opinion: The Case for a Fresh Technical Opinion
A few years back I came across a mainframe site that had a way of regularly
refreshing the ideas of their systems programming group. This group consisted
mainly of permanent staff who had been there for many years, and knew the systems
inside out. To inject new ideas and opinions this site used contractors, but
not in the usual way. Every year or two, these contractors were replaced. So
someone fresh would regularly come and work with their systems.
Mainframe staff have a hard time. The mainframe has undergone many changes
over the past few years that they are expected to keep up with. There are regular
new software releases that not only need to be installed, but have new functions
that may or may not be of benefit.
Anyone with an outsourced mainframe is in a worse position. Their software
levels may be up to date, but the chances are that many new features aren't
being implemented: either because it's not in the outsourcer's contract, or
staff simply don't know about them.
In mainframe systems, there's also a tendency to be wary of new technology.
The toleration for any mainframe outage ranges from low to none, a hard ask
for mainframe support staff. So it's common to delay the implementation of newly
introduced functions for a couple of years to let them settle down before throwing
them into production systems. PDSEs are a classic example of why this isn't
a bad idea.
This means that today there are probably lots of new features that are available
for free, but not used in your systems. These may make things run more efficiently,
remove the need for home grown utilities and exits, or even remove the need
for other software. I'm always amazed when I see a z/OS sysplex that doesn't
use Enhanced Catalog Sharing, or haven't moved their JES2 checkpoint dataset
onto their coupling facility: two innovations that are now over a decade old.
But the advantages of a fresh opinion don't stop there. There are many different
ways to skin a mainframe cat. With a fresh opinion, you get someone who has
taken that cat skin in different ways. For example I was recently at a site
that had written their own system in C. Running as a started task, it had become
part of the core systems, and as such was doing a whole lot of work. Their programmer
had spent a lot of time tuning this system, and squeezing the best performance
he could. And it ran very well. I sat down for about six hours, and found areas
that would improve performance by 15%. This doesn't mean that I was smarter.
I just had a different skill-set and experience, and saw different opportunities.
In the past conferences such as Share were a great way for existing staff
to get exposure to new ideas. Presentations about user experiences with new
or not-so-new features, and vendors showing how to get more from their products
were a gold mine of information. However it can get more difficult to justify
the education expenses to send technical staff to these conferences, and they
are being scheduled less and less frequently.
Conferences only provide some of the benefit. Having someone else actually
looking at your system, and asking "why are you doing this", or "have you thought
about doing that" is the real benefit. A fresh pair of eyes looking at your
So having a fresh contractor working at your site can be a great idea. But
for most sites this simply isn't viable. Any new hires have to be approved by
management and HR departments. If you get this approval, finding a contractor
with the skills and experience you need is no easy task. When you do find one,
the chances are that you won't want to lose them. For those with outsourced
systems, contractors often aren't an option at all.
A consultant is great alternative. But let's face it. The chances are that
you won't be able to justify bringing in a consultant merely to do a health
check of your system, no matter how good an idea this is.
But what if the consultant is hired to do another project? Then you have that
elusive, invaluable fresh technical opinion right there. Funding an extra day
or so to let this consultant look around can provide no end of benefits.
Think about a fresh technical opinion.