subject matter expert

Like many of my fellow Planet Mainframe readers, I belong to several LinkedIn professional groups.  Recently, there was a vibrant discussion thread going on in one such group that discussed subject matter experts and their value.  It gave me an idea for a blog post.

Let’s start with a simple definition of subject matter expert (SME) from Wikipedia:

A subject-matter expert (SME) is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic.

A simple enough definition, and pretty hard to argue with.

In my opinion, the mainframe community does not have a current or pending skills shortage. IBM, through its Academic Initiative for System z has done a great job in tackling that issue head on. Colleges and those who are part of the program such as North Carolina A&T, Syracuse University, and Marist College are producing System z skilled graduates who are top-notch people and ready to take the platform into the next 50 years. Hopefully, I’m alive to see the 100th anniversary of the IBM Mainframe.

What I believe we have is a skills gap: there was a time in which enterprise computing (mainframe) skills/courses were not taught in Computer Science classrooms. Therefore, those recent graduates, having no exposure to the world of the mainframe, chose alternative career paths in information technology than their predecessors.

In my opinion, our issue as a community and platform is a developing shortage of SMEs. IBM’s latest resource actions have deprived the mainframe community of several top-notch SMEs. There are SMEs who are retiring, and unfortunately also some who have recently passed away. That two-decade gap in the university curriculum—turning away from mainframe and drinking the McNealy-Alsop Kool-Aid—is what I believe has led to this.

Whom do you or your company know as an SME for performance? Storage? Networking? CICS? DB2? What impact has the resource actions of IBM and other mainframe community vendors had on you and your company?

This dearth of SMEs is already visible and having an impact: have you attended a conference such as SHARE, GSE, CMG, or an IBM mainframe themed conference? Have you noticed how the attendance is not what it used to be? Have you noticed how many “big name” speakers, i.e. SMEs, are not attending or presenting?

For example, a Pat Artis (Dr. Pat) session at SHARE, CMG, or anywhere was guaranteed to be a valuable learning and inspiring session that a mainframe storage and/or I/O performance professional would not want to miss. The room would be packed. You left Dr. Pat’s session with a wealth of knowledge that you could take back to work and put to use. Plus, you’d learn a funny joke or two. If you were like me, you made an effort to get to know Pat, and learn more from him. I was very fortunate in that Pat mentored me and inspired me to complete my PhD. I am honored to call him a friend and to have been a student of his. I miss seeing him at conferences, but I feel sad that many of our new mainframers will not get to learn from him, or his fellow SMEs.

Anybody can give a presentation or write a paper. But these above and beyond items are the kind of things SMEs can do. They inspire, they lead, and they help us learn the most we can about the computing platform we love.

This is what I fear we are about to be missing as a community of mainframe professionals as these long-time SMEs leave us for whatever the reason. They are what kept the platform going through the dark days of the McNealy-Alsop Kool-Aid addiction. They kept the fires going. Now, some of us need to pick up the SME torch and carry it to help get the platform to April 7, 2064.

Steve Guendert, aka “Dr. Steve”, is in an IBM Z senior engineering role based in Poughkeepsie where he is on the IBM Z Hardware architecture team. He works on all aspects of IBM Z I/O and timing architecture, including the Server Time Protocol (STP), FICON and zHPF architectures. He is a member of the Mainframe Hall of Fame and the IBM Academy of Technology.

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