Thought Leadership: 'De-Sheldonization' - Confronting the Mainframe Culture Challenge

ChrisOMalleyBy Chris O’Malley, CEO at Compuware

The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons has created one of the most entertaining characters on television today — Sheldon Lee Cooper, Ph.D., Sc.D. He is brilliant, isolated and, most of all, stubbornly insistent on always being precisely himself. Much of the show’s comedy derives from the frustration other characters experience because of Sheldon’s intransigent refusal to change.

Mainframe culture is analogous to the show’s Sheldon character in several ways. But the intransigence of that culture is considerably less amusing. In fact, because culture invariably trumps strategy, transformation of that culture may be even more important than technological advancement of the platform.

The Downside of Pride
The mainframe, especially in its current incarnation, is vastly superior to any other computing platform on the planet. It is considerably more powerful, more scalable, more reliable, more secure and more cost-efficient than any of the pieced-together environment enterprises — struggles that public-sector organizations have been dealing with for the past couple of decades. That’s why the world’s largest organizations trust the mainframe alone for their most critical transactions, applications and data.

But even justified pride, as Sheldon so often demonstrates, can be overweening. Sheldon, after all, can learn a thing or two from Penny, who is not nearly his intellectual equal. Similarly, mainframe champions must recognize that the Lean/Agile practices adopted in the distributed world make a lot of sense in today’s fast-paced markets — and that perceived irrelevance represents its own significant category of platform-related risk.

Playing Well with Others
Sheldon doesn’t especially like other people. Likewise, mainframe teams are often disinclined to work closely with the various groups responsible for distributed application development or Hadoop-based Big Data analytics.

Some of this reticence is admittedly justified. It is not unheard of for a poorly written database call to send peak mainframe million server units (MSUs) skyrocketing for no good reason. And it’s tough to trust sensitive mainframe data to data lakes that are inherently non-secure.

But the value that the mainframe (or, more specifically, the unique intellectual property residing on the mainframe in the form of application/transaction logic) delivers to the business is largely contingent on how well it is leveraged in conjunction with other IT resources, including mobile application delivery, open source analytic tools and cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) applications acquired by lines of business. So, while mainframers should certainly be cautious about how these interactions impact platform integrity and security, they must shed cultural resistance in favor of informed advocacy.

Championing Change
This cultural issue of resistance vs. advocacy extends well beyond matters of integration. For too long, mainframe teams have viewed themselves as caretakers of legacy systems, rather than as pro-active leaders of IP advancement. That has to change. In the application economy, competitive advantage (or, as is perhaps more often the case, competitive equity) is increasingly tied to a fast, fertile DevOps process. Any drag on that process is bad for business. Anything that accelerates DevOps, on the other hand, can be very good for the business.

Mainframe teams should not have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this new IT culture. On the contrary, as stewards of their organizations’ core application logic and transactions, mainframe teams are well-positioned to lead the way when it comes to delivering new customer-facing capabilities while effectively minimizing reputational and regulatory risk.

To adopt Lean/Agile development, to more adaptively integrate with non-mainframe IT resources and to otherwise advance the application-related interests of the business, most mainframe teams will need to do some re-tooling. So there’s definitely a technological aspect to mainframe transformation.

But all the technology in the world won’t help without a genuine culture shift. That culture has to be much more centered on innovation and value, rather than defense and recalcitrance. Otherwise, the magnificent smarts of the mainframe will remain ‘Sheldonistically” self-congratulatory and isolated, when they probably need to be more like Leonard, who, for all his insecurity and nerdiness, has nonetheless found romance more than once.


Chris O’Malley is CEO of Compuware. With nearly 30 years of IT experience, he is deeply committed to leading Compuware’s transformation into the “mainframe software company for the next 50 years.” O’Malley’s past positions include CEO of VelociData, CEO of Nimsoft, EVP of CA’s Cloud Products & Solutions and EVP/GM of CA’s mainframe business unit, where he led the successful transformation of that division.

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