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Never-Mind the Gap

zNextGen leaders challenge stereotypes about mainframers’ generational divide

6/5/2013 1:01:01 AM | Editor’s note: This article is based on content initially published in the SHARE President’s Corner blog.

Learning is an essential part of effective teaching; any good teacher will tell you that. If you’ve convinced yourself you know everything you need to know, you’ll miss a lot of important information.

This is true of mainframe professionals—whether they’re experienced hands at COBOL and JCL or young up-and-comers with a predilection for social media and mobile devices. Each can learn from the other, and generational gaps must be closed so that the young talent that’s so sorely needed in mainframe professional ranks can feel welcome and appreciated. Both the older and the younger generation need to keep an open mind and show a willingness to learn as well as teach.

“When you bring together someone who grew up with the evolution of the mainframe and someone who grew up with a smartphone with a GPS and Internet in their pocket, there is a lot they can teach each other,” says Vit Gottwald, project manager for SHARE’s zNextGen group. “As a result, a lot of creative and innovative ideas come up.”

Gottwald should know. As one of the leaders of zNextGen, he has firsthand experience with the interaction between young and veteran mainframe professionals. Aware that a large contingent of mainframe professionals plans to retire over the next decade, Gottwald says zNextGen has a role in facilitating what he calls an “exchange of expertise between two generations.”

Launched in 2005, zNextGen’s membership has grown to about 850 young mainframe professionals from 24 countries. The group advances its mission of expediting professional development skills through training sessions at SHARE’s semiannual conferences and monthly conference calls.

“When we started doing sessions for our members at SHARE conferences, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for the mostly fresh college graduates to get into the mainframe terminology and concepts,” Gottwald recalls. “We used a lot of parallels of what they already knew from their recent education and discussed similarities and differences in mainframe concepts. This turned out to be not only useful for the novices, but also for busy veterans who did not have the time to keep up with all developments in other parts of the IT industry.”

One area in which the cross-pollination of novice and veteran cultures can prove particularly productive is the intersection of social media, mainframe and big data. The newcomers bring their practical knowledge of using social media and mobile tools, while the older generation can help them figure out what to do with all the data collected by the tools.

Gottwald says the mainframe is the ideal platform for processing and analyzing big data. But he notes it’s a two-way street: Mobile apps allow you to monitor or manage various aspects of the mainframe. And many mainframe applications are getting a facelift to look more like mobile apps.

Bringing together the perspectives of younger and older mainframe professionals produces interesting surprises, resulting in a profound realization: “You can use your favorite tool together with some other tool you never thought existed, and that allows you do new interesting things, save you time, or be more productive,” says Gottwald. “You don’t know what you don’t know. And that is hard to change unless you get some exposure to what you don’t know.”

Linda Mooney, co-project manager for zNextGen with Gottwald, points out that not all older mainframe professionals are looking to retire. Some are just as eager to learn about new technology developments as their younger counterparts.

“The stereotypes get in the way—all that stuff we have been told to expect from one another,” she says. “One generation is supposed to feel one way and another some other way. Whatever!

“The only thing that we can all be certain of is that each generation has something that the other needs,” she adds. “Each individual is just that, a truly unique individual—each with a different mix of experience, expertise and talent—who happen to be just mainframe geeks. Now there’s a concept to ponder.”

Looking ahead, Gottwald and Mooney see plenty of opportunities for interaction between the two generations. Communication and collaboration are among zNextGen’s top priorities, says Gottwald, as the group endeavors to promote year-round engagement on topics relevant to the mainframe.

In so doing, zNextGen is doing its part in bridging the gap and erasing the differences between younger mainframe professionals and the veterans. This way, both groups can learn from each other and, ultimately, keep up the level of interest in mainframe careers.

Pedro Pereira is a veteran tech journalist. Follow him on Twitter @EditPedro.

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