IT Management

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell notes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice and training to achieve mastery; many legacy mainframers would agree, having put in far more time than that in their quest to be excellent technicians. With the imminent retirement of many mainframe engineers, programmers and other experts, and a trough of interest in developing mainframe skills over the past decade, companies don’t have 10,000 hours to train the next generation of mainframer. But Gladwell did make it clear that 10,000 hours was only a part of it. Opportunity, timing, and support are also critical differentiators of who makes it and who doesn’t. Learn how this is actually the right time for the new mainframer.

The Outlier

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers: The Story of Success, highlighting the characteristics of those individuals who are “doing things that are out of the ordinary—things that are remarkable.” He studied gifted individuals in all walks of life, from Mozart to Bill Gates, from top airline captains to the story of his own family, trying to determine what it took to become an “outlier.” What he discovered was extremely surprising; talent alone didn’t produce success. Even Mozart, who produced outstanding works of music from an early age, developed his craft through intense practice and effort. His earlier works fall well short of what we recognize him for today.  What is most remembered from this book is that it takes 10,000 hours of concerted practice and effort to achieve mastery, even if you have immense talent. But this wasn’t the only critical factor, though it’s the one that sticks in people’s minds.

Each outlier had talent, but, among their peers, they often weren’t the most talented, nor the ones with the highest IQ. From numerous studies, it became clear that there was a threshold—a “good-enough” level—and if you had that, additional brilliance wasn’t necessary. Every outlier did put in the requisite hours of preparation, but components were needed to separate the Bill Joys of the world (Sun co-founder and Java author) from those mired in a sea of mediocrity. And these factors are relevant to the future of the mainframe.

Gladwell found that success required ability, preparation, and opportunity.  This last element is why the “poor man makes good” stories are only the beginning of the tale. It turns out that “success is the result of accumulative advantage,” and these advantages are the “lucky breaks” that help one person play Carnegie Hall while others settle for the drudgery of a day job with music only as a hobby. Outliers have help along the way—whether it’s demographic luck, cultural background, etc.

So what does opportunity look like? In many cases, it’s simply the luck of being born at a particular time. Many of the lights of our profession were born in 1954 or 1955—this was the perfect time to begin a career in IT, while it was being developed. But Bill Gates (as noted by Gladwell) had more—he had the additional advantages of attending that rare school with access to a computer and opportunities to play with programming while most people had never heard of a computer. In addition, those who have an enriched childhood, where parents focus on offering their children many options and a disciplined environment, are more disposed to take advantage of their talents and to persevere in the face of difficulties and the challenge of long hours of study. While everyone is exposed to a certain amount of luck, only some recognize it and seize the opportunity.

The final element is practical intelligence—savvy. Analytic intelligence (IQ) is in your genes, but street smarts and the ability to influence people is a learned skill. Again, family matters; you learn your social skills first at home.

Mainframers as Outliers

The earliest generation of mainframers came to this new frontier with only the tools their minds could manufacture (and in many cases, a screwdriver). They created the information technology world, which largely didn’t exist before them and defined the standards and processes, many of which are used by other platforms today. This group, approaching retirement, put in their 10,000 hours, learning on the job, by trial and error, diligently pushing IBM and other vendors to improve the platform and the management discipline based on their view of how things should be. The best of them could perhaps have achieved success in many fields; intelligence was a prerequisite for success, especially in the early days. But instinctively, mainframers of this generation knew that IQ wasn’t enough. They put in the hours, seized and created opportunities, and formed their own family—a group of people with a mutual passion for the platform who shared knowledge, code, and time freely.

The New Demand

As non-mainframe platforms began to proliferate, new technicians opted to ignore the big iron, breaking the chain of continuous support. Mainframes were proclaimed “dead” at every juncture, and for too many young recruits, they simply weren’t sexy. At the same time, companies were trying to do “more with less,” which meant hiring fewer technicians. The attraction of becoming a mainframe expert waned as these two trends emerged, leaving a chasm of talent that’s only beginning to be understood. In a perfect world, there would be people entering and leaving the profession continuously—but now, with this gap, there simply isn’t the time to give new mainframers 10,000 hours to get up to speed. 

This fact has resulted in a flurry of effort to pretend that mastery is possible in a shorter timeframe; that this complex environment can become easier to manage if we just want it to be. New mainframers are needed. The poor economy has resulted in people delaying their retirement, but that’s a delay, not a solution. Simply learning to write JCL can take months, and that’s only a tiny component of the job of an MVS systems programmer.

The Shortcut to Mainframe Survival

Though the outlook might appear bleak, Gladwell’s message rings particularly true and is relevant to the mainframe challenge. The opportunity is now. New mainframers have the advantage of being born at a time when everything about the mainframe is changing. Universities and some vendors have relaunched mainframe education. In an employer’s market and despite high unemployment rates, mainframe jobs are available; finding a job in this area is almost a sure thing. Mentors still abound, and these older mainframers truly want to share their knowledge to ensure their beloved platform persists long after their retirement.

But most important, software vendors have begun to offer capabilities that can reduce the 10,000-hour requirement. Mainframes shouldn’t have remained so challenging to manage into the 21st century, but finally, revolutionary advances are here, facilitating the transfer of the systems management baton. SMP/E installations and customizations represent some of the arcane knowledge and skills of legacy technicians. Many experts pride themselves on their ability to install software in a matter of days rather than weeks. But who has days? With the ease of PC installations using InstallShield, shouldn’t mainframes have an easier option, too? Now they do, allowing even those less knowledgeable with the mainframe to install software in a matter of minutes, not days. Web-based and PC user interfaces eliminate the need to deal with the challenge of the “green screen” and ISPF. Pull-down menus eliminate the need to remember commands and provide the ability to display graphics that speed problem resolution and understanding of system status. 

Now even management products are beginning to support the next generation. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a technician to need a week’s worth of training to fully exploit a product. Since very few roles needed only one product, this made the learning curve very steep. The future is a fully integrated, customized portal, including all needed capabilities on one pane of glass, designed explicitly for the needs of that role. And the future is now. These kinds of products are increasingly available—again, chipping away at the 10,000 hours of mastery.

So, what should a new mainframer do to become the next generation of mainframe outlier? First, ensure the support of one or more mentors while “guru” legacy systems programmers still remain at your company. Take advantage of every class offered, whether online, in person, or at a virtual trade show. If you’re new to the mainframe, find the courses that focus on core mainframe skills. Seek out products that streamline your learning curve and provide the kinds of capabilities you need to be efficient. You’re gifted with a wealth of advantages to become a success—

Carpe Diem!