Careers: Mainframe Technologists Over-worked and Over-stressed

The economy and externally generated changes are key stressors

Although administrators and system programmers in mainframe environments don’t typically have to deal with viruses, sporadically available servers, and end users who habitually sabotage their desktops—all of which are par for the course in the distributed systems space—most say that their jobs are far from stress-free.

The difference, they say, is that most of their stressors come from external pressures that aren’t related to their job responsibilities.

“It's just my opinion, but my key stressors are not specific to my line of work,” says Kevin Kinney, a mainframe systems programmer with a technology and services company that provides IT solutions to the insurance industry. “In general, stress is caused by externally generated changes. By nature, these changes are uncontrollable and unpredictable.”

Among other stresses, Kinney—like most mainframe technologists—cites the economy in particular. “Having been sold recently, we're under the microscope to see what jobs can be trimmed. And now we're seeing unfamiliar faces dropping by the office, leading to speculation [about] whether or not this is part of the previous sell-off cycle or the beginning of a new one.”

Kinney also disputes the well-trod shibboleth that administration is more stressful in Windows environments. In mainframe shops, he argues, there’s simply much more at stake—and much, much more that can go wrong. “Working a mainframe is far more stressful than a Windows environment since the stakes are higher,” he asserts. “I'm not saying it's not tough for Skippy-the-Win-kid. It's got to be difficult to keep up with the security patches and rebooting all the time. But relative to the mainframe, Windows is a cakewalk.”

That’s because mainframes are more technically demanding, and because mainframe software is “far richer in terms of complexity, flexibility, reliability, and particularly maturity.” Kinney also points out that mainframes typically host more applications—not to mention more users—than most Windows servers. “These applications are nearly always mission-critical: airline bookings, insurance claims, financial transactions,” he argues. “When compared to Windows administrators, mainframe system programmers work in a more technically demanding environment, supporting more users on more mission critical applications.”

Another source of stress, says a mainframe technologist with a global services company based in the U.S., is that many companies are content to pigeonhole the mainframe into established roles—in spite of new, potentially revenue-generating opportunities. “I would have to say that my greatest levels of stress come from … a growing dissatisfaction with working on what other people think is important versus what I want to do,” he says.

What does he think is important? “I've been working with Linux/390 so much the last three years, giving presentations … mostly without formal management sanction.”

This technologist says that his involvement with Linux/390 has paid off to some extent—he was appointed to a new position in which he’s responsible for mainframe and midrange Linux capabilities in the Americas—but says that he’s still frustrated by executive indifference to an issue about which he feels passionately. “The downside is that it took so long for anyone within [my company] to listen to me in the first place,” he laments.

Like Kinney and other mainframe veterans, this technologist agrees that the economy is a constant source of frustration, even in his company, which is ostensibly healthy and profitable. “Continued layoffs to meet quarterly financial numbers has gotten to the point where well-qualified people are being fired,cutting into our ability to meet our client's needs,” he comments, noting that IT workers in his company and elsewhere are often asked to assume the job responsibilities of colleagues who have been laid off.

“This is not unique to my company," he adds, "because I have heard similar comments from employees of other companies, such as Oracle, etc. In a company that is profitable, it's hard to understand, and generates a huge amount of fear among the employees. Being very good at what you do is no longer enough to stay employed.”

Bob Richards, an enterprise technologist with a large financial institution, feels that his job is largely stress-free. “I enjoy my job and really do not find it all that stressful,” he comments, acknowledging, however, that even he worries about holding on to his job in a poor economy: “The only work-related stress I feel is wondering from time to time if I am going to get to "keep" my job.

Like the mainframe technologist introduced above, Richards has also dealt with a management team that was determined to pigeonhole the mainframe as irrelevant. As recently as last year, Richards’ company was investigating replacing its mainframe hardware with systems from a major Unix vendor. At the time, he acknowledges, this was a major source of stress.

In many cases, Richards points out, companies typically discover that for many mission-critical applications, mainframes are irreplaceable: “The problem goes back … to a management mindset that viewed the mainframe as somewhat irrelevant in the future. They are slowly changing their mind, but not before they blew more corporate dollars on failed or hobbled solutions that could not scale or provide the classic strengths commonly found on the mainframe.”

As for the future, Richards is optimistic that server consolidations, Linux-on-390, grid computing and IBM’s new z990 systems will make the mainframe a more than viable computing environment going forward. The upshot, he argues, is that mainframe technologists shouldn’t stress about their employability: “[These] are strategic initiatives that have revitalized the mainframe environment. It is going to be exciting to participate in these initiatives, but not stressful. At least not to me.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.