When replacing the outgoing agency mainframe workforce, talent isn’t free

Mainframes are central to many critical federal services, but what happens when the people who know how to maintain them keep retiring? And what if the next coh...

Mainframes are central to many critical federal services, but what happens when the people who know how to maintain them keep retiring? And what if the next cohort of coders never learned the language in school?

That’s the situation agencies increasingly find themselves in today and why it is becoming harder to recruit the next crop of federal tech workers. Lt. Col. Kristin Saling, chief analytics officer of the Army Talent Management Task Force, said innovative technology is a good way to attract younger talent because incoming workers show an interest in pushing the edges of what is considered possible.

“That really gets people excited. And that’s something that we’ve tried to paint the picture of routinely, as we’ve gone through this level of talent management, renaissance and upskilling, is that talent comes at a cost,” she said during Wednesday’s Cultivating the Next Generation of IT Rock Stars in Tumultuous Times webcast, sponsored by Broadcom. “We have to be willing to invest time and money in the people we need to get after these innovative technologies.”

Many innovative technologies in her line of work revolve around personnel, some of which are on premise systems, some on Linux mainframes out of Fort Knox and some on distributed computing environments.

Moreover, just as federal managers should not expect the next generation of federal tech workforce to know the programming languages of yesteryear, they also may not come to the job with the same degrees or experience as their outgoing predecessors.

Greg Lotko, senior vice president and general manager for Broadcom’s Mainframe Software Division, recommended focusing on foundational skills first, and then worry about training the new hires. His office administers a Mainframe Vitality Program using Broadcom products, with the intention of preparing program graduates to go onto a new career. Lotko said program applicants do not need an IT degree – a display of aptitude and drive count for as much or more.

“Go back to the 60s, go back to the 70s – myself, I graduated in the 80s. Not everybody was graduating with a computer science degree, or even a technology degree,” he said. “People were coming out with economics degrees, or language or foreign studies, and they were being trained by the corporations they were going into, to work in IT, and to work on the mainframe. So I think we’ve already proved out in the marketplace and our own past, that it’s more about the aptitude and the person.”

Lotko said open source tools accelerate modernization because they allow people less well versed with the mainframe – who may understand DevOps, operations and automation only from a distributed or an open perspective – and use them “across the rest of the IT environment, to connect in with the mainframe and leverage the capabilities and the technologies that are there.” This is all while preserving stability, security and resiliency, he said.

Saling, who is also deputy for People Analytics in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army Manpower & Reserve Affairs, says she wears “a number of different hats.” She said that while looking at ways to manage talent, COVID-19 has forced the new remote workforce to change its culture from the traditional, squad-centric approach.

“And now we’re at the point where we’re unable to work with and train with – in that close environment with our squads. And that’s forcing us to look at a lot of different ways to do business,” she said. “Especially when we are looking at how we’re going to support different systems that usually require some kind of hands on operation, and we can’t always be there.”

As such, the idea of using mission command to “power down” decisions to lower levels is gaining steam. Setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound) goals for everyone, and taking an output-based versus input-based approach to performance management is better for handling a distributed workforce environment, Saling said. Taking the output-based approach gives workers more flexibility in their days, and she said it was more conducive to creativity and productivity.

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