Michelle remembers answering the phone to a customer who exclaimed in surprise, ‘Oh, I didn’t think you had any women at Macro 4!’ Her answer? ‘Just the one, in support!’
We’ve come a long way since then, but IT is still a male-dominated industry, and that’s something we need to change. So I was very pleased to hear Michelle talking about this very subject on IBM’s z/Action! podcast with Lee Sullivan.
As Macro 4’s head of mainframe research and development Michelle has plenty of helpful advice to share, both for organizations wanting to attract more women into IT, and for young women deciding on a career.
The podcast is called ‘Embracing the Challenge: Women and the IBM zSystems Platform’ and as you would expect, the focus is on mainframe IT. But as it happens, much of Michelle’s advice holds true for the IT industry in general and will be useful for anyone starting out, regardless of gender.
Here’s what I took away:
1. To attract new talent we need to talk about zSystems in a different way
People fresh out of college generally don’t know about zSystems any more than they know about a great many other technologies. They have no preconceptions. So if you want to make it appealing don’t shoot yourself in the foot by saying the mainframe is old. Explain how the mainframe underpins our lives, from processing credit card transactions to organizing our next plane journey. Tell them how new advances on the z16 like AI and the Telum processor are helping companies with today’s problems like preventing fraud in real time. As people working with zSystems already know, it’s an exciting platform that’s constantly evolving. We just need to spread the word.
2. Women who are already in IT can really help to encourage younger women and girls
We can all benefit from positive role models. So it was encouraging to hear how the Stemettes are sharing stories about women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) to inspire the next generation.
Women working in IT can help on a personal level too. Michelle explained how she visits her daughters’ school to talk to girls about IT careers. She leads 10-minute ‘speed careers’ sessions where a group of six to eight girls can ask questions and find out what the computing industry is really like. I like Michelle’s opening gambit: ‘Are any of you a bit stemmy?’!
In Michelle’s experience, young women want to understand the purpose of IT rather than just loving technology for its own sake. If you focus on what technology can help people achieve, and start the conversation talking about the platforms the girls already use, like Instagram and YouTube, then they will become more interested.
3. Be sensitive to gender differences when recruiting
When it comes to applying for jobs there’s a significant gender difference. Research has shown that men are likely to apply for jobs when they meet only 60 per cent of the selection criteria, whereas women are only likely to apply if they meet 100 per cent of the requirements.
That’s valuable information for both applicants and recruiters. It should embolden more women to get applying, even if they can’t tick off every single skill in a job advert. The lesson for employers is to question what goes into a job ad. If you would consider applications from strong candidates who don’t tick off every item on your wishlist then it pays to say so. Equally, it’s worth considering what is really an essential skill, and making your requirements less specific.
It’s also important to be careful about the language you use in job ads. Wording that’s intended to make a role sound exciting, such as ‘Have you got what it takes?’ can sound daunting, even a little macho. That could put off plenty of people, not just women. Why not talk about the support you can offer, rather than giving a reason not to apply?
4. Don’t let a lack of experience put you off a mainframe career
Michelle talked about two exciting educational programs from IBM. The IBM Z Xplore program is open to anybody over the age of 16 and is a great way to get started. We find it really helps to build confidence in our own new starters at Macro 4 and it has been really well received by them. For a first-hand account of what IBM Z Xplore is like I highly recommend Matt Wyatt’s blog: ‘My IBM Z Xplore experience as a complete mainframe beginner’. The program is free of charge so it’s an ideal way of dipping a toe in the water for anyone with the slightest interest in zSystems – no prior experience required.
Another exciting initiative is the IBM Z Global Skills Accelerator Program. It’s an apprenticeship scheme that’s open to people from a wide range of different backgrounds, not just people coming through the traditional college graduate route. You don’t have to just follow one pathway either. For example, in addition to the application developer stream there’s a systems administrator stream which might appeal to people with different skills and interests.
5. Use new technology to get up to speed faster
Technology innovation can be a game changer for new mainframers coming on board. Zowe Explorer is a great example of this. Michelle explains how a lecturer in zSystems at the University of Vilnius in Lithuania used to spend the first two or three lectures of every course explaining the complexities of interacting with a mainframe before students could get started. Now that the students use Zowe Explorer, a new interface that simplifies the way you interact with the mainframe operating system, he can cover off the basics in just one lecture and then dive straight into more interesting topics.
This change has had a profound effect. A ‘before and after’ survey of course participants has revealed that students are now more engaged, more likely to recommend the course to others and more likely to pursue a career in zSystems.
6. There are huge opportunities for newcomers to the mainframe: now is the time to embrace them
Older mainframers are transitioning into retirement, which spells opportunity for newcomers. IT is already a well-paid industry. The demand for new zSystems talent is pushing up mainframe salaries even further. IT is also ideally suited to flexible working, as most roles can be performed remotely.
For many newcomers it will be encouraging to hear that you can take your career in the direction you want. As Michelle puts it, “You don’t have to go down the managerial route; you can be recognised for being technical and it’s not just about development or infrastructure. There’s a huge world out there.”