Talking Mainframe at the Compuware Customer Advisory Council
Overview: Leading companies got together in Detroit recently for the Compuware Customer Advisory Council. The feedback was fantastic, but the real magic happened when the technical leads opened up and began sharing.
Compuware recently held its Customer Advisory Council at the brand new Shinola Hotel in Detroit. With more than 60 technical leads representing over 20 companies it was a rare opportunity for us to present and get feedback on our future directions. But, as often is the case, the most interesting conversations occurred when the 60 technical leads start talking among themselves.
Mainframe discussions tend towards the existential. With the mainframe being about as far from being the shiny new thing as possible, mainframe technologists have to fight for a seat at the table. This requires a lot of hard bark since the recent history of the mainframe at many of these organizations involves benign neglect and sunk-cost attitudes. But the tide is turning.
Some common threads emerged. One shared challenge is that their industries are in disruption. Companies with mainframes tend be in very traditional businesses: banking, finance, retail, insurance and government. These industries represent the lion’s share of worldwide GDP and are prime candidates for disruption. New companies, both startups and established, are coming into these industries with expertise seeped in software. These new companies are betting they can learn the ins and outs of the industry before the traditional companies can learn the ins and outs of rapid software delivery. They view innovation as their competitive advantage.
Another shared challenge involves evangelizing to the C-level. Most executives are aware when their industry is being challenged with new competitors, but often the reaction is to double down on cost cutting, even if the result is sacrificing some market space. This is exactly the opening these new companies are looking for, best explained by Clay Christensen and his philosophy of disruptive innovation. But fighting this attitude requires constant diligence.
Finally, a more grass-roots challenge is getting and growing a mainframe talent base. The demographics of COBOL programmers are daunting, and schools are not rushing in to fill that vacuum. Instead, companies must use non-traditional strategies to fill these positions.
Despite these headwinds, traditional mainframe-based companies are not without their advantages, if they can leverage them. First and foremost, they have a strong understanding of their customers. And, customer needs are stable over time – they will never stop wanting experiences that amaze and delight regardless of industry (read what the world’s biggest disrupter Jeff Bezos recently said about customer needs). Winners will emerge and the primary differentiator will be obsession with customer satisfaction.
Another advantage is data. In today’s world data is king and these companies have unmatched historical data around their customers. They know what initiatives worked with their customers and what initiatives didn’t work; they know where customers spend their time on their site; they have accrued history on their customers. This is their opportunity to tap into that historical data, unavailable to these companies new to the industry, all to maximize the value returned to their customers.
Finally, COBOL provides an interesting challenge. The language is esoteric (although not difficult) but it is also highly connected to IBM mainframes. Possibly more than any other high-level programming language, COBOL is specifically tuned to be highly performant with IBM z/Series hardware. This is not an advantage to be taken lightly; quick response time is one of those customer requirements that remain stable over time.
New Reality; New Opportunities
Disruption is the new reality; there will be winners and losers. The crux of this competition will be how well the existing mainframe companies use their advantages to thwart the disruption challenges from emerging companies. These decisions are up to each individual company, building their specific go-forward strategy. The companies that joined us at the Compuware Customer Advisory Council are in the what business; deciding strategy to best serve their customers and defend/increase their business.
Compuware is not in the what business, we’re in the how business. We’re intensely focused on providing these mainframe companies capabilities to innovate quickly while reducing risks, to entice the best and brightest to the mainframe, to reinvent and reinvigorate the mainframe.
But I think both Compuware and our customers walked away from this customer council with a common understanding, with the same confidence that this can be accomplished, and the same go-forward attitude. Let’s do this!