Hiring Millennials

The numbers are clear and compelling:

Mainframe usage is on the rise: By this year, 64% of mainframe-powered organizations (up from 57% last year) will be running more than half of their business-critical workloads (analytics, blockchain, web, mobile) on the mainframe. 

Meanwhile, baby-boomers are retiring: 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day.  As a result, there are more mainframe jobs than candidates: By 2020, 37,200 new mainframe positions will emerge, yet currently mainframe shops only succeed in replacing one of every three experts who retire.

78% of mainframe organizations are experiencing challenges in hiring millennials and other next-gen software engineers and, in a little more than half of mainframe shops, millennials account for 10% or less of current development staff.

As the manager of a mainframe shop, it is essential that you understand why millennials are not embracing mainframe careers so that you can take appropriate action to hire the best recruits to fill those empty seats.

This blog is a hands-on guide for mainframe managers on how to attract and retain talented, experienced millennials.

Before the How-To’s, Some Whys

In a recent interview with Model 9’s Gil Peleg, CEO, and Adi Shtatfeld, Lead Product Manager, we learned how these under-40s accidentally fell into mainframe careers. Their stories are not unusual and there are a number of key factors why experienced millennial programmers are unlikely to proactively pursue a mainframe job:

  • A branding problem: Mainframes are associated with “legacy” technology, with its connotations of being outdated and/or about-to-be-replaced. It is difficult to convey to millennial software engineers that, in fact, the reality is very different—mainframes are powerful machines at the cutting-edge of technology, the mainframe ecosystem is vibrant, and many mainframe apps today are being written in the latest programming frameworks (Python, Linux, node.js, Java, blockchain, and more).
  • An education problem: Although it’s hard to say whether this is a cause or an effect, more and more universities are dropping mainframe from their curriculum.
  • A generation-gap problem: Adi and Gil spoke at length about the challenges of bringing millennials into an older team. They emphasized that it’s not just differences in chronological age, but also a different mentality that seeks exciting and challenging work in a dynamic environment. They have no fear of changing jobs every couple of years in order to accelerate their careers.
  • A management mindset problem, which manifests itself at several levels: (a) sometimes upper management does not understand that the company’s mainframes are here to stay and the retiring workforce has to be replaced, (b) mainframe managers have unrealistic expectations of the level of mainframe experience candidates will have, and (c) mainframe shops expect millennials to come to them and don’t understand the need to proactively recruit.

#1: Be Strategic

First, you must ensure that upper management has bought into your recruitment plan, which will require budgetary support as well as the willingness to adapt corporate culture to new realities. Spare no effort to evangelize within the organization regarding the business-critical role that its mainframes play and the importance of renewing the mainframe workforce in order to keep your shop at the cutting edge.

Build and “sell” a long-term strategic recruiting plan based on personnel requirements in light of retirement schedules, core workload support needs, planned mainframe innovations, and so on. Don’t forget to make sure that there is plenty of overlap for retiring engineers to train the newcomers.

#2: Be Realistic

Although your strategic vision needs to be well thought out and convincing, the implementation has to be firmly rooted in reality.

Build realistic job descriptions, with the focus on core attributes rather than proven mainframe track records. These core attributes include a proven ability to learn, a fundamental curiosity about technology, and equivalent non-mainframe experience.

In job interviews, ask questions that will help you realistically assess a candidate’s potential to succeed in a new career. Get them to describe  situations to you in which they had to learn new technology and how they did it. Have they ever asked a coworker to train them in a new task or technology? How did that work out for them? Ask them questions that will show their level of seriousness about mainframe computing such as what they think the future holds for mainframes, or why they are considering leaving their current field in order to pursue a mainframe career.

Also, be realistic about how long it takes to get even an experienced engineer up-to-speed in the mainframe world. Generally speaking a computer programmer with experience in other programming framework(s) will have a relatively short learning curve to become proficient at mainframe programming. However, it will take at least five years to retrain someone as a mainframe system programmer to a level where he or she can be independent in a production environment—although this path may be considerably shorter if you succeed in finding and recruiting someone with prior (non-mainframe) systems management experience. In any case, all of this needs to be taken into account in your strategic plan.

#3: Be Aggressive

Realistically, millennials and other next-generation engineers are not going to beat a path to your door. Thus, you have to be active and visible where they are—social media, relevant online forums and groups, trade events, job fairs, campuses, and so on. Create or become active in organizations that seek to spread the word about the advantages of a career in mainframes.

Your message should be clear and unabashed. Look your audience straight in the eye and tell them: mainframes are alive and kicking, they are the most powerful computing machines on the planet, they are the backbone on which the world’s economy runs, their architecture is rich, and they integrate seamlessly with Java, blockchain, and other contemporary frameworks and technologies. In short, if you seek meaningful and challenging work that has immediate and far-reaching impact, mainframes are where you want to be. Don’t be afraid to point out that, with demand exceeding supply, the mainframe world is a huge and attractive employment opportunity for people willing to make the transition.

Other ways you should be aggressive:

  • “Headhunt” talented engineers who are currently not working in the mainframe sector, both within your own organization or in other companies. Learn from this great story about a young software engineer who responded positively to her manager’s suggestion that she move over to the company’s mainframe shop and is thrilled with her new career.
  • Establish attractive referral programs within the company. There’s nothing more effective than Millennials reaching out to other Millenials.
  • If you are willing to recruit fresh graduates or people with little experience, become a mainframe thought leader on relevant campuses and establish internship programs that will let you “cherry pick” the best candidates to join your shop when they graduate.

Last but not least, be aware that you are competing with companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Google that have written the book on how to hire and retain the best talent out there. Your salaries will have to be attractive and, even more important, you must be able to offer a clear career growth plan.

#4: Be Welcoming

Now that you have found and hired some great new additions to your team, you must turn your attention to retaining them. The onboarding process must set the foundation for what will hopefully be a long and fruitful relationship. Millennials seek a sense of mission in their work. From day one, be passionate about your shop, making sure newcomers understand the impact of what the company—and they—are doing.

Create a strong and nuanced mentoring program. For example, be sure to carefully match newcomers with experienced personnel in terms of the skills that need to be acquired and the personalities of both the mentor and the mentee. Invest in reinforcing the mentoring skills of your team. Perhaps this is also an opportunity for retired personnel to keep a hand in the game, acting as part-time mentors.

Despite the relatively long learning curve, get newcomers involved in significant projects as quickly as possible by establishing cross-generation teams. Take two minutes to view this video in which young software engineers on the Compuware team discuss what they find exciting about their new mainframe careers, including the opportunity to be involved in business-critical projects from a very early stage.

Position your shop as a center of excellence and nurture that through a culture of open communication, collaboration, and continuous learning. And always be ready to adjust your policies and procedures to changing realities.

#5: Be Innovative

In BMC’s 2018 Mainframe Survey, just about half (48%) of the enterprises surveyed reported using Agile/DevOps practices in their mainframe shops. If you have not done so already, you should join this growing trend if you want to attract and keep Millennials and other next-gen engineers. Next-gen toolsets and agile processes will feel familiar to Millennials, will shorten learning curves and, as a side benefit, they may also enhance your shop’s productivity overall.

Create an environment of innovation, with tangible and intangible rewards for thinking outside of the box and taking initiative. Encourage projects that leverage and advance the shop’s mainframe capabilities by, for example, running internal hackathons in which creative ideas can be explored and rewarded.

A Final Note

When Millennials actually come into contact with the mainframe world, they can lay preconceived notions to rest and understand the opportunity for building a meaningful career in a cutting-edge environment. There are even exciting startups in this field—like Model 9! So it is up to mainframe shop managers (and mainframe-related start-up entrepreneurs) to create and amplify these points of contact, and do their part to build the next generation of mainframe IT leadership.

With over two decades of hands-on experience in enterprise computing, data centers management, mainframe system programming and storage development, I’m now on a mission to accelerate cloud adoption at large enterprises by making their most trusted core business platforms more flexible, affordable and cloud compatible.

Connect with Gil on LinkedIn.

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