A DevOps fanatic, a Mainframe Sales Engineer, and an Octogenarian Professor of Creative Innovation meet at a potluck..

This weekend I had a wonderful experience living the divide that Rob Hirschfeld spells out in great detail on his blog http://robhirschfeld.com/tag/digital-natives/

I was at a Pot-Luck dinner with 40 or so families, most of them well into retirement age. The only other person seemingly in their 40s I also over-heard talking about technology. I started chatting with him. It turns out that he works for IBM, and his main task, as he so animatedly pointed out to me, was to convince companies to STAY on mainframes. He did this, he excited explained, not by disproving the fact that COBOL can be run well on x86 boxes. Rather, it’s the complicated integration points of these systems with other internal and external systems that will cause the customers to incur massive business downtime and costs. He smiled broadly saying, “they’re never leaving the mainframe.” So I asked him, what if their business radically changes?

It seems a lot of folks are missing the boat on the fact that business is in a revolutionary period. Agile has spread beyond the world of softare, and Lean has made its way out of manufacturing and the shop floor, to the datacenter and beyond. GE is changing the way they do business, and they’re promoting that they can rid themselves of old rigid business processes that cause their lead times to be so vast. With competitors creating similar products at lower prices with less lead time, every business needs to re-think their business process, manage the bottlenecks, and sell the right goods to the right customers, right when they want it.

This Industrial Revolution 2.0 is nothing that the mainframe model is setup to do. And that’s where the Professor of Creative Innovation comes into the story. As the IBM guy swore to me that “it will be another 10 years and we’ll be having exactly the same conversation,” the Octogenarian Professor from RPI laughed out loud. He told us that he’s seeing the future of materials, manufacturing, and technology right before his eyes every semester. He’s challenging his excited students to solve problems by finding creative solutions. His students turn to nature, often, for inspiration. And they mimic natural, not traditionally mechanical processes, to solve the most frustrating questions of our material and mechanical world. Finally, these products are not being sold off as patents to GE or IBM. They’re building businesses right here in our area to produce them and their offshoot business.

Great innovation no longer comes from within the hallowed halls of a GE or a Bell Labs. Innovation is happening from the open collaboration of disparate experts, all with different yet overlapping incentives. Great students no longer go off for a job at GE. They start their own businesses, have the lifestyles they want, and change the world.

GE, for their part, undestands this and is doing everything possible to make its processes, systems, and factories more agile, nible, and ready to respond to quickly shifting markets, hungry for greater innovation in ecoloical benefit, lower energy use, greater or more appropriate processing, better performance, or completely novel creations. Can the very siloed world of the mainframe survive, if a mainframe user is stuck in it with only very specially trained technologists and captured by old integration points? Where is the ease and freedom and creativity there? I don’t think businesses will be able to survive with that level of rigidity. The flexible will flourish! I’m off to the Professor’s classes this week to check out what folks are building anew!

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