There is a really interesting discussion going on the IDUG’s DB2 List that started with a simple question:
I’m wondering, if you had a person turn up at your desk and say … “How do I get a job in the DB2 DBA / SYSPROG for z/Os world?” … what would you do? Put them off? Encourage them? Suggest they re-train as an Investment Banker 🙂 ? etc
DB2 list is a favorite hang out place for DB2 for z/OS DBAs and system programmers. While the question is specific to mainframe jobs, I think it applies to other DBAs and even to IT careers overall. The IT as a career choice has lost a lot of its shine. Universities across United States, Canada and western Europe report significant drop in enrolments in computer science programmes. Much of the blame, rightly or wrongly, is directed at outsourcing.
Disclaimer: The subject of outsourcing is a controversial one. My employer, IBM, surely has a communication policy on this subject. This post in particular, and my blog overall, represents my personal views and opinions and should in no way be considered to represent the views and policies of IBM on this or any other subject.
The death of craftsmanship
Few people will argue that world’s largest organizations rely on mainframes for their most important workloads and that mainframes have had a resurgence of late. However, most people, myself included, do not see the IT returning to the heyday of the mainframe era. At the same time, many mainframe shops have outsourced mainframe operations leaving DBAs and other mainframers wondering if a career as a DB2 for z/OS DBA is a viable. In my opinion, a career as narrow as one DBMS on a single platform is very limiting regardless of the market performance of mainframes. I find that DB2 for z/OS community, like no other, is fixated on being true craftsmen at the top of their trade. Very admirable but also misguided. Don’t take me wrong; I am not advocating for mediocrity in IT. The days of true craftsmen being valued in any profession are are long gone. In manufacturing “craftsmanship” gave way to mass production with the advent of industrial revolution over a century ago. In IT, “craftsmanship” went out with the advent of outsourcing. Anyone who believes they can build or sustain a narrow focus career in this day and age is destined for a heart break.
There is a lot of lamenting on the DB2 list about “stupid managers” who can’t see the value in top notch talent/skills that DB2 for z/OS DBAs have. Don’t blame the managers; they are not stupid, they do the same thing at work that we all do in our daily lives. Our society has been chasing cheaper products that arguably do not have the same quality. Turn over any item you bought in the last 10 years and chances are you will see “Made in China”. We are not buying these products because they are made by true masters of the profession; we are drawn by the low cost knowing full well that the quality we can expect is likely directly related to the price we pay. I recommend reading The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business where Clayton Christensen clearly explains that cheaper and simpler will win in the market every time.
Why should IT be any different? The answer is “it is not”. Many of the operational IT tasks will continue to be outsourced and will be given to lower skill, lower quality, lower cost resources for execution. This has nothing to do with the country where the work is being sent; it is all about chasing lower unit cost. There is no column for “Quality” on any financial spreadsheet that I’ve ever seen. It stands to reason that building a career focused on reducing organizations’ operating costs is a recipe for yourself being a target of cost cutting. Many DBAs like to convince themselves that they can really tune that database and save company millions by delaying a mainframe upgrade. It does make perfect financial sense to an IT person who can clearly see the connection. To an accountant, making this connection between a DBA and a major capital expense defrayal is not as obvious. I am always amazed at just how much people in IT operations (and DBAs in particular) believe that that keeping things running at top efficiency is what makes them valuable to the business.
Life is not fair
DB2 for z/OS DBAs are very prudent and cautious bunch. After all, everything they touch is critical to the business. Moving up to the latest version is carefully planned and executed 3-4 years after the release. Getting to use a new feature is always a risk. Getting new applications to access data is risky as it may upset the efficiency of existing operations. The sad reality is that all of that prudence and good management are a major reason mainframes are loosing ground. Business users see DB2 for z/OS with all of its change processes, security and good management as an impediment to their ability to acomplish their goals. The application teams deal with that by simply moving data in to their own DBMS where they don’t get the same hustle. Unfair? Maybe, but life is not fair.
Can’t outsource innovation
So, what is the answer? Should a budding DBA consider a career in investment banking or is there still life in IT? Despite what spin masters may say, outsourcing is about one thing and one thing only, driving down the cost. IT Operations is a cost center and as such it is likely to be outsourced. Inovation is one thing that can not be outsourced. Top line revenue producers are is almost never outsourced. Focusing on innovation and contribution to revenue is, in my mind, the ticket to increasing value to the business and a success full career. I am sorry to say that in my book, performance tuning, security, reducing batch windows etc. ends up on operation side and is not appreciated as innovation outside of the IT operations department. What is appreciated is improving business agility, helping business launch new products and services, helping go after new markets.
So, Now What?
In 2009 I presented at IDUG Europe on how “How Cloud Computing will Save DBA Jobs”. The main reason I believe this to be the case is because cloud computing allows companies to get out of the tyranny of capital budgets required to purchase hardware. If you do not need hardware capital, you can accelerate projects that were able to get funding. As an industry, we’ve been talking about application backlog for years. Removing hardware capital requirements means reducing the application backlog and improving business agility. It means new products on the market, more revenue, new applications and databases to drive this revenue and more work for DBAs. So, if that is the case, why is it that IT operations staff that are the fiercest opponents of cloud computing? Ironically, many IT people view cloud computing as another form of outsourcing. Many think that their jobs will move in to the cloud as if there are some mythical angel DBAs that will administer company’s databases. While it is true that when companies procure software as a service (SaaS), the role of IT is greatly diminished. However, the cloud use I am talking about is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). In IaaS, only the hardware resources are procured from the cloud; and you still need people to administer these servers, storage, networking databases etc. Security, privacy, performance are traditional defence mechanisms against using cloud resources. Line of business simply skirts the IT and starts to use SaaS. Just think, Salesforce.com is now a $1.8 billion company while Siebel has been put on the list of “top 10 dying IT skills“.
If someone asked me if they should get in to a career in IT and become a DBA would be an resounding YES. However, I would suggest that suggest that the right way to do it is not to follow what we the current practitioners do. I would suggest getting broader rather than deeper. I would suggest focusing on working with programmers and business users to devise new use cases not trying to squeeze out the last drop of performance out of a 20 year old installation. Whether you are a seasoned DBA or just getting in to the field, I would learn non-database topics like PHP, Ruby on Rails. Learn some Linux, take a look at the iPhone and see how it could be used to create value. Look at the Cloud. It is truly transformational in the way we will be (already are) provisioning IT capacity. Most important, don’t be so focused on reasons these things will not work in your shop (the list is very long). Focus on how to make them work and how they can help the business not just IT. Pick projects where negatives do not matter. Champion these things in your shops. Champions don’t get outsourced.
PS. We are trying to help you do just that. We have made DB2 available on the cloud free of charge so you can build a website in about 6 minutes and run it absolutely free for a year. It is build on Ruby on Rails and DB2 and is running on Linux so there is lots to experiment with there but only if you wan to. We launched DB2University.com where we are helping people get skills on their schedule, on their budget (free for now), and with just a browser. We also offer on the cloud an early experience of the next version of DB2. This is an excellent way to learn both existing functions and what is coming. For DB2 for z/OS DBAs, it is a fastest way to experiment with temporal data that are a part of DB2 for z/OS v10.