IT Management

IT Management:  The Mainframe Game

Ever wonder why people started using non-mainframe platforms when the mainframe was clearly the most functional option for production computing? We’ve heard people espouse convenience and petty cash-affordability. But I’d like to offer another perspective: The other platforms were more fun.

Let’s admit it; the mainframe is a serious, production-oriented computing platform that’s tightly bound by rules and practices that keep the most important organizations on Earth running. And, while early mainframe users may have played with a few primitive programs that could be called “games,” it didn’t take long to weed out that behavior from the mainframe culture.

“Green screens”—3270s and such—were another example of this. Those of us who are used to green screens are often quite efficient with them—just like people who were efficient with command-line interaction could get things done faster using straight TSO rather than with ISPF.

This is reminiscent of the definition of “legacy” as “it works!” The downside of this was a dearth of innovations to make mainframe workflow simpler and more intuitive, even though it would have helped everyone to be more productive, whether seasoned experts or new mainframers.

But the human element always finds a way, so when mainframe environments became so business-and-results-focused that they seemed to stop adapting to the human side of things, people looked for “fun” on other platforms. And they got it: graphical interaction, Web browsing, presentation software, even solitaire.

If you’ve been around for a while, you probably remember what a perk and status symbol it was initially to have a PC with an emulator on your desk instead of a coax-attached terminal.

Today, the graphical environments we work with are part of the basic context that younger generations (aka “digital natives”) have grown up with. These young folks have no idea why they should have to use simplistic, text-based environments that make you responsible for remembering and connecting all the disparate things you’re doing.

In other words, today’s new IT professionals want to interact with their work environment in the same way they do with their video games and handheld entertainment devices. They want it to be graphical, intuitive, responsive, adaptive, and integrated. They want it to enable them to focus on what they’re trying to achieve, instead of spending all their time trying to keep track of all the threads of how to get the job done.

That’s asking a lot of the most serious business computing environment in the world. After all, I’m not simply talking about slapping a GUI in front of CICS and ISPF applications. Rather, I’m talking about redefining how you work with the mainframe so it enables you to just do your job, rather than perpetually challenging you to figure out how to do it, while remembering every detail, both at the time of the task and for future reference.

In fact, I’m talking about interacting with the mainframe as if you were playing a game. This is actually a serious and important paradigm shift that’s critical if we’re going to properly staff the mainframe in the future.

This was brought to my attention recently while chatting with a couple of HR folks who were tasked with hiring new mainframers for an environment that had very strict rules about matters such as roles and compensation. As we discussed their challenges, including the fact the key current mainframers in this environment would be retiring within two years, and that the company couldn’t afford to hire anyone with mainframe experience, it became clear they needed to identify people with the aptitude and interest to become mainframers and then get them trained and mentored to take on significant responsibilities within two years.

But here’s the thing: The people who are retiring have decades of experience, and the new generation won’t even have five years under their belts before they take on the well-being of their organization. If they also were getting used to all the seriously obscure, unique, customized and counterintuitive aspects of a traditional mainframe environment, I’d be very concerned for the well-being of the organization they’ll be supporting.

That’s why I say it’s time to make the mainframe work environment fun and intuitive. In other words, the way to win the mainframe game is to play!