I began my journey as a mainframe professional almost six years ago, after graduating college, and became almost instantly overwhelmed with what I found and discovered about mainframes. I started as a developer for the IBM Db2 Administration Tool and haven't looked back. As I proceeded to grow my career in the mainframe industry, I successfully transitioned into product management and now I manage the Db2 Utilities and Tools product portfolio at Rocket Software.
My career didn’t start off easy, and there were many challenges along the way. The challenges I faced could easily derail or demotivate next-gen mainframe talent, which this industry cannot afford to ignore as we face an aging mainframe workforce with an extraordinary amount of experience retiring in the coming years. However, if organizations, companies, teams, and next-gen mainframers alike can recognize and work through these challenges, we can build a stronger industry together.
Challenge #1: Feeling like you can’t ask a “dumb” question
When I started working at IBM, even though I knew almost nothing about mainframes, I felt that I should have been expected to know more than I did — why else would they hire me? I had severe imposter syndrome. But, worse than that, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do as part of my job, so I had to force myself to start asking any “dumb” question I could come up with. What I realized then was:
- The questions I had weren’t really “dumb”; it was my own perception that I will be seen as “dumb” for asking something I felt I was (maybe) supposed to know. It turned out, more often than not, that there was no way for me to have known the answers to my questions.
- My team was incredibly nice and helpful, and they had no idea I was flailing on my own.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Give yourself the freedom to learn, it’s okay to not know everything in the beginning.
- Team Members: Encourage questions and provide a go-to mentor or learning buddy. If possible, hiring multiple new trainees at once gives your new hires people to learn alongside.
- Organization Leaders: Send new hires to a training or bootcamp relevant to the skills they need (e.g., Db2, z/OS, etc.) after a few months on the job so they can better absorb material.
Challenge #2: Trying to balance numerous new changes
In my personal journey, I started a new job, moved to a new city, and had to learn new material — all at the same time. It was a lot to balance. As we saw from the pandemic, multiple changes can arrive at once and derail our ability to be productive. It’s very crucial for teams and organizations to be flexible with working situations, especially as more companies are shifting to hybrid or fully remote models. This can help retain talent in the long-term and prevent burnout by providing personal balance.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Express what will fit best for your working situation so you can maintain the work-life balance you need to be most productive and successful.
- Team Members: Be open to new ideas, including how to collaborate across varying schedules.
- Organization Leaders: Show empathy and give flexibility to your employees so they can take care of personal business while still meeting milestones.
Challenge #3: Getting everything done at a workable pace is difficult when you feel consistently behind
As I continued to learn, I soon realized there was so much I didn’t know. As a life-learner, always having something new to learn and discover is the appeal of mainframes for me. But, if you’re not adequately prepared for that, it can feel like you’re constantly drinking from a fire hose and there is no way to catch up. I’m here to confirm that that is completely normal, but not unmanageable.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Set expectations with your team on what you should be learning as you go.
- Team Members: Guide new hires with a learning plan.
- Organization Leaders: Support necessary continuous training after the initial bootcamp.
Challenge #4: Knowing if your team will help you in your time of need
It may seem obvious, but everyone wants to feel their team will support them, especially when the going gets tough. Building this culture can be difficult, but very critical when working with difficult mainframe concepts, as it’s easy to get lost or miss an important detail. I was incredibly fortunate that my team didn’t let me struggle alone, even when I made a mistake. At Rocket, we have a mantra “Never let another Rocketeer fail”, and that hasn’t failed me yet.
- Next-gen Mainframers: If something has gone wrong, take ownership and ask for help; the sooner the better.
- Team Members: Say and show you will step in to help when needed.
- Organization Leaders: Support a culture of team accountability.
Challenge #5: Feeling that you don’t belong in a team
It’s important to not only feel like you culturally fit at your company and get along with your team, but also to feel that you can contribute skills the team needs. As some of our team was planning to retire, I took up the component areas they would inevitably leave behind. Additionally, I certainly wasn’t the most technical person, but I sought to use my leadership skills and become the first scrum master for my team as we transitioned further in our agile journey.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Identify your strengths and use that to strengthen your team.
- Team Members: Make roles clear for new members of the team and give them a goal (or goals).
- Organization Leaders: Host fun team-building events, both virtual and in-person, if possible.
Challenge #6: Not getting recognition for the work you’ve done
While we all want to contribute to the goals of a team, one of the most frustrating things can be that, once the hard work is successfully completed, there is a lack of recognition of the achievement. Sometimes, tight deadlines cause a team to consistently work milestone to milestone, which can eventually lead to burnout. Additionally, important individuals may not get credit for their effort. Not calling out these important acts can lead to resentment or future dissatisfaction.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Recognize the work of your teammates and give them credit for helping you. They’re more likely to help you again in the future.
- Team Members: Pause to celebrate team wins before jumping to the next milestone.
- Organization Leaders: Celebrate team wins and recognize individuals companywide.
Challenge #7: Not seeing a path for growth or further development of skills that are considered important or relevant
An important discussion for the mainframe industry is to consider what a next-gen mainframer believes to be important or relevant as they grow their skill set. As we’ve recognized across the industry, there is a need to modernize your technology stack — the languages, processes, workflows, and interfaces your team uses can contribute to the level at which a next-gen mainframer feels they are staying relevant within their technology career.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Voice what you are interested in and what you want to achieve. No one else will know it if you don’t say it.
- Team Members: Modernize your tech stack. It will be difficult in the beginning, but, if done right, it will be worth it in the end.
- Organization Leaders: Support modernization efforts by recognizing temporary decreases in productivity and output until the team gets back up to speed.
Challenge #8: Thinking your work doesn’t create a larger impact because you may not directly see it as a consumer
Increasingly, the newer generations care about the impact they make on the world. Next-gen mainframers may not get to see this in their work right away, but it is important to remember that mission-critical workloads are run on mainframes every day. Teams and companies should consistently remind, reinforce, and show how the work of their mainframe teams runs the world.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Engage with the mainframe community in order to discover, and better understand, your impact.
- Team Members: Give and introduce team members to new opportunities, including giving time for extra activities, like attending SHARE and other conferences.
- Organization Leaders: Widely share the impact that teams and products have on customers.
Challenge #9: Being fairly compensated for the work you do
This challenge impacts the entire mainframe industry. Compensation comes in different forms, but organizations need to do what’s right for their teams. The investment the industry makes now in growing talent, will save them a larger investment at a time when it may be too late.
- Next-gen Mainframers: Consider the entire package an employer is offering (benefits, flexibility, interesting work, amazing people), not just the dollar signs.
- Team Members: Find talented and passionate learners … and give them a chance.
- Organization Leaders: Make continuous investments in the talent you seek to hire and retain.
As you can see, there are many challenges that can prevent next-gen mainframers from staying in the mainframe industry. We must remain active if we hope to grow the shrinking talent pool and keep it thriving for decades more. Organizations need to look for mainframe talent in places they may not have before, to nurture the next-gen talent they find, and continue to invest in that talent. From my short experience in this field so far, I’ve learned that mainframers are some of the most intelligent, compassionate, and resilient technologists out there, and I’m proud to be one of them.