Thought Leadership: Millennials and the Mainframe – Recruiting New Talent

By Carissa Degen

Millennials are entering the workforce in droves, boasting highly diverse skillsets. Even so, it can be difficult to recruit for a job that involves integrating z Systems with mainframe usage. At SHARE Atlanta, attendees learned how to tackle this challenge by listening to a panel that knew exactly how to bring those millennials on board. Their prior experience: They’re millennials themselves.

The “Client Success: Finding Young New z Systems Talents” panel called on several millennials to discuss how they got involved in the mainframe, what drew them to the profession and how you can recruit millennials to do the same. Panelists emphasized that it’s key to keep an open mind when you are trying to find new talent, as your best new employee may come from a background you didn’t expect.

Did you know anything about the mainframe through college and/or training?

Daniel Zentner: I had no prior knowledge about the mainframe before going into the workforce. I only knew it was an infrastructure technology job. I had an idea about DB2, networking and systems, but all of the actual training was on the job working with coworkers.

Chris Parch: A friend of mine talked to me about his job and how he was basically breaking things for a living and able to think outside of the box. I was enthralled. After hearing his talk, I thought, ‘How can I apply?’ That was my gateway drug to mainframe technologies. It wasn’t originally all about the mainframe, but the idea of testing something and seeing it do what it should sold me.

James Ovincy: I used to work in finance, so I was touching the mainframe without even realizing that I was. There were certain processes that required going into the mainframe but people hated doing it, so I did. That was my first encounter with the mainframe.

After finance, I started doing sales solutions engineering, and I started learning the distributed network and doing network diagrams. Then the opportunity to work on the mainframe presented itself. I went to a big interview with managers from different areas. Through an elimination process, I got down to the network space. Originally, the only thing I saw that I understood was the network, but I didn’t realize it was a completely different network.

Holden O’Neal: I participated in a master the mainframe contest while I was in high school. I’ve also seen The Matrix series and studied computer science. After I completed an internship working under the mainframe at SAS and graduated college, there was an opening on the mainframe development team that sounded like a good challenge. I applied and got the job.

All of my training has been on the job with my teammates. Any additional training I’ve received has been at SHARE, SHARE Academy and the assembler boot camp at last year’s conference.

If someone says they’re looking for a COBOL trainer, does that steer you away?

Ashley Jones: The approach is the critical aspect. What am I going to be doing? What is the end goal? Where I work at Delta Airlines, you have the ability to work on a team that basically vets people every day to the government. If your code messes up, you can potentially stop a whole flight from flying. Think about the impact of the mainframe; don’t put the languages out there. It’s overwhelming.

Andrew Hicks: Give the bigger picture, look at the reason it is mission-critical and that we cannot risk recoding it in a different language. You can abstract it and get them hooked.

Ovincy: You have to let them know they won’t be thrown out there without support. Show them you have an application development six-month training program to help build up the individual. Think about how you advertise the job. You aren’t going to get those applicants if you just talk about the tech aspect.

What is the most useful experience you’ve had to get your feet underneath you? At what point is training too much?

O’Neal: The biggest challenge in getting started was moving through ISPF and traversing the way I had to interface it — it was difficult. SHARE has an ISPF session, and I learned so much there that I wouldn’t have had time to learn in a book.

Jones: I learned the most from a mentor. I was given an SME, and it was the biggest help. She showed and taught me so many more things simply by having that direct contact.

Hicks: I was peer-mentored and for the first three months, I spent every hour of my day in her office and it was amazing to see what you can ingest. A hands-on approach is extremely beneficial. You have such valuable information to pass on to new hires, and there is information that you have that isn’t in a book. You have tricks that will take them so much time and energy to find themselves.

Michael Gildein: Trial-by-fire really helps them sink in. They know what they know and they know what they don’t know. Let them collaborate for a while.

What do you think of the myth that the mainframe is going away?

O’Neal: We’ve all heard that myth and we realize how prevalent it is. Companies can’t get off of it in my lifetime.

Hicks: A lot of people who believe that myth don’t understand the computing. If you really understand the space, you won’t be able to run banks at a global level if your data isn’t consistent. There is no other system that can run these jobs. Once you learn something on the mainframe, it never goes away.

How many hours do you work on average?

O’Neal: SAS has a good work-life balance. They don’t ask you to work more than 35 hours. However, technology has enabled us to work from home. We have grown up with desktops and we are a mobile generation. We want to be everywhere in the world and we multitask. We have the mobility and we can leverage that as long as we are trusted. We want to work hard and play hard, so if you let us work hard from anywhere in the world, we’ll work hard.

Jones: It varies. If I have a big project come up, I might spend more time. There are some weeks where I’m in and out, but it just depends on my responsibilities.

How important is it to work with other people from the millennial generation?

Jones: It hasn’t bothered me working with people older than me. I have all this knowledge around me to absorb.

What gets you in the door and, once you’re there, how does a company keep you?

Ovincy: The opportunity for growth is enticing. As long as the opportunities keep coming, people will stick around. Empowering your employees is key. If I don’t feel needed or that I’m contributing anything, why would I waste my time?

Hicks: Innovative opportunities and implementing great ideas get me. Working on projects where you can really feel like you are taking a piece of something and seeing it through is rewarding.

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