Why Mainframe Jobs Should Be Cooler

Earlier this month I attended the Gartner briefing on IT Modernization presented at IT-oLogy. Gartner brought in some of their heavyweight analysts for the Insurance and Banking industries, two of the major industries here in Columbia.

I found Dale Vecchio’s presentation especially interesting, for two reasons:

The first reason reason, one I’ll not spend too much time on, is that I quickly figured out I was not the intended audience. Dale was making the effort to debunk things like ‘You can no longer ignore mobile ubiquity’ and ‘You need to take steps to make you data easier to access internally via the web’. While I was sitting there and thinking: ‘Really, does anyone believe that anymore?’, I saw a number of heads nodding as if it was something that needed serious consideration.

Further into the presentation, Dale mentioned a couple of features on the system Z mainframes (regularly used in the industries present) that could be used to enable the above modernization efforts. He off-handedly mentioned that IBM actually introduced the features (like Linux kernel hosting and web server capabilities) several years ago, so the audience no longer had the excuse that they were ‘untested technologies’. It was then I suddenly had that ‘a-ha’ moment – you know, the one where something you hear gets you thinking so hard you accidentally miss the rest of the presentation. Sorry Dale!

The zSeries mainframe itself wasn’t the primary challenge for IBM or anyone in this room. As Dale mentioned, IBM had taken the steps to make the system itself a relatively competitive alternative to midframe and WinServer solutions, based on your needs and requirements. The challenge was the people in the room, or rather, the type of IT Departments they represented.

Let me explain:

In the global and national business market, I think we can all agree that the degree to which business conditions change continues to accelerate. This is especially true in the last few years for the banking and insurance markets. International, national and personal debt matters continue to reverberate across the banking industry. National Health Policy is forcing changes to catch-up from behind, while the public demand for more timely and accurate data in all areas will continue to drive the pace of change for the health care industry. Both of these industries are facing significant pressures to increase their rate of change.

I would argue that most business leaders in these organizations see this happening and are making attempts to react accordingly. Frankly, it’s in their best interest and their jobs are most likely on the chopping block when revenues fall or if they lose share to a market competitor. However, in these two industries in particular, there is a growing gap between those organizations that ‘get it’ and those that are getting further behind. Both internally and externally, the users of IT are demanding more flexibility in how the data is presented, where they can access it and what they can do with it. The message I heard was that many haven’t caught up.

Now, four to five years ago, according to Gartner, some of the blame for the slowness in ‘steering the ship’ could be laid at the feet of their IT framework vendors. This is no longer the case. The gating factor now is not the mainframe itself. The challenge instead is the IT department’s speed of adaptability to new environments and initiatives, causing unnecessary hurdles to the organization’s ability to become (or remain) an agile competitor. This is the classic IT Department of ‘No’.

Ironically, the actions (or inactions) by these IT departments impact not only the organization itself, but also the industry at-large, and so they hurt everyone in the process. How? By perpetuating the reputation of mainframe-based departments as entrenched unyielding places, they actually help reduce the quantity and quality of job seekers.

‘Yeah, right,’ I hear you saying (I have good hearing, just don’t tell my wife). Hang with me here – picture your average 2.3 kid family where both parents now work. As mom or dad come home after a long day’s work and complain about ‘those computer people at the office’ keeping them from getting any work done’ because ‘they denied my request for access’, how many kids want to go into a job their parent talks about with such disdain?  Don’t believe it? If you’re kid is on a sports team, listen to what your fellow parents are complaining about. If you don’t believe those same complaints aren’t happening on days they go straight home, think again. And if you don’t think the kids are listening, think again… again.

Of course, some IT departments are stepping up to address this challenge. They’re leveraging their mainframes to run Linux, consolidating their servers, reducing costs and making their applications web-accessible and more flexible than ever before. One place I heard about is trying to build a ‘SimCity’-like program to figure how people will interact with their doctor in the future. These IT departments are trying to be more responsive to the business needs, and as a result they’re likely more responsive in general. You can bet the parents at those organizations are less likely to complain about what IT didn’t let them do.

Okay, but what about everywhere else? This is where IT-oLogy is such a great initiative and opportunity for all of us. By sharing stories of how they’re leveraging their IT infrastructure and the z Series to do new, agile things, they can help us all find out how cool some of these technologies really are. This helps ‘Grow IT’ by raising the bar for all IT shops with similar architectures. IT-oLogy can also share these stories with our ‘future engineers,’ helping to increase the level of talent that chooses to go into these fields.

So no, maybe we can’t make the mainframe cool overnight, but the mainframe itself isn’t uncool; it’s usually the people and departments that are (or maybe ‘aren’t’) managing it.  By doing everything that analysts like those at Gartner say we need to do anyway, we can make our IT departments more nimble, more responsive to the business and yes, maybe just a little bit cooler.

What do you have to say?   Are you a user of one of those IT shops of ‘No’?  Do you have a ‘cool’ enterprise IT story that you’d like to share?  Am I way off the mark as usual?  Share your thoughts with us below!


Karl McCollester resides in Columbia and is the CEO of Udhaa, a mobile and web application software products company. You can follow his regular blog posts about Information Technology, Agile practices, Gov 2.0, and whatever else comes to mind at his blog or on Twitter: @karlmccollester

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