Mainframe Systems Programming: Interview with Aileen Wynne

Aileen Wynne is a mainframe systems programmer in AIB. In college she hated the idea of working with computers, but now considers her job to be ‘the best job in the whole universe’!

Many people have never heard of mainframes but they are used by many major companies across the world, including banks, insurance companies and many more. If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in computers, it is worth considering mainframes.

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A mainframe is a data server that securely processes large volumes of transactions and calculations. Aileen is standing with a mainframe in the image above!

What is your job? How did you get to where you are now?

So I started off hating computers and never wanting to work with them. I swore blind I’d never work with computers, I’d never work for the bank and I’d never get married. So never say never, because now I’ve been working for the bank for 22 years, 23 years, something like that. 

I came in and started in the mainframe network team in the bank. Prior to that I’d been a childminder for a number of years. I had moved from that into looking after the IT for a charity, working with Apple networks and Apple hardware, and liaising with their engineers. I was looking after their databases as well. It was basically the Apple version of Access, so it wasn’t a big database or anything, but that’s what I did.

I left that and I came into the bank working in the mainframe network team, and I did that for a couple of years and it’s never left me. Even today I was looking at a network problem, in fact two of them. So then I moved from that into the host support team, basically the same team that I’m in now although I did end up doing storage for a few years.

So what I do day-to-day is I look after the installation and the maintenance of the operating system, some of the major subsystems, so DB2, IMS, CICS, MQ and then I look after some non-IBM, smaller products, many of which are old and we’re trying to get rid of in the bank. That’s kind of what I do. 

What did you study in college?

I did general science: computer science, biology and maths were my main subjects. I did physics in first year as well. I did a lot of role-playing games, spent a lot of time in the library, did a bit of fencing. I didn’t study an awful lot in Maynooth, but I got through, I passed it, I have a degree from them. 

So when I went into college my mother told me I had to do computers and I hated it. I had to do science at university and I had no interest, but I was good at that kind of stuff. Best years of my life, absolutely highly recommend Maynooth, it was brilliant. I didn’t like my subjects but the place itself was brilliant. Actually I quite liked biology to be fair, hated computers, came out saying I was never going to work with them and then realised that actually it’s not a bad career. And once I got into the mainframe stuff I love it. I absolutely love what I do, it is the best job ever. I think I’ve the best job in the whole universe.

It’s great to see how much you love your job!

I think you should enjoy everything you do, wherever you are. There’s always bits you don’t like, don’t get me wrong. Even in my job, the best job in the universe, there’s also loads of crappy stuff that you have to do every day, like there’s change records, compliance stuff. There’s other people that love compliance and love the stuff I don’t like, but you have to do the horrible things as well as the nice things, don’t get me wrong. There’s always naff bits to everything, but if you get really good of them you can do them quickly, so you get rid of them so you can do cool stuff. Or at least that’s how I work. 

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

It depends on the day, to be honest with you. My job is one of those jobs where the good challenge is that I’ll never know everything and there’s always new things to learn. Every time I do an upgrade, or every time I’m putting maintenance on or anything like that, it’s always a chance to get my head around what’s different now, or what’s the best way for me to implement this feature or roll it out, because we have multiple LPARs, which are like servers to roll stuff out to.

 Then you’ve got the bad challenges, like how am I going to get rid of this compliance stuff I have to do today. But I only have to do that every couple of months which isn’t too bad. I think they’re the biggest challenges.

But if you like learning things mainframe is one of the best places ever because no matter how brilliant you are, no matter if you’re the greatest person at what you do in the whole world, you still won’t know everything. You’ll be an expert in one little tiny bit, but you won’t know everything. It’s my favourite challenge ever, to learn everything, and you can’t learn everything, you can only learn a lot about one thing or a little bit of everything. You can’t do it all. That’s the biggest challenge, but it’s also one of the beauties of it.

There’s no point in having a day where you don’t learn about at least one thing new, and most of the time I’ll learn more than that. Sometimes it’s only a small little tiny thing, I might be sitting beside someone and they use a keystroke shortcut on the mainframe that I’ve never seen before and it’s like ‘oh my God, this panel is brilliant!’. Or other times it can be a whole new technology or whatever. There’s always things to learn.

It’s funny, my sister’s always said that the worst thing she can imagine is my job, because it’s very 9-5, which I’m always baffled by because I’ve never worked 9-5 in my entire life. It’s an office job, you go into the office, you sit with the same people, well pre-covid we sat with the same people, and we’d be dealing with the same people all the time. But actually in reality that’s not how it is. Yes you’re in a team with the same people and you’ll talk to certain people every day, and there’s other teams that you’ll work with on a weekly or monthly basis, or just every so often. 

My routine is similar in that I go in and I check if there were any problems overnight. If there are, obviously I work on them. If there aren’t, I usually have a number of things that I want to get done in a day that I’ll start working on. Which goes really well until about an hour later, when people start arriving and asking me questions and pulling me away to different things. It’s great.

Lots of people have never heard of the mainframe. When I was in college one of the things that turned me off computers was that it was my second week in the class, there were about 120 of us in the class, and the lecturer was telling us about what computers were. One of the lads said to him ‘what about these mainframes?’ and he went ‘mainframes? Sure they’re nearly gone’. This was 1991, he goes ‘mainframes, they’re dead. There’s still a couple of them knocking around but they’re pretty much dead’. I was far too shy to say anything at the time, but in my head I was like ‘my dad works in a mainframe, I don’t think he’s right’.

I definitely don’t think he’s right now, after twenty years I can see myself working on mainframe for another twenty, thirty years. I don’t think even then it will be gone, I think it will, as it has done for the last fifty years, reinvent itself. It will look different and it will morph into whatever is needed at the time, that’s what it does. 

How would you usually approach a difficult problem?

Good question, I think it depends on the problem. I think, first of all you have to work out what the actual problem is, what are you actually trying to solve. Once you’ve worked out what you’re trying to do, what’s the outcome you want? Then you need to work out ‘how am I going to get there?’. But it depends very much upon what the problem is.

 Is the problem actually what we see it as? So for example, as I mentioned earlier, I do networks, I also was on the storage team for a while. One of the problems we had recently was a particular area came to me and said ‘we’re having a problem with the network. We have two nodes, we’ve basically a server that’s trying to talk to CICS and it’s not doing what we expect it to do.’ So I started looking at that, and I looked at the network stuff and all the network stuff looked fine. I checked if there were any files involved that were too big for there, there wasn’t. 

It was kind of ‘hang on a minute, what’s actually the problem?’. Because talking about a network problem is very low-level and as we delve further into the issue it was like we were expecting certain things to run and this CICS transaction to run, but it’s not working, we’re not getting the outcome we expect. We brought other people in to look at it from the CICS team and we were able to find out that it was actually that somebody had made an application change, however from the outset they were saying ‘oh it’s a network problem’. So you have to be very good at looking at what problem you’re presented with and working out if that’s the actual problem or if that’s a symptom of the problem and then working from there. That’s kind of how I approach it.

Thank you Aileen for telling us about mainframe programming! If you’re interested in learning more about mainframe careers, or STEM careers in general, be sure to follow @ScienceAngles on Instagram and Facebook!

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