Gen Xers
September 1, 2016 Workforce

Why Gen X Is Responsible for Mainframe Innovation

At the turn of the century, two massive computing items dominated headlines: the Internet and Y2K. People anticipated dot-com progress and feared worldwide system crashes.

Given my options as a Gen Xer—joining the baby boomers in their world-saving tasks of the mainframe or spending the early days of my career evolving the art of non-mainframe development and innovation—I bolted for the Internet.

But avoiding the dark recesses of IT where the mainframe lived didn’t make it go away—it always seemed to creep up behind us non-mainframe Gen Xers, interfering with our faster pace of progress. People tried rewriting it, outsourcing it, but the mainframe didn’t disappear—it only fell farther behind, which made it more burdensome.

Today, as baby boomers retire and Millennials follow shiny web, mobile and cloud development, Gen Xers are being tasked with responsibility for the mainframe. By now, we know we can’t replace the mainframe, or ignore it, or avoid it. It’s time to take steps to accelerate mainframe innovation and encourage Millennials to become the next stewards of the platform.

Why? Because the mainframe is vital to digital transformation—96 of the world’s top 100 banks, 23 of the 25 top U.S. retailers, and 9 out of 10 of the world’s largest insurance companies run System z. And the new IBM z13 is a computing marvel.

But mainframe workforce attrition is exposing a wide skills and knowledge gap between current mainframe developers and Millennials, leaving the mainframe vulnerable to continued apathy.

Relinquish Old Ideas

The most obvious reason for mainframe apathy is that the platform is often considered old. Its outdated culture, processes and tools—like the notorious ISPF (“the” mainframe interface)—create a massive disinclination for Millennials to enter the mainframe workforce. But how so? What does it mean to say the “green screen” looks and feels old?

How about, limited to a 48×80 view. Can you make it bigger? Oh yes, you can go to the massive scale of 80×160! Read the manual and get a “modern” emulator. Read a 1,000-line source file? Prepare to page down. Mouse? No way. Better be ready to use the keyboard. Touch screen? Nope. Colors? Green and black, red and yellow if you’re lucky. Forget about an icon. Want to do two things at once? Prepare to open another connection. Or split screen! Oh, you’ll need to know the secret “PF key” combinations to find things or be productive. Selecting an option from a dropdown? Forget about it. You need to know the option to type in.

You might be pretty good at all of this if you’ve been typing it into the same screen for 35 years. But accepting the status quo isn’t a tenet of the Gen X culture any more than are wearing a tie to work every day, tall-walled cube farms, and processes that value Gantt charts or massive requirements docs over creating things end users love.

We certainly don’t need to accept the lingering outdated aspects of the mainframe for what they are either. To overcome them we must promote learning.

Drive Mainframe Innovation for Millennials

Millennials have grown up learning on the Internet, eschewing constant instruction from others. Instead of fumbling through 100-page manuals, Millennials play around with technology and Google examples from others on the Internet.

Millennials aren’t afraid to use command lines and text utilities. They’re afraid of becoming the grumpy neighbor they grew up next to. The guy who tells them not to run on his lawn, that they need to learn the hard way like he did when he was a kid and walked uphill to and from school. The guy that tells them they have to use ISPF instead of Eclipse.

Forcing Millennials to adopt old tools for mainframe development is the path to doom, and it needs to be altered by Gen Xers. We need to help Millennials feel comfortable with mainframe development by providing them with familiar tools and processes.

Some in this industry have openly declared, “Give me ‘green screen’ or give me death.” But we can’t let that inhibit our duty to modernize mainframe tools for the sake of the world, which relies on mainframes to run.

Let’s kill this idea of forcing Millennials to continue mainframe development with outdated processes and tools. Once and for all, bury ISPF and celebrate the new day of the mainframe.

Save the Mainframe, Save the World

Gen Xers are now in the position of their parents, confronted with a new challenge. This time it won’t be the length of a year field that threatens the world’s economy. This time it’s the stigma of working on a mainframe.

Gen Xers must be the ones leading a new generation of workers who can drive the machines that literally keep the gears of the world turning. Today’s employment challenges are a fight for talent that can drive innovation.

Gen Xers need to realize the difference they can make in mitigating the mainframe skills shortage by making the mainframe appeal to Millennials. The decisions Gen Xers make will be critical to the future of the mainframe, and Millennials.

What mark do we want to leave on the world?

In my next blog I’ll discuss how Gen X leaders can take a Millennial perspective to ensure their mainframe environments are set up with modern development tools next-gen developers need to be successful on the mainframe, regardless of their platform experience or skill levels.