Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Are mainframe programmers welcome back? -- Maybe so, and then some

Can I go back to mainframe programming after 4+ years? (The grand plan)

You bet. COBOL and IBM mainframe JCL are verbose, but once you’ve done them for a couple decades, they stay with you forever. Their wordiness is really a kind of self-documentation, which helps long term skill retention.

But as said in earlier entries in this blog, we have to look at the market, and how that comports with personal temperament, in this case, mine. Gradually younger professionals replaced centralized mainframe processing culture with distributed, user or customer driven culture that favored client-server, OOP, and modernism – an languages that actually look cryptic. After the Y2K crunch was over, general demand for mainframe applications developers seem to nosedive for generalists.

At the same time, we saw recruiters troll the country for specialists in orphaned technologies. Although conventional wisdom used to preach diversification as the tocket to job mobility, now it was over-specialization, the willingness to stick with something others perceived as outmoded. The market will live in paradoxes.

“General practitioners” in mainframe technology seemed to become almost unemployable. In-house systems were replaced by specialized packages (like Vantage in life insurance) requiring nitpicky knowledge. Other maintenance operations could be easily offshored.

However since about the beginning of 2006 it seems that there has been an upsurge in demand for mainframe skills. I get many more calls than I used to. I could use better income. I was the super GP, the “family practice” of mainframe computing. Can I go back after 4-1/2 years?

I can be philosophical and claim that the business cycle is a natural, “Darwinian” weeding out, rank-and-yank process. People who drop out are the failures, and have to learn something else, and start over – or, if they are writers and artists, they need to start actually making people pay for their work. Nevertheless, there are a couple of developments that could make mainframe work again.

One is if companies again respect the twenty-plus years of basic big data center experience more than they have recently. I had to develop the maturity of the right way to test, implement and support changes to huge systems that ran huge volumes in every nightly cycle, and deal with the night calls that you did not get paid for (salaried). I had to learn how to make elevations goof-proof. It can be done, but it takes tremendous maturity, judgment, and a “best practices” mentality, as well as absolutely correct use of change control software to guarantee the integrity of the systems. You have to be conscious of the damage you could do. I don’t think that the young hires in a lot of situations have this kind of judgment.

So is the mainframe market for “experienced data center generalists” recovering?

The other situation would occur if the number of “generalist” mainframe positions is actually increasing, and if so many former programmers now in their 50s and 60s have moved on to other things (in my case, trying to get a film made). It used to be a matter of speculation that employers would eventually regret forcing out so many experienced professionals in their 50s with large severance agreements during downsizings. They would need them, and the experience would be gone, especially with older technologies. There seems to be some anecdotal evidence that this is now really going on. Not all offshoring agreements have produced the savings once expected. Market forces, and not just unions, could well reverse the trend to offshore many jobs.

The other possibility for bridging the 4-1/2 year gap is to take certification tests. Brainbench offers certification tests in a wide variety of languages and disciplines. I had taken COBOL, JCL, and ANSI-SQL in 2002, but the certifications expire in three years.

What about advancement?

Well, that is a touchy subject. Let me say right off, that I am not interested in advancement just for the sake of proving that I can “compete” and own a span of control, a domain of people. That does not fit my personality. Companies, when they hire consultants, say they want people to code, test, and implement – they want individual contributors. In many cases, the programmers will be employed by consulting firms that will want to market the contractors publicly as professionals in specialized expertise areas. Normally, that would seem to be the acceptable notion of advancement: to advocate a specific expertise.

Of course, I have been re-inventing myself very publicly in a few controversial areas. Here is not the place to advocate any particular political opinion, other that to express the underlying idea that technology can help the public understand the different modes of the way people think about all kinds of things. Technology can democratize, and it can help reduce the polarization of many political issues that seem to pander to special interests when they are handled by large organizations and lobbying groups, and become partisan.

That’s actually were I would prefer to show leadership. I can think of at least four areas where this gets more specific.

(1) Develop a system to help financial institutions and lenders perform due diligence when granting consumer credit, by checking applications against National Change of Address and performing mandatory consumer notification. The desired end result is to relieve consumers of the worry of having to shred their snail mail.

(2) Develop a cost-effective system to enable webmasters to label all of their content, and standards for all browsers to interpret the content. The end result would be much improved mechanisms to help parents protect children from inappropriate content while allowing adults free expression.

(3) Develop a database application (call it a “do ask do tell” database) to categorize and correlate political and social arguments made on a variety of contentious issues. Call this “knowledge management”, it would build on the open source, Wikipedia paradigm. But the aim is to give high school and college students in social studies tools to develop much more refined critical thinking and debate skills.

All of these projects would require the coordination of the work of a lot of vendors and software companies, with care user and beta testing. For any one project, one company would have to be “in charge.” The projects would require detailed project management. Sorry, I never was a formal project manager. People get certified in project management, too.

Another idea (4), is to develop “best practices” for employer and school-based blogging policies. This has suddenly become a big controversy.

There is a reason that I would want to take leadership ownership on something like one of these ideas, because I have done a lot of research and writing (on my own sites) about all of these since “retirement” at the end of 2001. It all grew out of my 1997 “Do Ask Do Tell” book which grew out of a most subtle political issue. You can read about that at my sites.

Oh, yes, I do want to get the movie made.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Specialize! The paradoxes of the mainframe I.T. job market

The job market mid to late 2006 sounds like a world of crazy contradictions. Recruiters call, and seem (sometimes speaking English in a way hard to understand on a cell phone, at least) anxious to submit my resume, even if I haven't worked in a formal mainframe job for 4-1/2 years. For that one reason alone, I suppose, many of the submissions don't go anywhere. There is a second main reason, however. My experience, however lengthy, is not specialized enough in one specific area.

In the mainframe area it is easy to identify some specializations where employers are eager to find people who will relocate temporarily for long term contracts. Most of these would be W-2, and the contractor would be responsible for housing himself/herself in an extended stay corporate apartment out of the rate. (Generally, I am told, that would not be excluded from taxation if the assignment went over 364 days in a year.)

Some of the specializations are MMIS (Medicaid Management Information System), but practically all states require that a contractor have a minimum of 24 months MMIS experience, preferably within the past five or so years. These jobs favor people who got into the MMIS market and stayed there.

Another speciality would be DB2 internals, support, and fine tuning, since high transaction volume DB2 systems performance is often very sensitive to design decicisions (like what kind of joins to use in selects).

Another one that occurs is Vantage for Life Insurance and Annuities. There is a "Vantage Rules the World" problem in the life insurance business. Vantage has its own propietary IO access methods (whether to VSAM or to DB2) with specific conventions in call statements and link editing that must be followed exactly, and are often hard to understand, requiring people to develop narrow expertise. So again, when an employer needs a Vantage consultant, it needs him/her badly, but the person must have very specific experience. There was a similar older system, VLN, that was developed in the 1980s, but the company went under, and Vantage took over the market.

You also find desire for experience with welfare and social service systems in state governments, and these often require experience with Case Tools, which were all the rage in the early 1990s.

Finally, you will find cravings for experience with orphaned mainframe technologies that have largely been replaced, but for companies still having them, they have a filling needs. One example would be IMS, which seems cumbersome to people today, especially IMS-DC.

In the post 9/11 period, we heard a lot about companies sending mainframe maintenance and technical support overseas to India, even production support (night time cycles could be maintained by people working days with the 12 hour time difference). There are open questions as to how effective this has been and whether some of this work is coming back.

But some of these observations explain the nature of the mainframe market today. It favors single people, without family care obligations, who can leave home and live alone for months at a time (with high hourly rates but without fringe benefits). Some will question the social responsibility of this kind of employment practice; but it is not intentional from the employers, it is more an anamoly from how things have evolved. Curiously, it is an outgrowth of what we call libertarian culture.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Could social networking profiles affect IT jobs?

The media has drenched us with warnings about employers checking social networking site profiles (Myspace, Facebook) and personal blogs, and even "search engine tracks" of job applicants.

This has become a topic that can be perceived in more than one way. It's understandable that someone in a sales job, who visits client sites or goes into people's homes, who works with small children, or who speaks for the company -- could embarrass the company and disturb clients or customers with over-the-top personal information that clients can find easily these days with search engines.

I.T. people often work in purely technical tasks, and often remain inhouse. The big part of an IT job is often technical perfection, and error-free implementation and support. It takes a focused, detail-oriented personality that sometimes appeals to more introverted people, who often are going to be drawn to artistic and literary pursuits in their own lives. On the other hand, IT people have to work in teams, although the teams are often internal.

The practice over the years has been to fill many development positions with W-2 contractors, who will work at a site for six months to a year. Typically, a recruiter contacts someone based on his online resume (usually at a site like Dice.com) and the person is not hired until chosen by the client. But after the first job, with some contracting companies, the professional goes "on the bench" and sometimes is paid for bench time, which can be used for training (particularly with a job that offers salaries and benefits). A company like this will want to be offer the resumes of the contractors that it uses repeatedly. This has been common practice for decades. But now, the Internet is there, and the notion that a person's online presence should be professionally managed is emerging.

I have not heard much specifically about this, but one can see where it is heading.

Here is a February 12 column by Mary Ellen Slayter of The Washington Post on this issue. (It may require an online subscription.) She mentions Tim DeMello, who has been developing a service to maintain profiles (Ziggs.com). Would companies eventually force most professionals to surrender "right of publicity" to services like this? I wonder.

I weigh in some more on this in another online essay at another pilot site.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Some Internet and textbook resources to practice for technical quizzes

Here are a few Internet sites that I found with multiple choice and short-answer drill questions on typical mainframe IBM technical topics. Some agencies do skills testing, so these references would give the job candidate a good start.

AOL Member Cronid gives a news reference here.
Click on DB2 for a short-answer DB2 quiz. There is a multiple choice quiz on CICS, and quizzes on COBOL, JCL, SAS, VSAM and other topics in the left hand frame column.

CICS (Command Level): Cronid on AOL gives this quiz. He provides the multiple choice answer key at intervals after groups of questions.

Joe Geller has a similar home page for DB2 and relational dababases.

Here is his link to DB2 Quiz #1 which puts the questions and answers in different frames.

These quizzes can provide a good refresher.

I recall in 2002 being asked in a phone screening to explain what an indexible predicate is, and to discuss when one would use an outer join.

The textbooks that I prefer are largely come from Mike Murach & Associates, the technical books publisher with the "M" trademark.

For example:

Murach's Structured Cobol (with Mike Murach, Anne Prince, Raul Menendez, 2000)
(note the section on Object-oriented COBOL at the end)

Murach's OS/390 and z/OS JCL (with Raul Menendez and Goug Lowe, 200)

Murach's CICS for the COBOL Programmer (Menendez, Lowe, 2001)

Edward A Kelly: An Invitation to MVS Using COBOL, TAB, 1989.

Murach: Curtis Garvin and Steve Eckols. DB2 for the COBOL Programmer, 1999

Steve Eckols, IMS for the COBOL Programmer, 1985.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Upcoming job fairs – Northern Virginia

I will start adding detailed entries to this blog, as they may be helpful to job seekers. That means that earlier essays on this blog may drop off into archives. I will provide an index to all of the old links here.

Dice.com provides an advisory about two fairs next week:

The company that coordinates and registers people for these fairs is Targetedjobfairs.com

There will be job fairs at
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dulles Expo & Conference Center
4368 Chantilly Center
Chantilly, VA 20153

This appears to be near the intersection of Route 50 and Route 28. Mapquest gives
4342-4399] Chantilly Shopping Ctr
Chantilly, VA 20151, US

The specific registration link for this event is at Targetedjobfairs Targetedjobfairs
(specific link)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006
11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sheraton National Hotel
900 South Orme Street
Arlington, VA 22204-4520

This location is off Washington Blvd, between Arlinton Cemetery and I-395. I believe it is at some distance (about one mile) from the Pentagon or Pentagon City Metro stops. I used to live near Glebe Road an I-395 in a highrise and there was a bus up Army Navy Drive.

The specific registration appears to be at Targetedjobfairs (specific link)
It would appear that these events are open to professionals without clearances.