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, an IT consultancy. A popular speaker and blogger, he currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups. He’s editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook, and has been an IBM Champion every year since 2009.