IT Management

Let me be perfectly vague by intentionally withholding the names of two companies I want to tell you about.

Many years ago, I was approached by a large technology vendor that wanted to lure customers away from the mainframe. For several years, this vendor had successfully sold its proprietary midrange computer, so they decided to test the waters in the high-end market. 

I suspected they were already aware their technology couldn’t compete head-to-head with the mainframe. A significant problem at the time was the scarcity of employees with mainframe experience, so most of the company’s customer-facing personnel were ill-equipped and risked losing credibility every time an inquisitive prospect challenged a claim. Heaven forbid a prospect ask for comparisons of functions or features between platforms, or even comparable references! 

At the time, I was teaching a seminar series that became popular with IT managers because it made them savvy enough about technology to detect when others around them were blowing smoke. The series was called the Technical Awareness Series for Managers (TAMS) and it explained basic concepts and terminology sufficiently for IT managers to hold their own in a conversation with techies—both staff and vendors.  

This vendor hired me to modify TAMS slightly and teach a five-day, live-lecture session to approximately 25 people in a recording studio. The agreement allowed for them to subsequently use the videos worldwide to train their technical personnel working in the field. I can only imagine how boring it must have been to watch those tapes. I later learned they named the project “The Mainframe Killer” and they had already bagged a billion dollars of revenue, so they were “riding high.”

Having become familiar with this vendor, I also picked up some tidbits along the way regarding their sales strategy:  

  • Sell high by targeting execs rather than IT managers
  • Create a team of all-star closers (your best and brightest) and send them in when the deal needs that final push 
  • Don’t waste the all-stars’ time when that prospect makes that one dreaded request—asks for a functional comparison with the mainframe.

As this vendor’s high-end product line has evolved (UNIX has been added to the mix), additional mainframe killer assaults have been organized every few years.

Here’s the experience from one of their larger customers who was looking to save big bucks by getting off the mainframe. 

Original plans: To replace a central mainframe system with a distributed solution. The objectives were to improve customer service, to dramatically lower IT costs, and most important, to handle the increased business volumes expected in this era of takeovers/mergers and booming financial

services business.

Unanticipated problems: The vendor’s advice was to implement a small pilot application in some smaller locations to get users comfortable with the new systems. This pilot supported only five or six users maximum and implementation went well. Application enhancements followed, as did expanded use in larger locations, but scalability wasn’t linear. To support 12 users took four times the capacity, and 50 users took 25 times capacity compared to the pilot system. The application couldn’t achieve 100 users. It was apparent the planned business growth could never be handled with this solution and they had learned their business was already centralized. The annual cost estimate for the distributed application was initially predicted to be 60 percent less compared to the mainframe but the cost quickly grew to more than three times the mainframe.

Project outcome: After squandering $100 million, the project was scrapped with no applications retained and mainframe capacity was increased to handle the growth in  workloads. All they had to show for spending $100 million was the knowledge that this vendor’s alleged alternative didn’t really scale like the mainframe.

Please let me know how your experiences compare.