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Opening IBM Z to Future Generations

Mainframe Security Engineer Byron Smith believes mentorship and open source are key to opening the IBM Z platform to future generations.

Byron Smith is pictured against a blue wall.

Image by IBM

Byron Smith, a mainframe security engineer at M&T Bank, got his passion for all things IBM Z* when he took part in the IBM Academic Initiative at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. In his current job, he’s responsible for everything relating to mainframe security—from maintenance, to configuring new applications, to certificates, to updating z/OS*, ACF2, CICS*, scheduling, monitoring, and automation products, to access control for users that interface with z/OS, and more.

At first, he enrolled in programming courses at his alma mater because his major was computer science. Eventually, Smith took a basic z/OS introductory course and quickly realized that the mainframe was different.

“I instantly gained a passion for it,” he says. “Banks use the mainframe. The government uses the mainframe. The military uses the mainframe. I learned what the platform does and how it affects the way society operates. It made me feel like my work would be meaningful.”

“You've got to be willing to break something and understand why you broke it so you won't break it again. It's hard, but that's how you learn.”
–Byron Smith, mainframe security engineer, M&T Bank

Mentorship Is Key

As a mainframer who is often the youngest in the room at work and at events, Smith emphasizes the importance of collaborating with knowledgeable colleagues. Some of Smith’s most valuable lessons were learned in one-on-one meetings with tenured mainframers. “I learned so much. I asked them to teach me things, or to shadow them for a day. Those experiences taught me more than reading a book,” he says. Smith also iterates that it’s important for new talent to partner with seasoned mainframers—because that’s where some of the most valuable learning will happen.

However, many young mainframers don’t have opportunities to learn from tenured mainframers because so many of them work from home. “I understand that remote work is key to retaining talent, especially for tenured or experienced staff, but on the other hand, onboarding could become difficult if you don’t have mentors closely available,” Smith says. A solution that many companies could benefit from is leveraging current technology such as video conferencing and social media.

Opening the Mainframe

Smith also notes that the mainframe can attract more talent by continuing to open up through new innovative technologies like Zowe, z/OSMF and Brightside. “I wish I would have had some of these technologies earlier on, but now that I do, I can show younger mainframers that there are GUI interfaces that will help them grow, learn and foster their passion for the mainframe,” he says.

But the mainframe community can go beyond those technologies. If more companies continue to collaborate to create unique GUI interfaces, more aspiring mainframers will gravitate toward the platform.

Smith believes that improving mainframe documentation will also be key in opening the platform to younger generations. “The documentation that we have is very detailed and at a high level, but if you’re a new employee who is new to a z/OS mainframe environment, you won’t be able to understand the details,” he says. One solution is to trim down some mainframe documentation to the entry level.

Connecting With Other Young Mainframers

Smith spoke with a panel of young mainframers at the 2018 SHARE conference in St. Louis, which was one of few opportunities he’s had to connect with others his age who are working on the platform, aside from participating in the IBM z/OS Client Internship.

While conferences like SHARE and TechU have been prioritizing bringing in younger voices, Smith notes that it would be beneficial to have smaller mainframe millennial conferences with trimmed down, simplified sessions. “Seasoned mainframers are important, but there are more young mainfamers than we realize,” he says. “We can relate to each other because we are all in a very vast and diverse field. We don’t know everything, but the best way to succeed is through teamwork.”

A Willingness to Learn

With all of this in mind, Smith emphasizes that young aspiring mainframers still have to be willing to learn, and it’s not always going to be easy. “I’m always trying to figure things out and learn. That’s the key to being in the industry,” he says. “You’ve got to be willing to break something and understand why you broke it so you won’t break it again. It’s hard, but that’s how you learn.”

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