Rolling with the Tide: Flexibility in Mainframe Training

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Successful organizations and companies have well-trained workers at their foundation. Training is not only essential for new workers, but also for existing employees to refresh their knowledge, especially when new technologies are adopted or greater responsibilities are expected in a new role.[1] Mainframe shops are aware of how training benefits their workers, in terms of improved employee morale and greater efficiency and productivity. With many companies now focused on navigating the nuances of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, training can ensure companies continue to operate consistently during a crisis and can address challenges and opportunities as they occur.

Darren Surch, chief operating officer of Interskill, says mainframe training that traditionally consisted of ad hoc classroom courses and conferences has evolved with new training technologies and the ubiquity of the internet. This includes an enormous variety of year-round, on-demand mainframe e-learning courses, hands-on labs, assessments, coaching/mentoring, and reference material. He adds that even before COVID-19, e-learning had “become a core, on-demand component of more and more workforce training programs.” Scott McFall, vice president of business development at ProTech, agrees that virtual training is the norm, given the market of geographically diverse students. He also adds that unless a specific customer requires a private, in-person class, courses are done virtually.

Yvette LaMar, director of the IBM Z® Influencer Ecosystem, points out, “We’ve seen e-learning redefined in the last few years with growing trends around social learning, adaptive learning, and microlearning.” She adds that more than ever, training content is managed and delivered through the cloud, which provides 24/7 access to learners globally, even on mobile devices. Virtual reality, LaMar says, “turns classrooms into imaginable places to learn and actually visualize and complete hands-on work, and try new things. Not everyone learns in the same way, so having different methods allows us to more effectively reach a broader audience.” Chris Rayns, manager of IBM Redbooks and technical content services, adds that there has been a big jump in demand for new hire training, in addition to the up-to-date classroom training IBM offers about the evolving mainframe.

According to Broadcom’s Mainframe Education Program Manager Angelica Giraldo, the increased demand for online training has led the company to shift some of its multiday courses to web-based modules with interactive demonstrations and simulations for hands-on instruction. “This provides flexible, on-demand education offerings that can be taken at the client’s own pace,” she says. Giraldo adds that it is also important to work one-on-one with customers to develop instruction where training currently does not exist. “Regardless of generation, people demand more flexibility in how they receive training, and also prefer a more visual and interactive approach,” she says. “We are constantly evolving our educational offerings to enable students to engage more with the material, incorporating interactivity wherever possible.” Broadcom also offers short videos to help customers learn about product capabilities and best practices, which can be found on the CA Educate YouTube channel.

Training in the Age of COVID-19

LaMar indicates that IBM has a long history of investing in mainframe skills. The IBM Z Skills Ecosystem offers programs and resources aimed at cultivating mainframe talent to help clients fill positions left by those retiring from the workforce. With COVID-19 sending workers from the office into their homes, IBM, she says, offers everything it can in the curriculum in different formats, including weekly webinars on the newly created student hub and COBOL specific training on the COBOL hub. Rayns also points out there has been a decline in student days and online classes since the pandemic began, but that IBM continues to further develop its self-paced programs and to fill in any training gaps. Additionally, IBM Systems TechU conferences offer a variety of ways to learn and network.

Giraldo says their web-based training is offered around the clock, in addition to Broadcom’s continued focus on building more on-demand and online education. “We also are implementing alternative ways to deliver classes that were originally scheduled for on-site delivery by leveraging virtual knowledge-sharing sessions combined with online instructor-led training,” she explains. Broadcom has also rescheduled its spring 2020 Mainframe Technical Exchange event to the fall to ensure employee and customer safety. ProTech has similarly moved its scheduled in-person training to virtual platforms, says McFall. “We have tripled our virtual classroom capacity and have worked with customers to meet their individual needs in these unprecedented times,” he adds. “We’ve also started offering free webinars and mini courses on topical subjects like working from home and stress in uncertain times.”

Surch indicates that this year virtual training is the optimal way for organizations and companies to educate their workforce, as many employees are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This year, mainframe organizations will have more than the usual amount of headaches, but worrying about how they are going to train their mainframe workforces doesn’t have to be one of them,” he says. On LinkedIn, Surch advises companies to maintain their education programs to ensure their mainframe workforces remain at peak performance. He notes that providing ample, readily available mainframe training and the recognition of IBM Badges does the double duty of improving employee morale and work satisfaction in this difficult year.

Bridge the Generational Gap

Giraldo remarks that millennials are looking for shorter, easier-to-consume programs, or microlearning. “A great example of this is YouTube,” she says, “because it can help these programmers fix a problem on their own with help from an expert.” Giraldo adds that microlearning can include videos or short web-based courses, and it often complements and builds on content provided in mainframe product documentation. “Based on customer feedback, we develop these kinds of videos to further emphasize the product’s functionality, which are not easily described in words,” she explains.

Students and young professionals, LaMar says, want to choose when, what, and how they learn, and courses need to be enticing. To do that, classes need to include gamification and virtual reality, and offer opportunities to learn smaller chunks of data at a time. “Master the Mainframe is a fun way for students to get hands-on mainframe skills in a challenge environment and provides the opportunity for them to earn digital badges,” she adds.

Rayns, however, says he sees that differences in training are not related to generational concerns but regional and business differences, with some regions predominantly choosing online live training and others refusing to use remote training. He does suggest that hands-on training is a must early on in mainframe careers and when tackling more advanced topics, which, he says, could require a secured environment rather than a production server.

“Millennials are more likely to seek training and continue learning as a tool to reach their career goals and increase job satisfaction,” according to Surch. “Millennials have grown up with computers and see nothing unusual about e-learning.” McFall agrees, noting, “It’s true that many millennials prefer to self-educate, and we’ve developed several ways to accomplish this, including blending our instructor-led courses with self-paced training from providers like Interskill.”

According to Rayns, “The younger generations have less (or no) experience behind the console screen. The shift from touch-screens to GUIs can be surprising to them initially.” Giraldo agrees, explaining that millennials adapt more quickly to web-based GUIs than the traditional “green” screen, which can require more hands-on time to learn the output of a single command. “When working with web-based GUIs, the students are more adaptive and can see the output with a single screenshot,” she says. Rayns points out that many IT students also are less aware that working in the mainframe can be a rewarding career.

Surch recalls, “I see that particular millennial attitude for learning often rubs off on baby boomers still in the mainframe industry and teaches them better training habits.” Baby boomers started in the industry at a time when classroom training was the only available option, says Surch. “With the internet and the opportunities it now offers in terms of delivery, there has been a gold rush in digital training delivery technologies. Now, the sheer volume and variety of training is influencing the way mainframers train, regardless of their generation,” he adds. “Most mainframers will utilize all delivery methodologies if they are made available by their organization.”

“I believe many of us are adapting to how millennials learn,” Giraldo says. Hands-on training and instructor-led courses are often preferred by baby boomers and Gen X-ers, she adds. “Broadcom has offered different modalities for this reason, catering to individual learners. We also partner with firms like ProTech and NiiT for instructor-led courses.” McFall adds that he finds baby boomers often seek out training on emerging technologies, such as z/OSMF or new subsystem versions. “They have all the basics down,” he says. “Gen X-ers, on the other hand, are still learning all about the mainframe, but they are often a step ahead of millennials.” McFall also explains, “It’s a balancing act adapting courses to meet the specific needs of each student and each class.”

Training Hurdles

Beyond the current situation with COVID-19, one of the biggest challenges of mainframe training is getting people to actively practice, says Surch. He explains there needs to be more programs like “Think40” at IBM in which IBMers must complete 40 hours of professional development annually, and those hours are tracked by IBM. “The tidal effect of that volume of training lifts the skill and knowledge of the entire workforce,” he adds. “The ideal, however, is a blended mainframe workforce training program. One that includes e-learning and classroom training with conferences and mentoring, as well has hands-on training. Different modalities are more efficient for different levels and areas of mainframe training and, of course, fit better with different organizations’ training budgets.”

McFall adds that finding mainframe training talent is another challenge for the sector. “Many mainframe trainers have retired, but some of our instructors continue to work with us on a part-time schedule thanks to virtual training and reduced travel,” he says. Rayns agrees that replacing retiring mainframe talent is a challenge. Giraldo points out that Broadcom is addressing this issue by partnering with their customers in the Mainframe Vitality Residency Program. “We hire and provide product training at no cost and partner with our customers to place the talent on their site for mentoring, with the option to hire in a permanent position.”

Through their IT Career Connects, IBM facilitates the connection of employers with local universities. These half-day sessions offer panel discussions with local employers and hands-on workshops for the students. “It’s a great way for employers to meet students with basic mainframe skills, who are enthusiastic about a career in enterprise computing. It also establishes a relationship between companies and their local area schools.” says LaMar.

An Evolving Market

Overall, mainframe training is in a good place in which modules are evolving to meet the needs of employees and employers. “Today, we find students sometimes come to our classes with the basic skills they need, thanks to programs like Master the Mainframe and the IBM Academic Initiative,” says McFall. “This has created a new market for ‘intermediate’ courses.”

Another trend in the training market has been the renewed interest in the mainframe from non-IT college graduates, which McFall says reminds him of the 1960s and 1970s when computer science degrees were not available and many turned to boot camps to learn new skills. To reach these students, training programs have to incorporate basic mainframe skills with systems programming and other modules, to ensure these new hires are ready for the workforce.

Videos are increasingly common among training programs, but these experts agree that well-rounded training programs must offer hands-on work for highly technical mainframe computing topics. This kind of training can be accomplished through simulations or through live practice with an actual mainframe system. As many firms have limited training budgets and employees have limited time to devote to training, maximizing that time will continue to be crucial.



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