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Teaching the New Class of Mainframe Architects

For Bobby Houston, hybrid cloud architect at Kyndryl, the best part about the mainframe is the people. Pat Stanard, Houston’s mentor and chief mainframe architect at Kyndryl, is one of those people.

Houston and Stanard met through Aspiring Architects, a program started by Stanard that prepares participants for careers in mainframe architecture. Bobby went through the program, and after a year of working with Patrick and the other architects, he was invited to join their team.

The pair has been collaborating since 2018, designing programs for Kyndryl.

Prior to his role at Kyndryl, Houston was in IBM’s “new to blue” program, an initiative developed to get technology students into the business. During the program, the interns were instructed to choose a career path. The mainframe was a clear winner for Houston; the challenge of the field appealed to him. In addition, it was advertised as soon-to-be deserted—many of the mainframe architects at IBM were close to retirement. “I thought, ‘That sounds like good job security,’” says Houston.

Getting Started

Before Houston became a mainframe architect, he worked in mainframe configuration, developing his skills by reading the literature, writing down any questions he had and taking them to his mentor. He emphasizes that there was always someone around to help him out.

Houston has encountered difficulties along the way, however. He is part of the new class of mainframers working alongside the more established folks—and at times he has found himself having to adjust to certain practices. For example: While the older generation tends to employ a command-line interface, or CLI, the newer generation was brought up using a graphical user interface, or GUI. In order to keep up with his team, Houston had to teach himself how to translate one to the other. “You feel like you’re becoming a bridge between two worlds,” Houston remarks. He was able to overcome this challenge by indulging his natural curiosity—using zHMC, he determined ways to safely run commands that would not impact the system.

Another obstacle that Houston faced was learning the shared vocabulary and unique language of the mainframe space. “We use a lot of slang…there’s acronyms inside of acronyms,” he says, adding that each team may even have their own slang. Houston says the shorthand is helpful for conveying information quickly, but it can alienate newcomers.

The Important Role of Mentors

The solution to filling these mainframe education gaps? Houston suggests that beginner mainframe architects ask their mentors questions. They often know exactly why something is done a specific way and may even have firsthand experience of the moment a method changed or was established. “There’s a lot of history that books just can’t teach, and that’s why you ask questions,” says Houston.

Stanard has served as a valuable resource throughout Houston’s mainframe journey. “I want to make sure that [my] knowledge is shared with people like Bobby, so that he can take it and use it in his career.”

Mentors are also useful because of their connections. Once, Houston needed help with a project that involved installing a Cisco FICON Director, and no one on his team had the knowledge required to assist him. Luckily, his mentor was able to connect him with a Cisco representative, who had the expertise Houston was seeking. Having access to his mentor’s network enabled him to finish the project.

Houston’s experience with mentorship came full circle when he completed the Cisco FICON Director. He was the first on his team to do this, which meant that he could act as a mentor if any of his teammates had questions. “It’s a very powerful thing when we get together because everybody shares stories, and everybody mentors one another,” adds Stanard.

Even admitting to a mistake can have positive consequences. Houston points out, “If I teach you and you make mistakes, you [can] come in and tell me about your mistake …Then, we all make less mistakes.”

The Future of the Mainframe

The guidance of experienced professionals can be a big help to people just starting out. This has been true for many participants in Kyndryl’s apprentice program, including Houston. “We’re really big on assigning mentors,” Stanard says—leaving aspiring mainframers in good hands. He adds that good training programs are absolutely necessary because even though “mainframes are in our everyday life,” the trade is not generally taught in universities.

The systems that mainframe architects interact with every day are becoming increasingly intricate and nuanced. However, Houston believes the future holds “a more optimized and refined mainframe,” and the wave of emerging mainframe architects is sure to lead to an influx of innovation that can contend with any hurdles that come along.

Both Houston and Stanard are eager to share words of wisdom with incoming mainframe architects. “As [a mainframer] goes through their career, they might hear, ‘Well, it’s always been done this way,’ or ‘We’ve never done it.’…That’s an opportunity. That’s not a roadblock,” Houston says.

Similarly, Stanard advises mainframe architects to not be afraid of change or trying new things.

“I think it’s awfully important that we give people opportunities to try things that are tough,” he says. “You may fall down a few times, it’s okay. My mother would always say, ‘Hey, it’s okay to fall down…Brush yourself off, get up and keep going.’”