In his recent The New Yorker article “The Age of Robot Farmers,” contributor John Seabrook uses strawberry farming as an analogy to help soothe workers around the world worried about losing jobs to robots.
Seabrook, who explores the “intersection of creativity and commerce” in his writing, explains that specialty crops such as strawberries require “delicate handling or selective harvesting” and consequently “big machines are often too clumsy and unintelligent for that kind of work.”
“Using robots to make microchips is an order of magnitude easier than automating the picking of a strawberry,” Seabrook writes. And at many farms he researched, the "brain work of farming—when to plant, irrigate, fertilize, and harvest—had been automated, but not the grunt work.”
(Columnist’s Note: Special thanks to Wall Street Journal’s CIO Journal newsletter, which brought Seabrook’s story to my attention.)
Millennial Mainframers in the “Mesh”
Seabrook’s exploration of automation’s relationship with frontline workers in the farming industry planted some organic analogies in my head about the role millennial mainframers play in today’s business landscape, infused with artificial intelligence (AI), smart devices and cloud computing. Gartner analyst David Cearley calls this technology terrain the “intelligent digital mesh,” an environment “characterized by smart devices delivering increasingly insightful digital services everywhere.”
Here’s how Gartner breaks down Cearley’s vision:
· Intelligent: AI in virtually every existing technology, creating entirely new categories
· Digital: an immersive world created by blending digital and physical domains
· Mesh: connections between expanding sets of people, businesses, devices, content and services
(Columnist’s Note: Bullets paraphrased from Gartner’s “Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2019.”
Following Seabrook’s theme of organic analogy, I picture Cearley’s “intelligent digital mesh” as the leaves spreading from a huge technological tree, stretching a virtual canopy around the globe. In this metaphor, each leaf is some sort of business application, a representation of potential outcomes for users. Stems, branches and trunks are like the cloud—a delivery system for generating dozens of business outcomes to the frontlines of business. And foundational technologies like mainframes are the roots, often obscured from view but no less vital to the fitness of the lattice of leaves.
Millennial mainframers in my organic scenario are like arborists, who ensure the health of the whole tree by understanding how the strength of the roots enable every leaf to flourish. Development of the tree’s root structure long preceded the spread of the leafy canopy. But this order of growth doesn’t mean the root system—and the skill set for continuing to cultivate it—can be disregarded, neglected or obsoleted.
Vital roots, vibrant canopy of leaves. Withered roots, shriveling canopy.
So, like laborers who pick strawberries, millennial mainframers should embrace the advance of newer technologies like AI, augmented reality (AR) and the Internet of Things (IoT.) As noted in my last column, “millennial technologists exemplify the best skill set for making—and keeping—a 50-year-old foundational technology like the mainframe relevant in the era of AI, smart devices, the cloud and whatever digital revelation comes next.”
Mainframes Rooted in Business
I recently ran my “technology today is like a tree” analogy by James Stanger, chief technology evangelist for CompTIA, an international tech trade association. Stanger, an author, blogger and Ph.D., spends his time, like Cearley and Seabrook, in continual conversation with technologists of all kinds across an array of industries about the critical hard and soft skills necessary to thrive in business today—and then shares his insights with crowds at conferences and with pundits like me.
“The thing about mainframes is they’ve been around for decades. They will be around for decades,” Stanger says. “[Mainframes] are in banking. They’re in the airline industry, the healthcare industry. There’s no way they’re going away. Now that things have moved into the cloud, into IoT, it doesn’t obviate the mainframe in any way, shape or form.”
How does Stanger recommend millennial mainframers nurture their arborist aptitudes? “First of all, get a mentor,” he advises, and that counselor need not be someone still active in the workforce. The guide’s core qualification should be experience making any type of technology work for business—i.e., someone who worked as a technologist, not just a technician.
“The second thing is get as hands-on as you can,” Stanger stresses. In his observation, the “great thing about younger generations is they have no problem getting right into technology and making things happen.”
So, considering insights from Stanger, Cearley and Seabrook, I exhort millennial mainframers this way: Want to grow your career? Dig into the “grunt work” of making today’s technology tree grow.
Communications strategist R.C. “Bob” Dirkes, host and producer of the “Technologist Talk” podcast, covers issues confronting the tech workforce of today and tomorrow. Follow him on Twitter @RCDirkes.