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No Stumps, No Chumps

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:26 PM


Ah, the games mainframers play.

I’m not talking about the legitimate fun that sysprogs can have in their sandbox LPARs and VM Guests.

I’m not talking about the companies that have used mainframes with cell processors to host online video games.

I’m not even talking about extra-curricular fun that helps mainframers be well-rounded human beings. You know—volunteering for athletic competitions or playing chess at the highest levels (and I am very proud to know mainframers who do both).

I’m talking about the cultural games we inherited along with our jargon, technology and other interesting aspects of the mainframe world such as JCL and EBCDIC. The time has come for us to outgrow them as we get ready for the mainframe’s brilliant future.

In other words, it’s time for us to grow up and grow out of some protective practices that aren’t sufficiently professional for our platform. To do this, we need to name them, claim them and suggest a better way forward.

To be clear, it’s perfectly understandable that we’ve gotten into these habits. They’ve worked until now.  We convinced ourselves that they were in the best interests of our employers and the entire mainframe ecosystem. And maybe they once were. But today, they’re not even in our own best interests—they’re just entrenched.

The time has come to grow up, starting with three areas that will open the door to further maturity in the future.

1.     “Stump the Chump”

Let’s start with a favorite pastime of experienced mainframers—a game often referred to as “Stump the Chump.” As a protective behavior, it grew out of the need of mainframers in positions of critical responsibility to ensure they were dealing with somebody they could trust. When unproven “outsiders” present, teach or consult, experienced mainframers engage in a quest to dismantle their credibility. This is pursued using difficult technical questions and assertions, all calculated to either get the presenter to admit ignorance or—better yet—make an educated but incorrect guess.

This used to be a useful and effective tactic given a surmountable body of mainframe knowledge with no search engines. But both of those have now changed, so being able to instantly answer difficult and obscure questions is no longer a guaranteed indication of someone’s mainframe competence.

Going forward, it makes more sense to use reference tools such as search engines to educate yourself about the presenter and their subject matter before you meet. Then you can use person-to-person time to build value and rapport instead of playing status games.

2.     People Are Not Computers

The next behavior we need to outgrow is treating people like computer systems. Of course, if your main career skill sets are about delving into, configuring and troubleshooting computers, this is an easy misapplication to make. As Abraham Maslow observed, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” So we get the dreaded ex-sysprog supervisor or manager who thinks they can apply those skillsets to getting results from their staff. This also shows up in other work and personal interactions. We take a programming-style approach that anticipates and responds to logically simple outcomes rather than listening with empathy and flexibility.

There’s a time for interacting professionally and logically, like airplane pilots who stay calm and focus on correcting problems during emergencies. But the moment we move even slightly outside of the technical results-centric arena, that ain’t no way to treat a human.

This is a slightly more challenging behavior to fix. For most mainframers, staying technical is more comfortable than making eye contact and noticing subtle social cues. But it’s worth looking for ways to up our game and build important people skills. The best way to begin is with an attitude of genuine, attentive concern for the other person.

3.     “Don’t Rock the Boat!!!”

The last area I’d like to highlight is one we’ve all had hammered into us since our first day on the job: “Don’t Rock the Boat!!!” Mainframe shops are generally large and Byzantine in their bureaucracies, politics and corporate culture—whether government or not. It’s enough to make anyone retreat behind their cubicle walls and never raise their head above the firing line. Pair that with the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and the word “change” becomes an expletive.

In the past, this resulted in a plethora of lost opportunities to advance the mainframe’s range of uses. But, hey, keeping your head down and your mouth shut allowed you to safely aspire to retirement. In the future, it will cost a great deal more; organizations that build new successes on their mainframes will so vastly outpace every other business that the viability of those that don’t.

If you’re retiring, your pension is probably invested in companies that have mainframes. Their future success will therefore be contingent on the thriving of that platform. And if you’re not retiring, don’t tell me that the kind of genius capable of making the mainframe do great things should waste their life hiding in a cubicle, doing the same bureaucracy day-in and day-out for fear of the consequences of trying something new.

You Can Make a Difference

So, speak up in that meeting where they’re looking for suggestions. Be genuinely willing to try something new on the mainframe. Try for a raise or a promotion for having dared to take the initiative. Check out how expensive your current mainframe product set is and suggest vendors who offer a better deal for equivalent or better technology. Try out new configurations on your sandbox and see if you can’t tune that mainframe up to a better level of performance. And hunt down obsolete in-house software to find things you’re doing that should be replaced by out-of-the-box functionality in IBM or ISV solutions you’re already paying for.

Of course, this is just the beginning. There are so many opportunities out there that will emerge once the mainframe culture develops a mature, professional approach to doing forward-thinking business. And the time has come to make this happen.

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