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Lessons Learned

More seasoned mainframers advise their younger selves and Generation Z workers

11/23/2016 12:45:04 AM | Time travel is a science fiction literature staple, from “Back to the Future” and “Terminator” film franchises back to works by Robert A. Heinlein and other classics. But there's always the paradox challenge: if someone travels back in time, they risk changing things so dramatically that they wouldn't exist in future time to go back to change things. One Heinlein story describes—and diagrams—relationships in the story “All You Zombies.” A Washington Post opinion piece describes time travel's history (in fiction, of course) and suggests that it's ultimately sought to provide immortality.

Though even z Systems can't provide actual temporal relocation, it's interesting to consider what advice mainframe professionals would give their younger selves if the opportunity existed. And veterans' wisdom applies to Generation Z. Best to receive it now, rather than in 30 years when someone else asks what advice they'd give to their younger selves.

This isn't alternate tech history, it’s reality and career based on what did happen and how tech did evolve. It’s technology-independent (e.g., it's not the mainframe version of "If only Betamax had won...") and it's not outside career (e.g., "buy Apple stock").

Variety Matters

When working one's first job it's challenging understanding what career means, and even more difficult identifying and understanding or evaluating choices. Without specific goals, it's hard to measure progress, as noted by Zig Ziglar: "If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time." Without progress— however that's defined—it's easy to get the same year's experience too many years in a row, perhaps falling behind colleagues and the industry.

Jeffrey Holst, senior systems administrator at PNC Bank, comments that "If I had advice for my former self, it would likely be to satisfy [my] fascination in physics, but take the time to more fully exploit options of learning computer science in college." He notes that he wasn't bad at physics, he just didn't love it. He found a job in programming; IT became his career and he loves what he does.

Similarly, focus—ignoring momentary distractions—helps prioritize goals over lesser achievements. I'd counsel my younger self with the occasional question, "what's next?" to suggest a planning and growth mindset. That might involve staying current with new programming languages; improving presentation skills; or becoming more familiar with one's employer's business, customers, services and products.

Pick and occasionally reevaluate priorities, rather than wearing blinders, ignoring changes and sticking to what's familiar or comfortable. I proudly wore (and still have, in my heavy sack of SHARE buttons) a "VM Bigot" button. I was happy and proud knowing that whatever the question, VM was the answer. But that blinded me somewhat to the virtues of other architectures and technologies from which I might have benefited. Others commented that they've stuck with favorite technologies too long, to the detriment of their careers. Or they discounted emerging trends, such as the feeble early PC daring to compete with the mighty mainframe.

It was only years later when I understood what my third-line manager meant when he suggested that I transfer out of the data center to have "a real career" where I worked. His point was that I should understand consequences and nuances—good and bad—of having a specialized IT career versus being more involved in and aware of technology's business aspects and issues. Technology workers are often more valuable and successful blending, in whatever proportion, multiple disciplines.

Focus on the Task

Through the decades work has changed; having one job through working life has become unusual and flexibility is a key virtue. During most of my career I never imagined freelancing, so when it arrived, I needed to adapt quickly. Chatting with myself mid-career, I'd suggest learning about running a business and understanding all the things a company does for employees.

It’s discouraged to take a job out of desperation: don’t ignore red flags (e.g., non-tech savvy tech manager, pinching pennies). Having a neutral person to discuss decisions with can help.

Another dimension is long-term versus short-term thinking. I'd tell my 20-something self to forego leaving a large, well-run company for the allure of a small company's quick raise and CEO sweet talk. I was fortunately able to make a quick U-turn but I'd have been better off staying put where I left and to which I returned.

All can learn from one another: Coming-up generations too often think there's nothing to learn from those who've gone before on whose contributions they're building, and older workers sometimes discount new developments.

Dan Skwire, owner of the LinkedIn group "First Fault Problem Solving" says that he missed a cue in a manager's request for a report, thus losing the opportunity to help create and structure a critical technology area, MVS serviceability improvements. A manager once told me casually and not entirely flatteringly that I had more partial projects than anyone else. Focus, what's that?

An immensely successful project was Mike Cowlishaw's development of the REXX programming language. It excelled because he wrote the full language specification before coding, and he tested early, often and extensively by making code widely available within IBM. Collaborating and seeking or using feedback would have benefited some of my efforts.

Similar to writing specifications is fully explaining ideas—especially "partly baked" ones—to others. That's more likely to get the ideas carefully considered, and feedback can help them be rescued, refined or—when appropriate—abandoned. Perhaps most important, explaining what's planned helps you and others identify risks, and ensure that there's an escape route from plans that go awry.

Dilbert Isn't Your Role Model

John Mattson, consultant systems programmer for Intellibridge, suggests that "it's good to be a tech wizard, but if you want to get things done, you need at least some social skills." If you don't work well with people, less knowledgeable folks will obstruct you just because they can. Remember Dilbert's manager? Similarly, what seems a technical issue to you may have emotional factors with others; ignore them at your peril. Being aware of your emotions and those of others is critical in identifying, managing and resolving conflict. It can be difficult but essential avoiding feeling defensive when under attack, even if it's your ideas or favorite technology at risk.

It's also important picking the right battles to fight. Not everything justifies drawing figurative blood. When something is unavoidable, don't stand in front of the "inevitability" train. If it's going over the cliff anyway, it will take you along.

A close college friend was always nicely turned out, dressing for success when hardly anyone else did. We took different paths, he went management and I stayed technical. But he always looked the part, long before he had the role. Technologists needn't be fashion plates but appearance and overall presentation can affect credibility and advancement.

Finally, in the nostalgia and keepsake categories, I'd advise my younger self to retain occasional noteworthy and interesting programs I'd write, such as a system automation tool and performance monitor for early VM systems, a PL/I multitasking program used to recover data from a very damaged disk drive, and a 1970s color slide creator and editor used with a locally built computer terminal system. OS/360 Stage 1 SYSGEN decks, not so much.

Gabe Goldberg has developed, worked with and written about technology for decades. Email him at destination.z@gabegold.com

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