Five Practices that Shape Next-gen Mainframe Developers into IT Leaders
When it comes to getting new talent in the door, mainframe teams have it rough. Experts are retiring and taking invaluable skills and knowledge with them, and IBM predicts the worst-case scenario could be an industry in need of 84,000 mainframe jobs by 2020. But mainframe skills and COBOL are hardly taught in schools today, and many young programmers don’t even know what the mainframe is.
While it’s important to find next-gen mainframe developers who are experienced in COBOL to close this gap, not everyone you hire needs to have had prior exposure to the mainframe to be successful—they can learn the particulars of the mainframe and how to code in COBOL on the job. It’s your organization’s job to develop them into tomorrow’s mainframe and IT leaders.
At Compuware, many of our developers have less than five years of mainframe experience, yet they contribute to building some of the most modern and necessary mainframe DevOps tools available today—tools that help the world’s largest organizations maintain and advance mainframe applications and data that are driving digital transformation.
Watch this two-minute video to hear a few of them talk about why they love the mainframe, why they think mainframe development is a viable career and how your mainframe team can attract others like them.
Based on our experience, after you get next-gen mainframe developers in the door, here’s what you can do to do to retain them and shape them to be future leaders.
1. Be Passionate About the Mainframe
Young professionals want to feel like they’re making a difference in the world through their job. Organizations like yours that leverage mainframes tend to be large enough to have a noticeable influence on economies, even at a global scale—its’ why they trust the mainframe.
One of your priorities when first onboarding next-gen mainframe developers should be to help them understand how important the mainframe is for helping your organization perform well for customers and the economy. For developers to know they’re working on code that potentially impacts people around the world is a major enthusiasm-booster.
It’s also important to have high-level people, such as vice presidents and directors, talk to your next-gen mainframe developers during onboarding, communicating to these new-hires the importance of their specific role on their specific team. These leaders don’t have to work on the mainframe but should express the responsibility they feel for it and should reiterate that joining the mainframe world is vitally important. These young people are now making a huge difference in your organization.
2. Establish a Culture of Continuous Learning
Your next-gen developers will have the programming skills necessary to learn mainframe development, but it’s important to help them develop skills beyond COBOL. Encouraging continuous learning through participation in “extracurricular” activities is an effective way to help them branch out and become more well-rounded.
Encourage your next-gen mainframe developers to team up and enter competitions like Unchain the Frame, like a team of our developers did, where they have the chance to push themselves to their innovative limits. This builds technical skills.
Set up internal teamwork projects that allow developers to be creative and collaborative (at Compuware, we held a 3D-printing contest). This builds leadership and project management skills.
3 . Be Intentional About Mentorship
It’s nearly impossible to learn on the mainframe without mentors—you can’t google this stuff. Mentorship is key to facilitating the transfer of skills and knowledge from experts to next-gen mainframe developers.
Don’t just rely on one expert per next-gen mainframe developer—be intentional about who mentors who based on what next-gen mainframe developers are learning. Different people have different technical expertise. You need the right mentors for the right projects.
Broadening mentorship like this also helps next-gen mainframe developers build their network and learn who different subject matter experts are across the organization. There’s power in this cross-pollination, as it helps people learn various skills across teams and pushes them to build organic relationships.
4. Enable Professional Development
You aren’t just training a new generation of mainframe programmers, you’re shaping a new generation of IT leaders, especially as the mainframe becomes more integrated with and integral to your organization’s digital initiatives.
A great way to help next-gen mainframe developers grow professionally is to let them be intentional about which projects they work on. Decision power breeds confidence, and these developers will need confidence as they take over from retiring experts.
Many people are afraid to pass power or control to new people, especially in mainframe development. But just because your next-gen mainframe developers don’t have a lot of experience doesn’t mean they can’t do good work.
I’m always reminded of one of Compuware’s next-gen mainframe developers, Noah Al-Armanazi, who, after only a few months of working on the mainframe, played a major role in developing Runtime Visualizer, a core component of our flagship product, Topaz, alongside his mentor, Judy Lenzotti, who had decades of experience.
When Noah first came to Compuware, he said he wanted to be on a project like this. By giving him the opportunity, he built technical and professional skills and knowledge through a process that made sense for his goals.
Another great way to help next-gen mainframe developers build professional skills is to have them attend industry conferences like SHARE where experts gather to share knowledge and recruitment events where they can communicate their experiences to others interested in joining your IT or mainframe organization.
Let your next-gen mainframe developers play a meaningful role in these events by asking them to initiate conversations and even present on a programming- or business-related topic they’re passionate about.
5. Invest in Modern Processes and Tools
One of the most important things you need to do to shape next-gen mainframe developers into IT leaders is invest in the technology and practices they use to work on projects. As it stands, typical Waterfall-based mainframe processes are slow and suppress creativity for innovation, and typical mainframe tools like ISPF are antiquated and esoteric.
Your next-gen mainframe developers are used to continuous processes—in delivery, feedback, improvement and more—available through Agile and DevOps. They’re used to tools that are intuitive and graphical with automation, visibility and integration capabilities at their core.
You should leverage these processes and tools to make your mainframe more dynamic and modern, which will help next-gen developers master the mainframe. If you don’t make the change, it will be difficult to find and retain the talent you need.
It’s essential that you seek out new talent to take ownership of your mainframe environment as experts leave, but it’s equally essential that you reorient your mainframe environment to retain those next-gen mainframe developers and ensure they excel as tomorrow’s IT leaders.
While we still aren’t totally there at Compuware, we’re always getting closer. Above are some of the core methods we’ve been using and tweaking along the way to get next-gen developers passionate about and talented with the mainframe.
What’s your organization currently doing to on-board next-gen mainframe developers and shape them to be tomorrow’s IT leaders? Join the conversation to let us know your thoughts.