5 ways to improve morale for employees managing the mainframe

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Research says that a lot of employees are unhappy, a dissatisfaction which surely includes mainframe computing. So why are mainframers so unhappy, and what can be done to improve satisfaction?


According to Gallup, 70% of employees describe themselves as "disengaged" from their work. The Washington Post reports that only 13% of people actually enjoy going to work, and Forbes found that unhappy employees outnumber happy ones two-to-one.

As a mainframer myself, I belong to a number of organizations and groups that focus on this technology. And when I read message boards, websites, magazines, and blogs about big iron, one theme always comes through loud and clear: my peers are overwhelmingly negative about their jobs. Of course, all of us have bad days at work, and Internet forums are great places to blow off steam. But the dissatisfaction is more fundamental, and more profound, than just virtual water-cooler chatter.

It's possible that that mainframers perceive a fundamental lack of respect, even within their own organizations. Everyone knows what Web programmers, database engineers, and IT support folks do, and they're grateful for their work. In contrast, mainframe teams tend to work in the background and are often treated as "those people." If the 80's teen science movie Real Genius took place in a modern corporation, Val Kilmer would be on the mobile team and creepy Laszlo, living in the basement, would be running the mainframe.

One of the reasons for this is that corporate leaders like things that are shiny and new. That's why the 26-year-old kid who knows Drupal probably gets more face time with the top brass than someone who has spent 30 years managing a mainframe-based system that never breaks down. Unfortunately, mainframes rarely get the recognition they deserve, and neither do the people who work on them. No wonder I read so many comments on message boards from mainframers who fundamentally believe that "no one cares."

It's time to stop crying, put away the tissues, and fix the problem. Here are five things that I believe can help mainframers learn to love their jobs again. The good news is that all of these are inexpensive (or free), and easy to implement.

Get top management involved and informed

Chances are that the suits in the corner office really don't know what role the mainframe plays in their own organizations. In many cases they see it as a commodity – like the parking garage or the company cafeteria, it's just there. By getting in front of senior-level decision-makers, IT teams can change the perception of mainframes. Wouldn't it be great if the CEO knew that, "our mainframe hasn't had a minute of downtime since 1987" and that "mainframes allow us to provide the most reliable service in the industry"?

Quantify the benefits of mainframes

All of us who work with big iron know that it is one of the most cost-effective platforms ever invented - but we're lousy at proving it. Mainframers who want to increase their profile should find creative ways to use metrics like ROI and TCO to prove the bottom-line value of what they're doing. There's no better way to get respect than that!

Changing cost structures

In a lot of companies, mainframes are considered a shared cost, and therefore they wear a huge target during budget planning. By changing this to be more in line with non-mainframe platforms, teams would be able to compete on a fair footing with other technologies when it comes to budgeting and assessments.

Budget for growth

One of the reasons that many mainframers are disillusioned is that they feel that their budgets are slipped in a more general category rather than having their own identity. By dis-inter-mediating from the "other" pool on the ledge sheet, mainframe teams can show the tangible benefits of their work to the people who matter (i.e. the people who give out raises, promotions, and awards).

Skills development

As we move on in our careers, a lot of us get stuck in the technologies that we already know. By offering free training to mainframers on new languages like Perl, PHP, Python, forward-thinking companies can help their engineers stay ahead of the curve and increase the feeling of relevancy within organizations.

Of course, bigger things might be needed to increase job satisfaction. I'm still holding out for a George Clooney/Cameron Diaz big-screen thriller called Big Iron, featuring a team of renegade mainframers saving the world from terrorists, earthquakes, aliens, asteroids AND dinosaurs at the same time. In the final scene, as the protagonists are being given a ticker-tape parade down Broadway, their boss (played by Denzel Washington, because by law he has to be in every movie), turns to Clooney and says, "I'm thinking about giving you an office with windows."

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