Heroes of IT: Who is Keeping the Economy Going?

Not so long ago, I attended an IT conference. I always find it interesting to hear about the latest technology and tuning tips, get a glimpse of the (near) future and see analysts standing up to share their long term vision with the audience. Some readers may find this surprising, but IT conferences are actually worthwhile and entertaining events. You will be even more surprised when I tell you this was an EMEA mainframe conference.

When I looked around, however, during one of the keynote sessions, I could not help noticing that quite a few of the attendees were working on their laptops and seemed to be otherwise occupied. I moved around a bit to try and see what they were doing (I know, not a decent thing to do, but I was intrigued), and, to my surprise, many of them were working. And by working, I mean they were connected to their data center and they were actually working on their mainframe.

I knew some of them from other encounters and during the rest of the conference I chatted with them to figure out what was so important that they had to work during the conference. And the responses were almost unanimous; even though they were allowed to attend the conference, their management asked them to be available in case of an emergency. And there were quite a few: production systems suddenly experiencing bad response times, applications failing because of a fix that was not properly tested and in one case, a major problem with the production database that basically stopped the company from operating. Many of them also told me that they were used to this and often took their laptops with them on short breaks and were often asked to log on during the weekend to work on problems. Even during the breaks of the conference, when some of them visited  our  (vendor) booth, they didn’t use the time to chat and find out about what’s new and exciting (which is what you would expect), they worked with our technical staff on some real problems they had back home.

It became clear to me that this was something that had emerged in the past few years. The budget cuts in IT really hit mainframe departments in the worst possible way and the combination of a reduced workforce and the fact that, slowly but steadily, more and more mainframers are retiring, has put a lot of pressure on those that are left to keep things running smoothly. At the same time, during my conversations with these mainframers, it was clear that they took pride in the fact that they were doing this. They understood that the impact of a failing mainframe system could literally bring the company to its knees, and they felt a responsibility to do whatever possible to prevent that.

On the other hand, they made it clear that many of these interventions were necessary because there are simply less staff maintaining the mainframe these days. And that has lead to the constant firefighting that they have to do to keep the production system up and running.

A few weeks after the conference, I attended a meeting with IT architects. Some of the architects present were from the same companies as the folks I spoke about earlier. Many of the discussions were very high level and focused mainly on the different forms of cloud services, virtualization and other technologies and how they had to deal with that. Never, during any of the discussions I heard, were concerns raised about the fact that their employers were spending a large amount of their IT budgets on keeping the existing systems up, let alone about the people who did all that in their spare time and during conferences.

It felt as if they had no interest in looking back to some of their existing applications to try and see how they could be managed more efficiently.

Somehow, a divide in IT seems to have emerged. On the one end, there are those who seem to mainly focus on the “new”. They get all the attention because they are working on the systems of the future and decide on all the new and sexy stuff. Cloud or no cloud, Apple apps or Android apps, new protocols, etc. And let’s be honest, for each of these things, it is not even sure how much they will cost, let alone if they will help the company to make more money or become more competitive.

On the other end, there are the people who work with the “old”. They go through loops and holes to try and keep all the applications running with fewer and fewer staff and with ever shrinking budgets. And because of that, they often have to work as firefighters, running from one issue to another to try and keep everybody happy. They never seem to get the compliments, but they are the ones that run the applications that have proven to be critical for the company. This is even more true for people working on mainframes. They have the added “benefit” of working on a platform that many don’t even know still exists, but that at the same time still quietly and efficiently serves many of the new and modern applications with “legacy data”…

All this made me realize that the true heroes in IT are often those people that we never hear about. The IT folks who do what is necessary, with pride and passion. And especially those who have managed the mainframes that many companies still rely on. I am not asking for a “Secretary’s Day” for mainframers, just some recognition once in a while of all the essential tasks that they perform, and maybe even, on a sunny day, a small compliment.

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