Despite evidence to the contrary, mainframes are thought to have a diminishing role in the computing landscape – and it’s not helping the careers of mainframers. In fact, some mainframers feel they are laboring in the shadows.
How did we get to this unhappy place?
Christopher O’Malley, CEO at Compuware, offers this theory:
Unfortunately, IT leaders have far too often neglected their mainframes — despite the critical importance of the platform, its applications, and its data. In fact, it is exactly because mainframe environments run so well that IT leaders have become excessively pre-occupied by distributed and Cloud environments, which produce headaches in abundance. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and the “Look at the shiny new object!” principles unfortunately both apply in today’s IT world.
Presented in this light, mainframe proficiency sounds like a prescription for anonymity. What’s mainframe talent to do?
Fight back, albeit in a measured tone – preferably sans hunger strike.
Maximizing Mainframe Morale
Last summer, Bryan Smith, a self-confessed mainframer, wrote in Network World that several steps were needed. He suggested greater top-management involvement, mainframer skills development, line-item budget visibility for mainframe activities, and more persuasive, full-throated proclamations of mainframe benefits throughout the organization.
Smith’s sympathetic suggestions are indisputable — even helpful — but may fall short of the forceful measures needed to achieve a turnaround in morale.
From the perspective of a longtime mainframe supplier Syncsort – whose very longevity is a counterfactual testimonial to the mainframe’s continued importance – people are the most important part of the mainframe space. In fact, Syncsort has leveraged their mainframe expertise to optimize performance and lower costs on IBMz, and to access and integrate mainframe data with other Big Data platforms like Spark, Hadoop and Splunk for advanced analytics. In partnership with IBM and other leading players, mainframe specialists like Syncsort must and are advocating for their own standing in IT culture by reminding people that for an enterprise, real Big Data-driven insights must include and even rely on data from Big Iron.
Toward that end, the following seven suggestions are possible starting points for energetic mainframe campaigners.
- Foster product and project heterogeneity. Most silos in computing tend to be choked off from innovation taking place outside. The eventual result is suffocation. One of the more effective strategies to avoid this trap is to foster multiple technologies in products and projects. Mainframes that contribute to interdependent project resources mean mainframe support personnel will benefit from related technologies and can more readily expose others to mainframe strengths. Ryan and Tucker studied technology adoption practices in “Heterogeneity and the Dynamics of Technology Adoption.” They note that “employees have significant heterogeneity in both adoption costs and network benefits, and have preferences for diverse networks.”
- Be part of technical storytelling, especially video. Myth-busting does not necessarily make for good storytelling, so think about how your audience will receive it. As Jason Bloomberg explains in a piece for Intellyx, Google produced a slick video extolling its new Oregon data center, sprawling with acres of commodity servers. Use existing content (e.g. the documentary Big Iron: The Mainframe Story) to educate and entertain as well. Make a video (or describe an imaginary one) to show how beautiful small can be in the footprint of a mainframe. Or help your marketing department get the story out for their more technically minded audience. Knowledge is power and people do want to get smarter about interesting things.
- Be part of rich LinkedIn engagement while monitoring Reddit. On LinkedIn, you can follow other mainframers, discover prospective customers, participate in Q and A, engage with LinkedIn specialized groups, and track customers in the z/OS sphere of influence. On Reddit, you may uncover (or generate) buzz about the mainframe world. That’s where you’re most likely to find a YouTube video disassembly of a retired z9, while keeping your ear to the ground for rumors. What’s IBM doing with blockchain? If you missed the June press release from IBM, you may read about it on Reddit.
- Mentor and remember — with gusto. Is the Internet of Things (IoT) just warmed-over distributed computing a la 1982? Is Cloud computing just a throwback to Tymshare? Mainframers are more likely to know the answers. They will have insights that come from years of watching buzzwords and fads come and go. They can better sense which principles have endured, and what it’s like to develop and maintain products that typically outlast the tenure of people who develop them. Mainframers, situated in the world’s largest firms, have an organizational savvy and an understanding of complex business processes that accompanies their work with application complexity. These are insights that fresh Google Dart and Apache Kudu developers are less likely to possess, and if delivered without being snarky, will educate and impress.
- Embrace DevOps. DevOps is touching many facets of IT, and the mainframe is no exception. Jason Bloomberg reiterated the idea: “Not every mainframe organization is ready for DevOps, to be sure — but the writing is on the wall.”
- Follow, if not become immersed in, the Microservice, API-first trend. As with other trends, mainframers may sense that microservices are a simple evolution of SOA. That said, the ubiquity of Cloud services and the REST interface have made API-first a movement that can integrate — or isolate — the mainframe.
Find ways to collaborate with IBM. Think of IBM as a mother who has given birth to numerous children. The mainframe is only one — even if, to mainframers, it’s the most important. She will be distracted from time to time (think Bluemix). You may need to remind her that you, although the 1st and most mature, still need care and feeding. One way to achieve that is to help others in the IBM sphere of influence to see where the mainframe has been and where it can go.
Long Story. Good Story.
The lifespan of a human being is considerably longer than the average U.S. company. It’s longer than many products, especially in IT. The lifespan of the mainframe is fast approaching that of the average person. That’s pretty amazing.
Get the word out. You’ll feel better for having been part of it.