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IBM CICS Team Finds Success by Hiring Young People Eager to Solve Problems

The debate regarding a mainframe skills issue or shortage of workers isn’t new. Various groups have different views on how pending the shortage of skilled workers is, or if there is a shortage altogether.

The problem isn’t a mainframe skills issue, but rather a mainframe skills planning issue, insists Andy Bates, CICS Transaction Server product manager, IBM. By planning for future needs, the IBM CICS development organization has been able to hire good young people with the expectation they will be great in a few years, and provide them opportunities to grow and flourish, while learning from them as well.

Willingness to Try

While young hires might not be able to jump in and help with the toughest problems right away, Bates says the CICS team hires people that have a willingness to try a challenge. He notes that many CICS innovations have come from new hires wondering “what if” and trying different things.

Bringing new people into an organization isn’t just about having them learn from you. “It’s a two-way street,” says Will Yates, CICS Transaction Server test architect, IBM, who joined the CICS team as a graduate in 2004. “You need to be learning from them as much as they are learning from you, and not expect them to be awesome on the platform from Day One.”

He notes that with time and an investment, new hires will be beneficial to the company because they can pick up those skills but also bring a whole wealth of new knowledge, vibrancy and innovation to the platform.

Chris Poole, CICS Transaction Server engineer, IBM, agrees. “People are interested in solving complicated problems,” he says. “There’s no point in hiring smart engineers, setting them loose on some dull work and then being surprised if six months later they quit.”

By hiring and giving problems to people who want to be challenged, they will be motivated, Poole believes. IBM focuses on hiring people who may not have a specific background but who want to, as the IBM saying goes, “think.” Poole, who joined the IBM CICS team in 2013 after graduating with a doctorate in theoretical physics, says companies should focus on hiring people who are smart and want to learn new skills.

“If you hire people who are able to think and who want to be challenged day to day, then they will pick up COBOL or PL/I or something and they will learn it. They want to get the job done because it’s an interesting problem they’re trying to solve,” he notes.

Interesting Opportunities

Ian Burnett, CICS performance team leader, has been with IBM since he graduated in 2001 and stays with CICS on the z Systems platform because there’s always something new to learn. “The great attraction of z Systems is there are so many bits to it and there’s so much to understand,” he points out. “There’s always something that’s going to be interesting to learn, whether it’s CICS, DB2, IMS, even core z/OS or the hardware.”

Yates agrees, saying the abilities of the mainframe—especially the security and speed—present interesting issues to him that make it engaging to be a part of. The problems mainframers face and get to solve are just an order of magnitude of greater importance than things one might find elsewhere, he says.

“When you’re working on a system like CICS and you’re doing a soak test to ensure that you have the right levels of throughput and quality of service, you have got to push it one-step further,” Yates says of the mainframe capabilities. “Push it to the point where it’s beyond the load you would expect. That does require some rather clever engineering to be able to test at that kind of throughput level.”

Poole points out that the mainframe is one of the very few places where you still have these kind of scaling challenges because it’s where all the core data is, which is why he’s interested in working on “crucial” information.

“I’ve heard some younger customers say why they work for the bank that they work for is because they know that if their infrastructure that they are working on fails, they’ve got millions of people unable to access their bank account. People will notice,” he says. If you take something like Netflix for example, they have some outage in their system. People cannot watch things for an hour or two. They’re kind of annoyed but it’s not the end of the world. If you lose your bank for a few hours, that’s a whole different scale.”

Tools to Grow

To get new hires started on solving problems and being involved, Bates says they need modern tools and processes to innovate. The CICS Transaction Server Development group achieves this though the use of Rational products and agile methodologies as well as some open-source options.

Tools change so quickly that it’s important to listen to new hires and hear what tools they think might be of benefit. Not all tools will be applicable or practical in an enterprise setting, but the introduction of new tools will most likely bring efficiencies and innovation to the platform.

From the perspective of an IT manager in a large organization that is looking to hire mainframe skills, Bates says there are two options: Hire younger people to work with, nurture and learn from, or alternatively hire someone with more experience and higher salary requirements who has worked other places. For those with experience, he notes “you can’t expect them to have the same level of loyalty to your product, to your company, to your growth as you can if you take somebody and train them and nurture them and grown them from scratch.”

He does point out, though, it’s good to have both people with experience and those new to the mainframe on staff. “You need to have a balance and the balance is really about hiring people, training them and integrating them into your existing highly skilled teams,” Bates says. “As the old saying goes, ‘if you fail to plan, you plan to fail’—and this is as true in IT recruitment as it is anywhere else.”

Valerie Dennis Craven is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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