The issue isn’t the mainframe, it’s the mindset

Today’s Cloud Smart policy, built upon the Obama administration’s Cloud First policy, was one of the most important government IT documents of 2019. It included several important changes, one of which was the inclusion of application rationalization, which mandated agencies comprehensively review their application portfolios and make informed, strategic decisions about when, how and where to migrate them to the cloud.

While many agencies are eager to show quick wins on policy changes, I have, unfortunately, seen several instances where the mainframe continues to be a victim of collateral damage. Although Cloud Smart advocates are tasked with taking methodical, fact-based approaches to choosing platforms, many senior-level government IT executives are expressing interest and intent to migrate critical workloads off their mainframes and onto less performant cloud solutions without looking at similar private-sector use cases.

What’s going on in industry enterprises? Recent research shows that as the number of transactional workloads continues to rise, the mainframe’s strategic relevance has only increased, demonstrating the value of a platform that remains unbeatable in reliability, security and transactional performance efficiency. IBM, for example, is responding to this market need with new mainframe models, while a new breed of feature-rich agile/DevOps software is emerging that helps IT teams quickly and continuously develop and deliver high-quality mainframe applications.  

So why are some in government senior IT leadership ignoring this?  In my discussions with these executives, I have encountered three mindsets toward the mainframe: close-minded, apathetic and uninformed.  IT managers who find they must change their boss’ mind about the mainframe’s value can focus on igniting the decision-maker’s inner “true technologist” -- someone who is platform-agnostic and focused deploying the code and platforms that can be best leveraged to reliably and securely serve citizens. Senior IT leaders often don’t have time to dig into all details, so educating them, while being concise and deferential, is critical.  

Close minded: When asked about the wisdom of moving off the mainframe, close-minded senior IT leaders will likely respond, “There’s nothing you can tell me that will change my mind.” Their perceptions are deeply influenced by past experiences, and they may be looking for evidence to support their decision to move to the cloud.

The key with this group is to consistently relay the facts, including how their counterparts in the private sector do not share their opinion and are not following suit. According to BMC’s 2019 Mainframe Survey of more than 1,100 executives and IT professionals across industries:

  • 93% believe in the combined long-term and new workload strength of the platform, the highest level of confidence since 2013. 
  • 52% believe the mainframe will support growth in new workloads -- a significant increase from past years and a sign of IT and business confidence.
  • 59% of executives recognize the mainframe as a platform for growth -- an increase from 51% in 2018.

It’s important, however, to not pile on facts and statistics. Finding the ideal communication path for sharing information, one that resonates, is key. For example, conduct research into the decision-makers’ career paths and appeal to their interests. Are they engineers? Have they spent time in a private-sector security-focused industry like insurance? Present them with the types of information to which they will be most open. 

Apathetic: We can’t necessarily blame some senior IT leaders for becoming apathetic. With almost every election, there’s a change in direction, such as the move from Cloud First to Cloud Smart. “Why bother working hard to make changes when initiatives get squashed or redirected anyway?” they think. Apathetic bosses assume they’ll eventually move off the mainframe anyway, so why bother modernizing it?  In these departments, the mainframe just languishes in a silo -- a surefire recipe for disaster, especially as greater numbers of transactional web applications come to rely on the mainframe.

I’ve found the best communication path for these types of decision-makers is inspiration. This means helping them understand the work their team is doing on the mainframe is valued. Inspiring also means introducing them to new technologies and environments that will help the team modernize their mainframes, allowing mainframe development to keep up with the pace of other platforms.

Uninformed: The uninformed decision-makers tend to be the easiest and most reasonable to work with because they are like blank slates. Unlike the close-minded and the apathetic, the uninformed are often open to learning (although they can be fearful of change) and it’s not hard to ignite their desire to explore.

The best communication path for this group will be via their preferred mode for receiving information, whether independent studies, trade publications, social media, face-to-face interactions or something else. Leverage these vehicles -- for example, passing along a compelling customer case study that highlights the success that others are having with their mainframes. Another key to winning over the uninformed is to keep communications consistent and always keep decision-makers engaged so they don’t fall back into old routines.

Perhaps some senior government IT leaders are preoccupied by the latest shiny and new technology, having been barraged with cloud marketing hype over the last decade. Perhaps they have the wrong information. Maybe they are just unaware of the massive failures of many large organizations that have tried to migrate off the mainframe.

But the fact is that moving off this critical platform -- or in some cases, a failure to modernize it -- will in most cases only result in make-work for IT without solving any critical problems. Let’s move forward and continue striving to tap into senior leaders’ “true technologists” -- those who are constantly searching for ways to leverage the platforms and technologies that have proved successful in private industry. 

About the Author

Claire Bailey is the director, Federal, State and Local Solutions, Compuware.


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