The Future runs on IBM Z – The Mainframe And The Story Of The Starlings And The Cherry Tree

Once upon a time there was a cherry tree full of delicious cherries. The owner was proud of his tree. It was the best tree with the most and tastiest cherries in the entire area and he intended to pick this abundance of cherries and sell them for a reasonable price. One day a large group of starlings landed in the tree and began to eat the cherries. The owner saw a sharp decrease in
the number of cherries and feared that he would have to sell the few cherries that remained for a price that would be far too high. So he decided to do something about it, walked to the tree and clapped his hands very hard. This caused the necessary commotion. Suddenly a lot happened and everything started moving. The starlings panicked, all flew away and left the cherries alone. The
commotion had created the desired effect and the cherries bloomed like never before. The owner reached his goal, was satisfied and continued with his daily activities …….. Until the day that all starlings came back and continued to eat the cherries. Everything started all over again and it seemed as if nothing had happened at all.

What does this story have to do with the mainframe?

A few years ago I talked to a young guy. He had a non-mainframe background and got the chance to work with the mainframe. At some point in time the guy desperately raised his hands into the sky, saying “Please IBM, I beg you, make this platform normal!”.

And that is exactly what IBM is doing right now! The mainframe is evolving at an incredible speed. The mainframe is opening up and
integrating into a hybrid cloud environment in a way that makes it completely transparent … Or, from that young guy’s perspective, the mainframe is becoming a normal platform.

The mainframe is in the phase where the owner just walked to the cherry tree full with starlings and clapped his hands. All the
starlings are in the air right now. A lot is happening and everything is moving. But how do you prevent that all starlings come back and everything starts all over again as if nothing happened?

Innovation is high, but are organizations ready for that?

Innovating the mainframe alone is not enough. In order to make this a success, companies and people using the mainframe need to adopt innovation as well.

And that’s not easy in large, established organizations. Such organizations have an aversion to uncertainty and risks and are designed for
incremental rather than radical innovation. The focus is much more on the short term than on the future.

Innovation comes with uncertainties. It is new for a company in terms of knowledge, technology, risk, time and financial resources. And that is fully in conflict with what the organization is meant for. Also innovation needs flexibility and room to manoeuvre while most of these organizations are casted in concrete by an abundance of rigid procedures. 

Innovative people working in such a large, established organization often got hit very hard by these conflicts. Typically innovative people are loyal, show commitment and are very passionate about the work they do. They are often respected by their colleagues because of their knowledge. Innovators come up with new creative ideas, take full advantage of opportunities and push for change. In order to be successful, they need to think differently and they need to find uncommon solutions. Innovators need flexibility, speed and above all room to manoeuvre.

Organizations that do not properly support innovations run a high risk of innovative activities being planned, prioritized and formalized in a way that feels familiar to an organization.
True, old habits die hard, but when you step into the trap of old habits, it means that every innovative initiative is killed by the organization. Innovations will take years to implement and by that time the innovation has already become legacy. Because enormous amounts of money, time and people are spent on this ‘innovation’, an organization runs the risk of being locked into the chosen solution and used tools. The organization just replaced their old legacy by new legacy and still is unable to act in an agile way. In fact the organization is back to scratch. 

Old habits will gradually take over again, causing the starlings return to the cherry tree as if nothing had happened.

Make room for innovation!

·     The organization must encourage people to act as innovators and therefore offer an continuous stream of opportunities to try, experience and learn for change, renewal and innovation.

·    Innovators need their own environment (sandbox) to have flexibility, speed and room to manoeuvre, without the obligation to follow
the rigid routines and protocols that the organization has established itself. Reducing the hierarchy and bureaucracy is crucial to make and keep innovation viable.

·    Innovation cannot be created from a vacuum. Even if companies support and encourage innovative thinking, resources for this must
still be provided in one way or another.

·     Confucius said it already: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”. Large organizations tend to make
things big while the motto for innovation should be: “Keep it simple”!

Innovative projects that take a long time should sound the alarm and you should ask yourself whether you are still on the right track
or whether you are on the track of just replacing old legacy by new legacy that eventually will bring you back to zero.

·     “Keep it simple” is also true for the people working on innovation. Keep those teams small. I’ve seen innovative teams of just 2-4 persons in an organization with tens of thousands employees handling all the innovation with great success and at an incredible speed. Just because they got the trust of the organization and the flexibility and room to manoeuvre. On the other hand I also witnessed innovative teams that started small but grow exponentially falling into the trap of old habits and killing every innovative initiative.

Innovative people are particularly those employees who are able to see the opportunity. In my experience those type of people are not that widely spread within an organization. So keeping an innovative team small should not be that hard to do.

Another advantage of keeping the team small is that resources that has to be provided can be kept relatively small and manageable.

·    Innovators do not have to develop plans for funding but of course they can’t operate on an island. They do what they do for the benefit of the organization they work for. So innovators need to be supported by people that can recognize and promote the commercial value of new ideas, people that can monitor the process of implementation of these ideas. People that can support the innovator with their broad experience in conducting projects, corporate politics and professional knowledge.

·     Large, established organizations tend to forget that innovative people are important for a company. They are often creative, talented and above all dedicated. They may not want to go into business for themselves or go work for another company, but they still have a hunger to use their talents and the desire to receive recognition for their contributions.

·    And last but not least. No innovation is possible without real support and interest of top management. A passive approval for innovation is not enough.


Keeping the innovations apart from the regular projects also enables an organization to quickly and iteratively check whether a longer term project still meets the latest innovations. If not you have the ability to quickly react and adjust if needed. That way you can stay agile.


So, make sure that mainframe organizations and mainframe users do not become the main enemy of the mainframe and set up your organization for innovation.
Think big, but keep it simple. Take small steps in order to stay agile. Don’t fall into the trap of old habits and keep the starlings out of the cherry tree!

Harry van Irsel has more than 30 years of experience in IT, specialized in mainframe innovation, architecting and engineering. He has a strong vision on innovation and is always motivated to find innovative solutions for addressing emerging needs of the organization or enhance existing services.
Propagating vision and belief in the mainframe in a constructive and objective way combined with the passion to combine traditional and modern technologies to produce the “best-of-both-world solution” resulted in winning several Innovation Awards.

Harry is also 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 IBM Champion for innovative thought leadership in the technical community

“Views expressed in this article are my own”.