Enterprises are taking the lead on mainframe training. Optum Technology and others are engaged in a movement to disseminate not only legacy knowledge to the next generation of mainframers, but to provide a scaffolding on which those mentees can stand and grow their careers.
Ted Mansk, senior director of infrastructure operations engineering at Optum Technology, offers his take on mainframe training from an employer perspective. He shares why it is important for businesses to encourage NextGen workers to move beyond the general mainframe education toward a more in-depth technical knowledge they can employ in their careers.
"I don’t necessarily see a 'skills gap,'" he says. "I see individuals that want to learn a new technology that is either not taught at all or not thoroughly taught in college. Unlike personal computers and its software, this technology is not readily available for home use."
Corporate Training Strategies Need to Evolve
"For the last 20 years, it seems like companies were able to easily find and hire people with five to seven years of experience," Mansk says. "As a result, the focus for companies like ours was to take the easiest path and simply hire experienced people as needed and not develop new talent in the mainframe pipeline." He adds, "As an industry, I think we forgot how to recruit and bring in new people (i.e., recent college graduates or other "new-to-z" individuals) onto our teams."
Around 2017, Optum Technology developed the z Platform Development Program, known internally as zDP, to identify new employees, top-tier internal operations personnel, and new-to-z professionals and get them the training they needed to deepen their mainframe knowledge. Employees who have completed IBM Academic Initiative courses in college have a good head start. Mansk explains, "Optum still needs to supplement this training so these NextGen mainframe professionals can be integrated into our infrastructure teams."
Similar to the IBM Academic Initiative, zDP training has progressed over time, but Mansk says it is still in its infancy at the collegiate level. "We need more colleges offering the curriculum, particularly in-depth technical z platform classes," he says. "It would be ideal if recent graduates already knew how to navigate such tools as TSO, ISPF, SDSF, etc."
Skills That Set NextGen Mainframers Apart
According to Mansk, there are three general categories for skill sets: infrastructure, application development, and leadership. "Since I’ve been focused on the infrastructure side of the IT-line, I’ll talk about the Infrastructure and Leadership areas only," he says.
“For infrastructure skills, NextGen mainframers need basic systems programming skills for vendor software management and configuration and a developer mindset toward automation,” he explains. “To support developers, technologists need a working knowledge of coding best practices, as application developers find they are focused on business process, rather than on the technology,” he continues. With this knowledge, these infrastructure teams can guide application developers to using language efficiently and technology features that use the platform's available capacity and control hardware/software costs more effectively.
Additionally, these professionals need to understand the architecture and possess a knowledge of how it all fits together. Mansk says, "They must understand it from a 60,000-foot level to 10,000-foot level on all areas: the hardware, system software, storage, and the network. Additionally, they need to be aware of the strategic platform path, and its future capabilities."
In terms of leadership skills, NextGen mainframers need to be aware of the platform's actual capabilities, lead cross-generational teams, and be able to calculate the total cost of ownership (i.e., hardware/software acquisition, maintenance, personnel, and data center costs). Mansk adds soft skills are equally important on mainframe teams.
"As with any team, personality is important," Mansk explains. "We are looking for individuals who work well with others, take pride in doing a thorough job, and [are] able to focus on successful delivery of new technology vs. chasing every shiny object. Successful team members are inquisitive, open to new ideas, and can see and focus on the 'big picture.'"
Soft Skills for Successful Mainframe Careers
- Doing a thorough job behind the scenes
- Dedicated to the business platform/technology
- Always curious and eager to learn
- Unwilling to compromise quality work
- Willing to mentor and train others
Optimize Your Employee Training Programs
Optum Technology's zDP offers training in TSO, ISPF, SDSF, JCL, REXX, hardware, CICS, Db2, and more. Additionally, candidates attend a virtual-instructor-led platform boot camp that is generally a six-week, full-time commitment, ending with a certification test. To optimize employee training, mentees learn the basics first before they enter into the multi-month team rotation process, in which they are each assigned a personal mentor. This mentor is someone who has already gone through the internal Optum program and is now working full-time in an individual support team, and they stay with the individual throughout their training and transition process. Each mentee also has regular one-on-ones with the leadership team.
When in the rotation process, each individual is assigned to a specific infrastructure support team and focuses their training on knowledge acquisition regarding the team’s accountabilities. At the start of each rotation, trainees are assigned an additional mentor, one who belongs to the individual technology team to assist them for the six weeks they are within the team. For example, when working in the Db2 DBA team, individuals will take online classes in Db2 and advanced courses in what DBAs do. Over a six-week period, trainees work side-by-side with the DBAs. The same holds true when mentees are rotated into the system software team and are paired up with a systems programmer. They attend all team meetings and all activities. Once their time is up in a given area, mentees are assigned to a different infrastructure support team, and the rotation process starts over again.
"Of course, they are not doing any unsupervised activities," explains Mansk. "They are assigned an additional mentor — someone from the individual team to be with them all the way and help with the learning process."
zDP team members also lead the weekly platform change review meeting in which 100% of the week’s changes are reviewed by the larger team to ensure there are no change collisions and the initial program loading (IPL) of various logical partitions (LPARs) are completed efficiently. According to Mansk, "By leading the review, the zDP team members are exposed firsthand to the overall planning process and become accustomed to the LPARs within the environment and how they relate to each other."
Optum Technology tries to leverage all types of training methods (e.g., online classes, internal documentation, IBM Redbooks, live virtual instructor-led classes, and one-on-one mentorship), according to Mansk. "The key to optimizing employee training is flexibility," he advises. "Since there is no single training model that works for everyone, it’s important to offer training in various models so everyone can benefit."
This can make training programs more complex and difficult to manage, but the aim for any enterprise should be to bring in and train employees who will support the platform well into the future. "How they do it 15 years from now will undoubtedly be much different than how we are doing it today or how we did it 40 years ago," says Mansk. "So, the point is to prepare the individuals in a way they can gain the knowledge and then mold the platform for the future."
Recent zDP program participant Sanjana Kulshrestha, associate infrastructure operations engineer at Optum Technology, said, "This full program is exciting, and I personally have not seen such a unique program for the employees." The experience enabled her to feel more confident and tackle her new tasks working on the mainframe. "Because I was the 'rookie' on the team, my mentors from each team made sure I received what I needed and wanted. They took time out of their own busy schedules to guide me. It enabled me to learn z/OS technology and be connected to different great minds."
Deep-dive Mainframe Training Is Essential
"The mainframe is like a 747 freighter. It’s always going to be a long-haul heavy load transport," Mansk explains. "If someone wants to fly short trips or have discussions with the passengers, then being a pilot for a cargo company probably will not satisfy them. You need to find the right individual and then dedicate the time to their development."
Optum's zDP training program offers people with inherent aptitude the opportunity to learn more about the mainframe and gain in-depth technical knowledge. Mansk advises, "Not everyone is meant to work on the mainframe platform, and especially in the infrastructure support area of the mainframe platform. Focus on finding the individuals with the right personal make up and provide the opportunity to them to grow in the technology." Employee training programs can provide the technical skills workers need for the job, but they also need the soft skills to grow into their mainframe careers.