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Keys to a Successful Learning Path


A career in mainframe has the unique advantage of being exposed to and being able to support many areas of technology.  This is due to it being a top to bottom platform – spanning the physical hardware, hypervisor, operating system, containers, storage, middleware, networking, application programming, security, operations, and capacity management.  This allows the mainframe to be a great place to cultivate talent which over the decade will be surely needed due to the holes in the industry as senior staff begin to leave the industry due to retirement.  For early-tenures supporting mainframe, these ‘holes’ may offer a sense of job security but at the same time the mainframe and it’s supporting infrastructure is enhanced regularly.  Our product and customer needs are also becoming more demanding, this brings the need for innovation that can help any company get the most from its investment in mainframe, provide sustainability for tried and true applications and help new staff increase their sense of purpose.

Over the past few years, mainframe support leadership within Black Knight have recruited new talent from universities with great success.  Most recently in 2021, we hired several apprentices in multiple support areas through the IBM/Franklin program.  In 2022 we have also started mentorships with a couple of individuals to position them for a path in mainframe architecture.  Meanwhile the mainframe support team continue to ‘maintain the business’ ensuring our execution is flawless and exceeding client expectations.   With all these efforts underway, how do we ensure we have successorship among our support teams and leadership?

Start with Annual Objectives

At Black Knight we are fortunate to have a performance management program which can be applied to everyone.  Each year employees use the inputs from the corporate, division, departmental and team goals into consideration when defining his or her individual goals.  Performance goals are not a list of tasks or projects employees want to perform during the year. Instead, they describe the value the organization will achieve from your efforts.  One goal every employee should consider is a leaning and growth goal.  This goal can have elements which are tied directly to an existing technology or project or based on something new that aligns with upstream goals.  In creating a learning and growth goal, an achievable and measurable learning path should be developed based on the upstream goals within the organization.   

Keys to a successful learning path

Information Technology is an industry that will continuously challenge you in different ways thus you must seek to continuously upskill.  Many mainframe jobs will emerge due to the backfilling of existing senior level talent as they leave the workplace.  It’s unrealistic to think a person with less than 5 or even 10 years’ experience can quickly emerge as an SME, becoming a mini-me of a senior person who has left.  To add the most value to the organization new mainframe talent must evolve their role to become proficient not only in the technologies that they are backfilling but with new technologies their peers are learning and supporting – for example in the distributed world.  These technologies often overlap with the mainframe but are often dismissed by senior level members for various reasons.

So, what underlying modalities should be employed to successfully execute a learning plan? 

Here are some ways that can be achieved:

  1. Access to Technology – frictionless access to technology which should be at your fingertips.  This can be workshops, vendors with free public cloud learning such as IBM zTrial or open source.
  2. Access to Free Education – examples which extend beyond in-house learning programs.  This includes training hosted by technology vendors, bootcamps, online study.  Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera and EDX. The benefit here is that with MOOCs, education can be done at the student’s pace.
  3. Access to Experts – Establishing good industry contacts, actively participating in conferences or other training opportunities and not being shy about establishing a professional 1:1 relationship with product SMEs. Also being involved in technical communities, webinars, and social media.  Having these relationships at your fingertips will come in very handy when you get stuck and give you the confidence to ask for help to get un-stuck.
  4. Apprenticeships – Not everyone can read a book or go to a class to become skilled.  Many of us become skilled workers when we get hands-on knowledge and learn to apply that knowledge into real-world scenarios.  This applies to experiential learning, things like mentorship, apprenticeships, and On-The-Job-Training in general.
  5. Use Collaboration Tooling – Since teams are geographically dispersed being a mentee, apprentice or whatever can be challenging.  Ten years ago, anyone in these roles would likely fail if their teammates were only accessible electronically. COVID-19 has reshaped the way enterprises manage their workforce. People are consciously practicing social distancing and moving into virtual workspaces, so the business can continue functioning without disruption. Employees need to have strong knowledge of how to use essential collaboration applications such as MS-TEAMS to support screen and file sharing, organizing meetings and facilitate on the job training.  Tools like zChatOps can further enhance collaboration since it can create virtual training or war rooms within MS-TEAMS that are open to specific team members.  As you gain experience it is also a good practice to create blogs on social media to share your knowledge and experience and get feedback.
  6. Compliance - Understand and comply with corporate policies as they relate to interacting with vendors, downloading software, beginning a product trial, or gaining software support.  Work with your Procurement team when questions or uncertainties in these areas arise.

Naturally acquiring proficiency of existing tried and true technologies takes time. It takes even more time when you are a less experienced person introducing a technology or feature you are curious or passionate about but it’s new to the team’s senior staff or organization.  It’s no secret that when new skills are needed across a team or organization it takes longer to acquire those skills so seize the opportunity! Learn how to integrate your technical skills with business skills so you can make a case for a technology that you and your manger feel helps the business.  Start with a feasibility exercise – what is the technical, operational, and financial feasibility of adopting this technology.  This will help in defining use-cases, the work effort, and costs of not just acquiring the technology, but what the ongoing support costs will also be. 

Although it may be desirable to build technical eminence and become the go-to person, seeing the big picture is what really makes you whole and extends your value to the company.

Please comment with your thoughts and ideas on this topic!