Jan 4 ’11

The Designed Alliance: A New Mentoring Model for Mainframers

by Denise P. Kalm in z/Journal

Most mentoring relationships are founded on the concept that a learned elder works with an aspiring newcomer to share knowledge and help them leap hurdles and transform their career. This model dates back to the days of guild apprenticeships, where it was assumed the protégé was a “tabula rasa” (blank slate) on which the mentor would write. At the end of the apprenticeship, you had a trained tradesperson, but the mentor was unchanged by the experience.

This old model does a disservice to the abilities and knowledge of the protégé by ignoring what the mentor may gain; it also misses the power of a symbiotic relationship to create and synthesize something neither could have accomplished alone. Symbiosis means both parties gain something from the relationship. That’s only possible if the relationship is architected to support this goal. For example, a clown fish benefits from the stinging anemone’s protection from predators, and the anemone is protected by the clown fish chasing away predators. We can learn from the lessons of these symbiotic relationships on the reef, applying them to mentoring to avoid risk to the future of the mainframe.

What’s a Mentor?

The dictionary defines a mentor as a wise and trusted counselor or teacher or an influential senior sponsor or supporter.

In the 20th century, a mentor was viewed as a guide to a younger, newer colleague. The mentor cleared the path and explained the rules (written and unwritten) in the world the protégé sought to enter. He or she trained, guided, and challenged the protégé to make rapid progress. The mainframe mentoring relationship was a one-way knowledge transfer, passing on such arcane knowledge as Job Control Language (JCL) syntax, Time Sharing Option (TSO) commands, and how to work with green-screen tools.

Mentoring later took on a whole new spin, where the focus shifted from technical to leadership skills, but it was still unidirectional. Many executives credit the assistance of their mentor for their corporate success. The goal was to become the apprentice of someone higher up the food chain who had political, social, and business skills you lacked. The relationship typically lasted a long time, though over the course of a career, you might select several mentors. Although this was a successful model in many ways, this kind of mentoring had some drawbacks:

Many mainframers have crafted their careers with limited help and support, resorting to reading manuals, joining news groups, and learning by “the seat of their pants.” When you don’t benefit from a program, it can be difficult to see the value of participating in it. Those we expect to be mentors to the Gen-Yers haven’t had the benefits of personal experience from which to value the mentoring relationship. Besides, potential mentors would ask themselves the question, “What’s in it for me?”

The New Mentor

The definitions of many words have evolved in the 21st century. The concept of a mentor must encompass the modern understanding of human neural development and address the needs of a rapidly evolving society. Instead of a model describing a protégé as a blank block of stone on which we impress our image, we need to see protégés the way Michelangelo envisioned his blocks of marble: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Michelangelo’s quote acknowledges the value of the protégé and implies that there’s something in the relationship for the mentor. To get to that value, the premise of the relationship must change from a guru/grunt model to one of equals sharing what they know. The new mentoring relationship is a “designed alliance,” where agreement is reached between two partners who accept the rules of engagement and share the same goals. As such, new mentors may be anyone who has been at the company a little longer and who knows something the newer employee does not. The relationship bounds are defined by the pair; it may be a long-term relationship or one that lasts just a few hours.

Instead of being viewed as newbies, the protégé mainframer is valued for life experience, education and his world view, which differs from that of the mentor. As part of the relationship, the mentor has an opportunity to learn and grow; expanding his view of what’s possible by interacting with someone who may see fewer limits.

Younger people tend to be “early adopters” of technology and embrace change more fervently. They’re optimistic, hopeful, engaged, and excited. Working with a younger person can re-energize you and remind you why you started in this profession. Instead of the ritual “hazing,” where newcomers are forced to re-create JCL and laboriously work through the green screen, see things from their perspective, where easier is better. Just as you might resent having to carefully dial a phone number with a rotary dial, this generation wants to embrace automation wherever they can find it and interact through their iPads. How would you work differently if you didn’t have to do things “the old way”? Could it be better? Could the knowledge transfer from local experts be built into products? Tools such as Google intelligent search and the iPad were created by people who said “why not” instead of asking “why.” Innovation is more abundant when you don’t yet really know all the rules. When that kind of visionary thinking is applied to mainframe management, the results can be exciting and appealing to next-generation mainframers.

Excitement also spurs more innovation. By energizing the new kids on the block, they can bring more advanced thinking to the table. The excitement then becomes contagious. The sheer energy exhibited by someone new to a field is invigorating. Opening your eyes to new possibilities, can recharge your batteries. You may even learn something.

A designed alliance (the new model for mentoring) means letting the protégé drive the process, determining what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. It means taking the risk to let them try things and learn from hands-on experience rather than simply being told how to do something. Each of us has our own working and learning style. By letting the protégé describe how they want to be mentored, they own their success. Both parties must be able to listen and exhibit curiosity. They must share the goals of learning and action; the protégé must be willing to act and be accountable.

The Results

The clown fish and the anemone survive more successfully in partnership, but humans have the potential to do much more—to grow, learn and evolve. In the protégé-mentor partnership, the sharing experience and expertise—combined with the potential to change everything—can result in enhanced working behaviors and even new products. The relationship enables the parties to question everything, from the way they interact with their PC to the way they approach solving a problem.

Where an experienced mainframer might value their ability to remember how to solve a problem (tune buffer pools, tweak parameters, etc.), a new mainframer might ask “why solve the same problem more than once?” Isn’t there a way for the system to remember and repeat the action? How can you capture all the collected knowledge of mainframers, making it available to anyone—perhaps a z/OS Wikipedia? What would it be like to not have to select from a variety of products to solve a problem, but instead to have a portal designed for your role, designed specifically for how you do your job? These kinds of questions and answers come from the interaction between experience and energy, the challenge of the how vs. the why. It comes from asking “what if.”

Symbiotic mentoring results in not just a clone of the mentor—a new person imbued with the experience of the older person. Instead, the experience can result in two changed people—people with an expanded worldview, a new way of working, and a new view of possibility. The future of the mainframe isn’t simply in doing what we’ve done expertly for so long, but in transforming those tasks to eliminate the tedium, while engaging the brilliance of the technician to conceive a new approach.

Well-engineered tools, as envisioned and requested by those trying to learn, will complement the new mentoring relationship, speeding the ability of new mainframers to take on a larger role. As part of the symbiotic relationship, existing mentor/experts will benefit from the improvements, making their jobs easier and more productive. This grand experiment and social mashup has the potential to keep the mainframe 20 years ahead of all other platforms, a position we mainframers have enjoyed for many years.