Careers: The Vanishing Vacation

If you want to make the most of your vacation, you should be working in a Big Iron shop.

For mainframe pros, the “vacation” of today isn’t as straightforward a proposition as it was 20 years ago. Even so, mainframe technologists seem to fare better when it comes to vacation time than do other IT workers. Not only do they have more paid vacation days—the greying of a workforce does have certain advantages—but they also report (at least anecdotally) less job-related stress. It just goes to prove, some mainframe advocates say, if you want to make the most of your vacation, find yourself a job in a Big Iron shop.

In IT environments of years past, vacation was the one time a IT pro could forget about the 9-to-5 grind which consumed him or her for 250 or more days out of the year. Not anymore. These days, many employers have strict policies with respect to vacation (or personal) time off, particularly with regard to when vacations may be scheduled (or how far in advance they must be booked); how many days off (either staggered or in a block) employees can take at a stretch; and to what extent vacationing employees are expected to check in (via voice-mail or e-mail, for example) while they’re out of the office. In some cases, IT pros say, they’ve even cut short vacations to oversee or participate in hastily scheduled projects.

You call that a vacation?

Consider the experience of a former IBM Global Services (IGS) vet, who—just prior to departing on a scheduled six day trip to Las Vegas last spring (four days of which were scheduled workdays)—was told that his vacation time might not be granted. This former IBM-er—who officially resigned from his job last month—says he’d notified his employer about his vacation plans several months in advance, pursuant to company policy. When IGS pushed up a planned implementation in response to a client’s demands, this IT pro nearly had the proverbial magic carpet pulled out from under him.

“I ultimately had to cut [my vacation] one day shorter than I planned,” the IGS veteran says. “That was the compromise. I had done everything according to policy, but I was given to understand that my being present at the implementation was not negotiable. Instead of having a day to recover [after flying], I was expected to report in the morning after I returned, and work that night, too, because that’s when the implementation was scheduled.” As it happened, the IGS vet laments, he wasn’t even needed during the implementation.

Last year, an survey estimated that U.S. workers would give back (i.e., not use) a total of 425 million vacation days in 2005—which translates into an average of three unused vacation days per U.S. worker.

Granted, Expedia has an incentive to flag (or even amplify) trends such as this, but there’s corroborating evidence. For example, according to the Families and Work Institute (FWI), a non-profit research firm based in New York, a plurality of Americans—37 percent—take less than a week of paid vacation each year. That’s in spite of the fact that the average U.S. worker actually gets 16.6 paid vacation days annually. (Of that allotment, U.S. workers typically use only 14.6 days, FWI researchers say.) All told, more than one-third (36 percent) of U.S. workers don’t use their full vacations.

Mainframes Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Mainframe pros seem to fare better in this respect than other IT workers. Consider Joe Poole, a mainframe systems programmer with a prominent retailer based in the Northeast. “I usually take a day at a time during the summer, usually to play golf. My big break is during spring, when I putter around the yard, spreading mulch, planting flowers, and so on,” he comments.

As a rule, Poole says, he doesn’t let job-related concerns get in the way of his vacation planning. “Absolutely not! If you need to work while on vacation, you and your company have a definite staffing issue. Anybody should be able to get away for a week or two and not worry that something bad will happen,” he argues. “The only thing we try to do, in cases where two people comprise a function, is make sure that one of them is available.” At the same time, Poole acknowledges, it can be more difficult to schedule vacation days at certain times of the year—particularly given the business cycle of his retail employer.

“We used to prohibit vacations between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because we are retailers. That's been relaxed in recent years, but people with days off during that time period should be reachable, and should stay in [the state].”

Bob Richards, a mainframe pro with a large financial institution based in the Southeast U.S., has a philosophical comportment to vacation planning. Like Poole, Richards typically only takes a few vacation days during the summer months—“Without young kids, I generally take vacations at times other than summer,” he points out—and doesn’t necessarily sweat being away from the office. Nor does he worry about clearing work off his plate before he departs for vacation, even if it might mean extra work when he returns. “There will always be enough work to do. It can wait.”

That being said, Richards—like many IT pros—does check into the office while he’s vacationing. “I have not taken a vacation in over ten years where I was totally disconnected from work. Maybe next year!” he deadpans.

Ditto for a software systems developer (who asked to remain anonymous) for a prominent mainframe ISV. “I generally have access to e-mail and voice-mailwhile on vacation … though often it's limited, [for example] only in the evenings,” he comments. “I try to check every day, so I can deal with any pressing issues before they become emergencies and interrupt my actual vacation activities.” This IT pro says he’s also available via cell phone while he’s vacationing, “but I rarely get work-related calls, partly I think because I do try to anticipate these situations.” What’s more, he also doesn’t leave the nuts and bolts of his 9-to-5 job behind when he’s vacationing. “I often do some actual work while on vacation, [usually] during slack time—while waiting in the airport, for example.”

Nor is scheduling time off a trivial matter for this mainframe software developer. “We have little redundancy and a lot of specialization in my group. While we have excellent technical staff who are good at quickly getting to know areas of the code they don't normally work with, we don't have dedicated replacements,” he indicates. “Consequently, when going on vacation we are generally reluctant to take more than a couple of weeks at most—and a single week is more typical—and in some cases we do try to make arrangements at least for a first point of contact for specific matters in our absence.”

This IT pro has what he describes as a “generous” vacation allowance—approximately five weeks annually—but says he typically doesn’t use most of it. That’s not because of employer-mandated vacation policies, either. The truth, he says, is that he doesn’t experience all that much job-related stress.

“For several years I've had my accrued vacation time maxed out anyway, because I typically use considerably less than what I'm given. I take some time around the holidays, and generally some in the summer, but these are usually for events that my wife schedules. I rarely find myself wanting to take a vacation for my own benefit,” he explains. “I have a lot of non-work activities [anyway] when I'm not on vacation. Also, I work from home, and have flexible hours. And my job does involve travel a few times a year. All of those probably reduce work-related stress somewhat—I generally feel little work-related stress—and help explain why I'm not particularly keen on vacations.”

The absence of job-related stress is a theme echoed by a host of other mainframe pros, too. Mainframers, for one thing, typically have bigger vacation allotments than do IT pros in other fields, in part because the mainframe workforce as a whole is comparatively “grey.” So perhaps that helps account (at least in part) for the peculiar (if admittedly anecdotal) workplace élan of many mainframe vets.

At the same time, however, mainframe technologists such as Poole, Richards, and the software engineer quoted we spoke with don’t seem overly concerned about actually using their full allotment of vacation days. A more likely explanation, says Poole, is that the mainframe is simply easier to manage than other platforms. Consequently, he says, it’s easier for mainframe professionals to get away.

“There are tasks that I alone must do, and they usually are waiting for me when I get back. [But] it takes more time catching up on e-mail than it does to clear off the desk work,” Poole concludes.