Thought Leadership: The Business Value of Staying in Business

By Reg Harbeck

As mainframers, we all seem to "preach to the choir," saving our best inspirational and motivational thoughts about the mainframe to share with other mainframers who already get it. After all, who wants to spend time trying to convince their organization’s CEO or CFO the value of the mainframe? Either they’ll ignore you, give your supervisor heck because you dared to approach them directly, or worst of all, they’ll promote you into a position where you can do something about it and then promote you out of that position before you finish the task.

So, here you are: Well into your mainframe career and you’ve seen it all. You and other experienced mainframers can practically recite a litany of complaints by heart, which is the same litany that every other experienced mainframer hears: "Management doesn’t get our value; they cut and cut until there’s no way to move forward; all the new money goes into platforms that are all sizzle and no steak. I would have retired already if I could afford it."

Then, one day, you get a surprise phone call from your boss: The CEO and CFO have randomly chosen to take you for coffee and pick your brain about what’s good and what could be better with the organization, and they’re especially interested in learning about the mainframe!

As you pick your jaw up off the floor, you begin to think about what you can tell them to help them see what a treasure they have in keeping your organization alive. Of course, your coworkers and bosses have some definite ideas about what to say and what not to say. The future of our department depends on you not messing up; we all deserve really big raises, more people, a new generation, Linux and IFLs, and getting all of our security and other software up to date. Don’t tell them it’s obsolete!

The discussion day arrives and the coffee must go on.

The executives like their coffees in nice places; it’s private, pleasant and you can easily hear each other but other patrons can’t overhear you. Time for introductions. So far, you’ve been on your guard. Your breathing is shallow, your mind is almost blank, but the conversation is friendly, and they’re both great listeners. You feel yourself starting to get comfortable sharing what matters. Then this happens: Inspiration strikes as you begin the story.

“Today, I get to share one of the biggest secrets in the world with you. It’s a powerful secret that has kept us in business for decades and the only reason it’s a secret is because the squeaky wheels get all the grease. Today, I’m going to tell you about the engine that keeps our organization running — almost nobody knows about it — but it is essential for you to understand in order to maximize the value you bring in your jobs.”

Wow! The attention and respect on their faces shows they’re really listening. You proceed:

“Did you know that our organization was a pioneer in business computing? Only the most advanced organizations with deep vision and budgets to match could afford to get into the computing business in the 1960s and 70s, and we were there! By the 1980s, when PCs and UNIX were starting to show up, we already had a solid, deeply rooted investment in our IBM mainframe that worked so well that people began to ignore it — except for those of us who kept it working — running our most important business on it. We had many people assigned to work with this one excellent computer, keeping the technology current, keeping it secure and disaster-ready, and maintaining and enhancing the applications that keep the money coming in.

“Straight through the 1980s, 1990s, Y2K, the 21st century, the present and for the long-term foreseeable future, our mainframe is the most advanced, secure and reliable information technology that we own. If you turned it off, all of our most important applications would stop working — even the ones that you access through Windows, UNIX, Linux, Apple and the web! But it has never happened because our mainframe is so reliable that we never have to worry about the impact it would have on our business if it begins failing.

“Ask yourself: What are our most important lines of business? I promise you, we couldn’t run any of them without our mainframe, and we can’t move their most important processing off our mainframe, because no other computing platform can be trusted to do what we take for granted on ours.

“Now, one more thing I want to tell you: The sky’s the limit for how much more we can do with our mainframe. You can do cloud computing on it; you can develop new applications entirely on the mainframe without using any other platform; and the incremental cost of adding new workloads to our mainframe is a tiny fraction of the cost of buying all new distributed computing equipment to service new applications. The security, availability and reliability of our mainframe is vastly better than any other platform out there.”

Suddenly you realize that you’ve been talking non-stop and your audience has forgotten to touch their coffees as they stare at you wide-eyed. “Uh, anyway, that’s our mainframe, and it’s the best technology that has ever happened to us and the best that ever will. It costs less than anything else for the work it does, and it is the ultimate platform for profitable new business activities. I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Any questions?”

After everyone takes a breath, the CFO and CEO start asking questions about the history, technology, cost, staffing, security, reliability and disaster readiness of the mainframe. Then they both sit back against their seats and look lost in thought for the next five minutes.

When they finally return to reality, they sincerely thank you for taking the time to share everything so compellingly. You graciously accept their appreciation, excuse yourself and then go somewhere to decompress and recover.

That is how you saved the future of your organization!

Reg Harbeck is a self-described "mainframe nerd" who has been working in IT and mainframes for more than a quarter century. During that time, he has worked with operating systems, networks, computing security, middleware, applications and platforms ranging from Apple ][+ and MS-DOS PCs to leading-edge IBM z System Mainframes. Harbeck has written, presented and consulted on mainframe-related matters around the world, visiting every continent except Antarctica (so far…) and is very involved in the mainframe culture and ecosystem, particularly with SHARE, zNextGen and SECurity projects. In 2011, Harbeck also co-founded Mainframe Analytics ltd., where he is the chief strategist.

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