Thought Leadership: Passing the Torch in the Mainframe World

Passing the torch. We recently witnessed this time-honored Olympic Games tradition as part of the Summer Olympic Games. Rio de Janeiro transferred the flame to Tokyo, the host site of the 2020 Olympics. The mainframe world is undergoing a similar tradition, as many of the technology’s old guard are nearing the end of their collective runs and being called upon to pass the baton to a younger generation.

This succession process, however, is not always as smooth as transferring a flame. Matters have been complicated by a pool of younger talent some fear to be too small to take over. This is an issue of concern for Rebecca M. Levesque, CEO of 21st Century Software Inc. and SHARE Board member. Levesque, who has more than two decades of experience in areas such as resiliency, storage management and disaster recovery, knows what makes for a good succession plan to ensure a viable future for an organization.

"It has to start with the person who needs to be succeeded," Levesque states. "That person has to understand that it is inevitable. And if they really care about the job they have done all these years, let's not mess it up at the very end by getting protective and not doing the right things."

Too many long-time mainframers have the mentality: "I'm retiring in five years, and I don't want to rock the boat. I don't want to bring attention to myself. I don't want to bring attention to the platform. Let me just get these five years done." Meanwhile, they allow their platform to remain stagnant. "To me," Levesque says, "that's a failing. You want to bring attention to yourself and what you've done. You want to innovate. Most importantly, you want young people to understand that you appreciate the fact that they don't want to be on a stagnant platform. So, be willing to share your knowledge with them and document your expertise."

She continues, "The thing that I think everybody has to understand is if a company is going to replace you, it's going to happen whether you are part of a succession plan or not. In fact, you probably have a better chance of your organization cutting the mainframe, outsourcing it or making some other similar move if you let it become unimportant. If you just sit there and think, 'I want to wait five years,' they will see that you're just biding time."

Levesque's knowledge and depth of experience has been frequently offered as a speaker and contributor at SHARE, in IBM Systems Magazine and elsewhere. She is also a published author in trade journals, white papers and industry forums. 

"I've been associated with SHARE for many years," she says. "I've spoken with organizations that have a really great succession of knowledge happening right now. There are three things that I always see in these successful organizations. One, I see forward-thinking. Two, I see that the mainframe has been made important. And three, I see a selflessness in people who are aware that succession is important and don’t want to stand in its way."

So, where do companies go wrong in their succession planning? One of the big mistakes occurs when management doesn't hire the successors before the current employees leave. "New people need to be given time. Another problem, though, is this thought that 'If I hire a young person, I don't have to pay him or her as much as the older person.' That's a fallacy, too. If you want to keep them, you have to compensate them. That's more of a management issue, but it's a real issue. You have to understand that if you want someone younger to last in the mainframe, then you have to pay them what they would make, if not better, than if they were not in the mainframe."

Finally, companies have to do a better job hiring interns who have taken mainframe classes. Levesque was recently talking to a client who brings in about 20 interns a year. "They pull from schools that have mainframe classes, but they never pull the mainframe people," she says. "They never get to the table. We need to talk honestly with management about how mainframe succession has to be present, and interns are needed for such plans to work. I think sometimes in the mainframe world, we're a little afraid to admit to management, 'Hey, we have to do something different.' If there are indeed 20 interns coming in, why can't two of them be mainframers?"

She concludes, "But let's say a company can get them. We then have to be receptive to their concepts and their new ideas. They're going to think differently. They're going to be a lot more visual. If we sit in our cube and don't try to open our minds to those ideas, they're going to finish their internships, they're going to leave, and they are not going to come back."

— Information, Inc.

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