I have something important to tell you, and I need your full attention.
It’s January, 2020, and the mainframe isn’t dead.
It’s January, 2030, and the mainframe isn’t dead.
It’s January, 2050, and you might not be working on it anymore, but the mainframe isn’t dead.
Are you getting it yet? When we discover or invent something that truly works, we keep using it, even as new technologies are invented that build on it. The opportunities for the mainframe are unlimited, especially once you’ve understood the weaknesses, threats and strengths that fill in the context. Together, they make “SWOT.”
The mainframe may be strong, but it has some cultural weak links, including:
- Entrenchment in yesterday’s ruts. There are many things we do on the mainframe because we’ve always done it that way, and many of those things no longer match today’s business needs and realities.
- Mismatch between corporate/IT culture and core business. Many mainframe technologists are focused on doing their jobs, but are oblivious to what matters to their organizations.
- Distraction by passing jargon and sizzle. While we’re no longer as obsessed with finding an excuse to get the latest gadget into our IT environments, we still get swept away with the latest buzzwords, like cloud and virtualization, often overlooking the fact that they refer to one facet of something we’ve been doing properly on the mainframe for decades.
- Understaffing. It doesn’t take many people to run a mainframe environment well compared to a much smaller workload on a distributed environment, and yet we’re still deeply understaffed in terms of keeping up with current needs.
Worse than weaknesses are immediate dangers to organizations that run mainframes. These threats include:
- Mass retirements. At least in the United States, ever since everyone’s 401K became a 201K, and also given the cost of health care, no one can afford to retire anymore. And if you love working on the mainframe, you dislike the alternatives or your employer is offering you a sweet deal to stick around, it’s easy to hang on. But that just postpones the problem. It’s happening, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. The brain trust of people who understand your mainframe context is evaporating.
- Insufficient new business technologists. We don’t have enough new people on the mainframe getting mentored up, and it can take years to build a reliable mainframer. To make matters worse, IT isn’t seen as an attractive enough career for sufficient numbers of people to be taking it in university—let alone mainframe IT—so it’s getting harder to staff the mainframe with quality technologists.
- Corporate/HR reticence to value and compensate quality people. Mainframers are deliberately underpaid because natural selection has resulted in the people who stand up for themselves going somewhere else. This also happens when people retire and are offered a contract job doing the same thing. They take the first rate they’re offered instead of negotiating for what they’re worth. As a result, the level of competence, work ethic, intelligence, etc., needed to be a quality mainframer aren’t mapping to the salaries available, making it unattractive for quality workers to consider mainframe careers.
- Outdated configurations. We’re not just talking ruts here. We’re talking unsupported configurations, out-of-date in-house code and neglected security/compliance maintenance and configurations.
- Hacking. Mainframe shops are going to get hacked and it’s going to be in the headlines. Unless you have an ongoing initiative to review every security-related configuration or maintenance item on your mainframe and keep each item current, you’re at risk.
- Regulatory non-compliance. We still have a few letters of the alphabet left that aren’t part of an IT compliance law or regulation’s acronym or abbreviation, but we’re running out. The good news, of course, is that the mainframe is a place where you can actually be provably compliant. But are you? And are you doing everything to stay that way?
- The third tsunami: overwhelming success. What? After everything else, success is a threat too? You bet your sweet EBCDIC it is. After we get through the staffing and hacking threats, those organizations that survive are going to be hit hard by a recognition that the mainframe is where high-end business should always have been happening, and everyone’s going to want in. The generation that perfected avoiding new workloads on the mainframe will have retired, and you’ll have exhausted your resistance keeping the bad guys at bay.
After the above, you know you’ve got to be strong. The good news is, your mainframe ecosystem has your back, and it’s strong too. These strengths include:
- Decades of legacy with proven performers. On the mainframe, there’s no question that IT works. We have the solutions from bottom to top, including the professionalism and the practices that keep the economy running.
- Tools and solutions that have grown, deepened, broadened and adapted. Stuff they still haven’t figured out how to do on other platforms is just getting better on the mainframe. And chances are there are at least two or three different organizations offering similar, powerful solutions to help you be effective in ways that decades of experience have shown how to do well.
- Intuitive management of heterogeneous, open and entrenched systems. If you want to manage a distributed system well, learn from the mainframe. Better yet, get an enterprise-wide solution for key areas like DevOps that build on the mainframe’s unique strengths to give you real cross-platform power.
- Proven enterprise IT partners. IBM, all the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and the rest of the ecosystem have grown up together, and proven themselves with decades of establishing and building on the kind of quality that the largest organizations on Earth demand. That means strategically architecting a combination of technological, staffing/outsourcing and training solutions to build forward.
- Wisdom. Many of my personal heroes are mainframers. Check out my zTalks for a few of them. The mainframe was built with wisdom. Then, it grew up and its culture grew with the same depth of responsible thought and action.
With a tone of voice changing from worry to inspiration when you say, “What can I do?” let’s look at the lay of the land and see where you can take the mainframe:
- Retrench on what works. Appreciate and value what you have. Look at where your mainframe environment is strong, and ideally where it has strengths you need that other platforms don’t, and keep building on that!
- Build a new generation of excellence. You want the excellence? Start on the mainframe, learn it, teach it, insist on that level of deep functionality and responsibility, and mentor your new IT people into that mindset.
- Enact a visionary IT management practice. Tomorrow’s visionary IT leaders are among today’s inspired people who ask the annoying questions, suggest the unexpected ideas and refuse to sit down and shut up. Be that person, find other people like that and meet with them, brainstorm, come up with great ideas, and suggest them to management and your coworkers.
- Clear out what no longer matters. Start with all the legacy code that can be replaced with out-of-the-box stuff you’re already paying for. Get rid of stuff no one understands. You don’t need the dead weight, your budget and mainframe capacity don’t need the burden, and your new people don’t need the confusion.
- Think business. Always be able to answer the question, “What is the business value of this?” If you can’t, consider getting rid of it. Otherwise, consider finding a way to meet that business need better.
- Think people. All the technology you used to get away from difficult people was actually all about helping people be better people. That’s the best reason for technology, for business, for all kinds of things we do. If you want to know what matters, ask yourself, “How can this help people be excellent?”
A Strategic Approach
You can’t boil the ocean, but you can do something. The important thing is to get a good big picture perspective and see how things fit together from a human and a long term perspective. You won’t get everything right, and even the things you do get right are likely to turn out differently than you envisioned. But history is happening: make it!