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A Big Piece of Cheese?

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:32 PM


Acquaintance: “You work on a mainframe? Aren’t those things dead?”
You: “No, in fact they run the world economy. They’re still the only computer that really works. And they’ve been doing it for over 50 years.”
Acquaintance: “Wow. I didn’t know big UNIX and Windows boxes had been around so long!”
You: “Aaarrrggghhh!”

How many conversations have you had like this? Are you getting tired of explaining what a mainframe is to family, friends and acquaintances in a way that helps them displace their preconceptions with a valid picture?

If you’re still fighting the good fight, kudos. But maybe it’s time for us to change our approaches a bit, and raise awareness using unexpected concepts that will sidestep the disinformation people have been fed the past few decades.

The title of this article comes from one of my earliest efforts to explain a mainframe to non-mainframers: my kids Naomi and Thomas. When they were in elementary school, one of them once asked me what a mainframe was, since I was always talking about this important context of my career. Realizing that I couldn’t boil the entire history of computing down to a sound bite brief enough to hold their attention, I instead flippantly said, “The Mainframe is a Big Piece of Cheese!” which got their attention for long enough that I could start relating this bizarre image to the reality of what a mainframe is. And it worked. They paid attention, we had a fun and funny time, and they’ve never forgotten it.

Of course, that’s not going to be the right analogy for every context. If you’re getting reacquainted with relatives at a family reception following a serious event, something more conservative might be in order when someone asks you what you do.

And that’s the thing: context. If you’re not surrounded by like-minded computer nerds with a respect for the history of IT, you’re probably going to have to engage with an analogy that will speak to the interests of the people you are talking to. And that’s a good thing.

After all, since the early 1980s, we’ve all been fed a constant stream of dead-dinosaur-mainframe baloney that has displaced the facts of the matter in the public conscious and discourse, and even surviving Y2K hasn’t fixed it. If you’re going to wake up the people you know to the facts, an unexpected analogy can be just the thing to provoke some conscious attention.

Getting back to my original analogy that the mainframe is a big piece of cheese, where do you go from there?

Be Prepared

My approach looks at the history of cheese and compares it to the history of business computing, including:

  1. The concepts were discovered and invented a long time ago, whether for cheese making or information processing.
  2. Over time they were refined to make something very good.
  3. A single, big cheese can serve many people just like a single, big mainframe. (Here’s one important advantage of the analogy: you can differentiate from it as well to make a stronger point, for example by pointing out the much larger number of people a mainframe can serve.)
  4. There are processed cheeses, which are great for a cheap single serving as a wrapped slice or spread. They perform a simple task well enough. But for truly world-class food, you need world-class cheese. Likewise, you can use personal computers running Windows, Linux, UNIX or Mac OS for one-person tasks with a reasonable amount of effectiveness. But if you’re going to run a world-class 24-7 available, secure environment, you need a world-class mainframe computer.

As you can see, once you get rolling, it becomes easy to keep going. The keys here are to:

  1. Know your mainframe facts—history, technology, culture, who uses it, what they use it for and why it matters.
  2. Have a goal for what you want to share about the mainframe. Do you want to make it clear that it’s the ultimate outgrowth of the history of business processing? Do you want to show how reliable, secure, available and cost-effective it is? Or perhaps you want to illustrate how everyone in our society is totally, successfully reliant on the mainframe in many of the most important aspect of their lives.
  3. Know whom you’re talking with. Are they into food? Music? Agriculture? Sports? Automotive recreation?

Then get creative and don’t be afraid to try something, fail and ask for help from the people you’re talking to in order to make the analogy better. It gets them more engaged and helps them learn better.

If you’re a typical mainframer, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t actually like talking to people that much, why can’t I just talk to the mainframe and let someone else do this?” And, in fact, that’s one of the main reasons why so few people know the truth about the mainframe—those who know are too busy doing to be talking about it.

Get Out the Word

The time has come to change this, because the world is changing, a new generation is arriving on the mainframe, and important decisions are being made about technology by people who often don’t realize the value of the mainframe.

What’s a hard-working, introverted mainframer to do? Here’s my advice:

  1. Consider joining Toastmasters or some other organization that lets you practice your communications in an affirming, low-stress environment to get comfortable talking about such topics. I’ve enjoyed practicing speaking about mainframes and other things I care about at Toastmasters.
  2. Think up a few example analogies and write 50-to-200-word elevator speech analogies and practice them in front of a mirror or on friends and family.
  3. Look for opportunities in conversations, community newsletters, talent shows and other fun contexts to share these analogies to raise awareness and your comfort with the topic.
  4. Come to SHARE in Seattle and join me at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 5, in the Sheraton Seattle, Kirkland Room for my session 17098, “A Piece of Cheese? Interesting Mainframe Analogies.” Your input will make for a lively discussion and a great session!

And next time someone asks you about the mainframe, you can smile and say, “Cheese!”

Reg Harbeck has been working in IT and mainframes for more than 25 years, and is very involved in the mainframe culture and ecosystem, particularly with the SHARE Board and zNextGen and SECurity projects. He may be reached at