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Bridging the Generational Gap

It’s no secret that mainframes are still relevant and constantly changing to keep with the new demands for increased speed and stability. The new machines are being built smaller and are processing faster than ever before. This evolution triggers the same questions at conferences, resource planning, and even with vendors:  How can we plan for the future? How can we attract younger talent? Where do we even start?

The most common question I’m asked at conferences and external vendor meetings is: “How did you get involved with mainframes since it’s not taught in like it used to be?” My answer used to be that it was a happy accident, I was at the right place at the right time. In reality, I worked with a team that was open and receptive to training me, a team that saw the gaps, a team that saw my potential. I’ve witnessed firsthand the struggle that mainframe teams are faced with every day and how it can be a dauting task to plan for the future infrastructure when most of your staff is “of retirement age.”

I believe that one of the key contributors to this age gap is a lack of information about the mainframe from schools and companies. I’ve learned to love the term “millennial mainframer,” but didn’t know what it was until someone took me on a tour of the hardware floor at the data center and pointed it out. I didn’t know that green screens were still used until my first day of on-the-job training when my mentor said “Okay, now start a new TSO session.” This was immediately followed by a blank stare, and questioning myself on whether this was really the right fit.

I’ve spoken at numerous SHARE conferences both as a key speaker and in panel discussions about ways to bridge the generational gap. I continue to use my experience learning CISC from the ground up to help current teams feeling the stress and struggle of finding the next generation of mainframers. I’ve narrowed my suggestions down to three action items.

1. Engage your local community

Sending members of your company to either career fairs and/or computer science club meetings at local colleges is a good way to get face time with students who will be graduating within the next year. This is a great opportunity to collect resumes from students you’ve connected with to keep on hand when looking for an intern. Internships, no matter the duration are important to any student on track to graduate. This is also a great opportunity for companies to test and expose young engineers to mainframe technologies that they would not have access to elsewhere. If I wasn’t for my summer internship, I wouldn’t have learned what the mainframe was.

Computer science clubs are often open to hosting guest speakers during their monthly meetings. Much like the career fair, this will give face time to students who already have an interest in technology and gives you a chance to promote and expose students to the power and potential the mainframe has. If the logistics and locations allow you can even look into hosting a data center or office tour. Transparency is important to the younger generation because if they are going to work with your company, they want to know that it’s like beforehand.

*Pro tip* IBM hosts a yearly “Master the Mainframe” competition that’s free to all college students. I participated by teaching the first Master the Mainframe module alongside a few Next Gen IBM employees in a computer science meeting at Framingham University in Framingham Mass., September 2019. This module was an introduction to ISPF commands and setting up a terminal session. Using free online learning from IBM can be an excellent opportunity for students to get the right exposure to working with the mainframe. Exposing students will show them it’s challenging but also rewarding and there is always someone that is up for the challenge.

2. Revamp your expectations

Rethink some of the “must have” requirements of your new applicants. Don’t assume recent graduates will have mainframe skills (Hint: They might if you visited a computer science club meeting as suggested earlier in this article), but they will have other skills that will make the learning curve easier, such as basic coding and complete proficiency within the Microsoft Office suite. The first mainframe team I joined utilized the golden opportunity to teach me everything I needed to know. I could identify a pain points and enlisted my Power Point skills to create full environment blueprints which were then leveraged by the whole team. Remember the strong qualities that make a great engineer, such as paying attention to detail, organization, being a great communicator, and having the right attitude and aptitude to learn. I always encourage tenured employees to remember their first few years on the mainframe and the on-the-job learning they had.

3. Building a training plan

Let’s say that you’ve done it and hired someone fresh out of college with a promising career ahead of them. Congratulations! Now comes the hard part of training them to be a functional member of the team. Have a training plan ready for your new employee that will build your foundation, and keep it flexible in case adjustments need to be made. In the first six months your new employee should be rotating through the team responsibilities, getting to know the team members and truly understanding what they do. It’s very important to give them some history on the environment and explain to them: “This is how we got here”. The more information you can provide the better the foundation for learning.

I also strongly suggest taking advantage of every available online or in person training that IBM or other companies have to offer. Investing in their knowledge shows that you are invested in their success and future, which is important to anyone starting a new career. Sending them with another teammate to a conference or vendor meetings shows that you value their opinion and want them to be part of the team.

I hope that this helps anyone who finds themselves in the difficult scenario to hire new talent. It’s a challenging ordeal, but in my nine year career I have found that the people on the mainframe are natural teachers and want to share the wealth of knowledge they’ve collected over their careers.

Note from the author: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer.