So, You Want to Be a Mainframe IT Manager? Here’s What I’ve Learned
Overview: After 24 years as a mainframe technician, what’s it like to step into management? One Compuware employee shares what he learned early on as a mainframe IT manager.
The mainframe industry is changing rapidly in many ways, but one particular way that tends to get a lot of attention is the shift in generations. As many experienced mainframe pros retire, I see many next-gen mainframe pros taking on new responsibilities, joining new teams and stepping into new management and team lead roles.
As someone who spent 24 years as a technician, then 14 more years managing and directing, I thought it would be helpful to share my own story of the challenges I faced and what I learned. Here’s an updated article I wrote for Enterprise Executive in 2004 that still holds true today. I hope it helps you understand the management role better, whether you’re looking at this career path, or simply want to look through the eyes of the people who provide direction for you and your team.
Never Say Never: My Foray into Management
I had sworn I’d never do it . . . I’d never become one of them. I’d never drink the Kool-Aid, get the lobotomy, or trade in my laptop for an Etch-A-Sketch. I’d remain pure—a technician—unsoiled by politics or the hard choices a budget sometimes requires. I had sworn I’d never become a manager, but I did.
One Monday morning, Joe, my boss of nine years, called me into his office to tell me he had accepted early retirement and upper management wanted me to fill his position. Me! Why me?! What had I done?! Apparently, I had done enough to give them the idea I could perhaps get the job done.
I spent the next month with Joe as he cleared out 20-plus years of neatly filed notes, reports and studies, passing on what he thought I could use. I began attending meetings with Joe, and then, later, in his place. I began conducting the weekly staff meeting Joe had established and began attending his …er… my boss’s staff meeting. I began morphing myself into this new role. It wasn’t easy.
Then suddenly, the month was past and there I stood all alone. It took me two days to get the courage to move into his …er… my new office. I closed the door, sat down behind the desk, feeling awkward, elated, and intimidated all at once. Could I do this? There was no way to know except to try, I pondered, basking in the unfamiliar sunlight of my first window in my career.
And then all hell broke loose. Month-end fell on me like a safe from a third-story window. All I could do was react. Unexpected, new workloads crashed in on our CPU-constrained complex and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. At this point, I really appreciated my former boss’s expertise. How had he managed such chaos with such apparent ease and grace, I wondered? In the end, he would have been quite challenged, as our postmortem revealed. But that experience taught me a valuable lesson: Management is at times a state of confused helplessness, punctuated by episodes of terror.
After the dust settled, things got better. I began to get on top of my problems. And they were mine alone, as I soon realized. That realization really hit home. I had to not only assume, but also take ownership of my responsibilities. And I had plenty of opportunities to take ownership. I quickly learned that I was responsible for things I didn’t even know existed, much less owned. The phone would ring and a new responsibility would emerge. At first, I was overwhelmed, but I soon discovered I was allowing these responsibilities to crush me. I learned I didn’t have to do that. I had an option called “delegation.” I was allowed to delegate. I was encouraged to delegate. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t delegate. I had to delegate—that’s why I had people working for me.
I discovered there is a certain beauty in delegation: Although I was ultimately responsible, I could share the burden of my myriad responsibilities with my team. I didn’t have to solve the problem; I just had to ensure the problem was solved. This was very liberating.
Management is a vital role where you sometimes must position yourself at a higher vantage point to see ahead and make strategic decisions, so you can guide efforts over time and stay on course. You cannot do that if you are always up to your eyeballs in the daily minutiae.
A team that pulls in the wrong direction is a waste of time, energy and money, so you must take time to ensure it is properly guided. I would now venture ahead to see where we needed to go, then steer the quarry wagon while my team pulled it, instead of trying to push it uphill by myself, only to have it roll back on top of me.
Then I ran into a new problem: organization. How would I organize the efforts of this fine team? There were six team members; all very capable, all very experienced. How would I keep up? Should I even try? How much minutia, I thought, do I attempt to comprehend and maintain without miring myself in the details? Or worse yet, bog down a team member?
After 24 years in the trenches, I had discovered I was all about details, and as we all know, the devil is in the details. I realized that I had to let go. I was encouraged to let go. I couldn’t do this if I didn’t let go. There was this voice inside me shouting, “Delegate and let go!” That’s why I had these fine people working for me. This was the hardest part for me, but I got there.
I had to allow my staff to do what they did best. I assigned projects and expectations and allowed them the freedom to complete these projects in their own fashion. I provided guidance, when necessary, and awaited the results. I believe when I was doing this most correctly, my team became an extension of myself, expediently accomplishing the goals I set for us and achieving the mission I knew we had complete.
Over the course of my technical career, like everyone, I was managed and mismanaged by good and bad managers. The good managers I tried to emulate, having learned from them what to do, as well as when and how to go about it. The bad managers were equally, if not more, instructive, teaching me, by example, what not to do or how not to do it. I also consulted with my peers. My challenges were nothing new, just new to me. And I was raised right. “Use all the brains you have and all the brains you can borrow,” Joe always said.
I made the fundamental change I swore I would never make, but I decided I would never say never again. Most days, I was delighted I did it. I enjoyed managing; it was very rewarding. But I missed the nooks and crannies and nuances of the technology. The sandbox was always such a lovely place to play! I remember my predecessor often said he enjoyed technical work vicariously through his people. I never fully understood what he meant by that until I became a manager.