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An Inside Look at Two Mainframe Shop Roles

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Mainframes are equipped to handle large amounts of data quickly, which is why they are a mainstay in many financial and retail companies and other large organizations with critical applications. Like other computing platforms, the mainframe’s return on investment is dependent on its ability to scale, support mixed workloads, reduce labor costs, deliver uninterrupted service for critical business applications, and several other risk-adjusted cost factors.[1] Mainframe shops, therefore, are close knit groups that are able to work together effectively to ensure the mainframe continues to perform at its optimum using the skill sets of its workers to their best advantage.

Derek Powe, systems architect at Experis, says his main focus is helping ensure that representatives of various IBM Z® teams have the knowledge needed about new developments to complete their resiliency and availability projects. His day normally begins with checking emails to make sure he is up-to-date on developments from the previous day or weekend. “After that,” he says, “I start to engage with representatives of various IBM Z teams, including systems programmers, automation, storage administrators, and hardware team members.” On a daily basis, Powe also coordinates with these teams to ensure all are represented in the project work in concert to see their successful completion.

When Powe was a systems programmer, he was mostly engaged in managing IPLs (Initial Program Load, a term meaning restart and shutdown of a system), product maintenance, product debugging, and participating in a 24/7 on-call rotation. He explains, “At the time there were two main job functions, system stability/currency and new function exercises. New function exercises would be proof of concept testing with newer products, upgrades to products, modernization or technical documentation and mentoring.” Powe says that the stability/currency function was the main priority, as businesses value stability to ensure operating systems run smoothly and that products run effectively. “On a daily basis, I would juggle those tasks,” he adds.

Gary Dulon, professional services director at RSM Partners Ltd., says his weeks are full of meetings, with Mondays focused on preparing for the week ahead and Fridays for catching up on other aspects of the business, from sales to professional services teams in other geographies.

“I don’t think there really is a ‘typical’ day at the office, as the portfolio of projects we are working on varies all the time,” Dulon adds. Like Powe, he says he first checks his inbox for emails that come in overnight. “At RSM, we do business on every continent (except Antarctica as I don’t think there are too many mainframes there). Quite often emails come in very late from the U.S. West Coast or there are early emails from Australasia and the Far East,” says Dulon. “The way we work can sometimes lead to some very interestingly shaped days, with sometimes very early conference calls, sometimes very late conference calls and sometimes both.”

Dulon explains that his role is primarily program management, but he started his career in a more technical role, before landing into consultancy work and, eventually, project management. Initially, he wrote Assembler code, installed z/OS software, engaged in capacity management and performance tuning, and designed and implemented database systems. As a program manager, he had fewer technical tasks related to Z, instead managing a team of 70 technical specialists and project managers. The move to more business-related work “has also led to gaining an understanding of the management of individuals, and the mainframe world contains a lot of people who are very unique,” Dulon says.

Dulon says his interest in computing really blossomed in college after studying mathematics, physics, and chemistry at A-level (or pre-university education in the U.K.). “At the start of my A-level studies, my mindset was already heading toward computer science with a view to moving into commercial computing when I graduated,” he says. “I first came across mainframes at university during my computer science degree.”

It was during this time in the late 1970s when Dulon learned to program in Pascal, COBOL, assembly, and Fortran on various platforms, including a Burroughs mainframe. “I actually did the third year of my degree working in industry as a COBOL programmer on an NCR mainframe site,” he recalls. “By the time I started my first job as a trainee CICS/IMS systems programmer at British Shoe Corporation, a classic IBM mainframe site, I’d already had a good understanding of mainframes and how they work.”

Unlike Dulon, Powe says he wasn’t always interested in mainframe or Z systems work. “I actually had not heard of it until my last year of college where I was introduced to the IBM Academic Initiative,” he explains. “Even after I started my first position post-graduate, the job wasn't exactly what I was expecting.” He adds, “Due to the complexity of z/OS, many of the processes that companies create can be a little monotonous, but you quickly find out it is for good reason. The challenge for me was to learn the history of why people did things a certain way, then to see if there was a better way after understanding the pros and cons.”

Advice for New Mainframers

Powe adds that everyone should find a mentor, create a career plan, and engage in study on their own. “When I first started out (and even to this day), I sought mentors that didn’t mind giving advice and sharing their mistakes and successes. A career plan is something that is personal, and while many can give you guidance only you can decide where your career should go and how you want to cultivate it. I would create, consistently update and work toward things that are aligning with your values and career plan to make sure you can get the most out of it,” he says. “Self-studying is something a person should do to increase their skill set in any field, but especially when you're new to a role. If you want to excel you should know the ins and outs of your job, and the intricacies of how to do it at your specific company.”

Dulon advises new mainframers to get a good foundation in technology because there are many disciplines in the mainframe that new recruits can specialize in. Companies like RSM often have training programs in which they can start doing real work with clients almost from day one under the guidance of highly experienced mainframe technicians, he explains. “The advice I would give to new recruits is to understand the basics and then gain an understanding of how z/OS and its subsystems work in detail,” says Dulon. “Then, as soon as you can, learn assembly.”

Dulon adds, “I was lucky in the role I did at British Shoe as I progressed to being a team leader in just over three years, and in those days IBM shipped the product source code to clients. I spent many a happy hour working through the assembly code understanding how the MVS dispatcher and other components of the operating system work, as well as CICS and IMS internals.” He explains that when he started as a systems programmer, he thought he would always stay on the technical side of the mainframe shop. But in a senior management role, he’s been able to help grow the company and still be involved in an architect role from time to time.

Powe says he’s thankful because his current position in the mainframe shop enables him to “lead, learn, and laugh.” He also says, “I get to build on the foundation that I learned as a systems programmer, but also learn things from the other teams I interface with, and I enjoy that aspect of my role.” But he cautions that his job “isn't for everyone.” Powe advises everyone in the mainframe shop to “stay sharp and stay open to new opportunities. You never know where they may take you.”

Roles in the mainframe shop vary from technical work and systems architects to project managers and senior executives. By leveraging the skills of the entire team, businesses ensure that their mainframes continue to perform at optimum and that their businesses continue growing. With proper training and motivation, mainframe employees can upskill and enter new roles within the shop that better meet their career goals.


 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mainframe_computer

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