And what is wrong with my mainframe?
“And what is wrong with my mainframe?” asked the CTO.
The CTO who had asked for a meeting with you.
You, the representative of the cloud-native, microservice-oriented, real-time capability.
Nothing, man. Nothing’s wrong with your mainframe.
A lot is wrong with your attitude though.
The attitude that is, to be fair to this non-imaginary CTO, rather prevalent across the industry. The attitude that says, ‘You are presenting me with a lot of things to learn, a lot of decisions to make in a short period of time and on the back of incomplete information, most of which I am yet to learn and I resent you for it.’
‘I may know it’s not personal, this situation you are putting me in, but it’s personal to me, because here I am representing a big organisation but really I am Tim, or John or Debbie and it’s as me that I have to make those decisions. Those decisions that will impact the organisation I represent in ways I can’t even fathom.’
This attitude is fed by being between a rock and a hard place. We get it. We know it’s not personal. We know it’s a combination of stress, anxiety, an impossibly difficult job and pressures from every direction resulting in a brusque attitude and a wee bit of cynicism.
A little bit of aggression. A little bit of mockery.
We are used to it.
Those of us championing ideas inside the bank… those of us driving change inside the industry alongside the bank. We’ve been at the receiving end of it for so long it barely registers any more.
Meanwhile, the very same CTO (or his cousin, Helen – whatever, you know what I mean) is bragging to the press about their AI capabilities. Even though you know and he knows that all they have managed is a team of folks messing around with SPSS.
And it is the very same CTO who gets a beating from the regulator for still having crumbling COBOL-based systems he neither designed nor chose and yet, having inherited them, they are his problem and the regulator sees the organisation he represents but the difficult meeting is not had by the corporate. It’s had by Richard or Becky or Mike. It’s not personal. And yet.
It’s the very same CTO who has a vast estate and each day holds a new surprise of a weird and wonderful ‘workaround’ someone somewhere owned up to… or didn’t own up to and has since left the organisation and it was discovered, after falling over, by someone baffled and unable to answer any questions as to why this is here and what it is meant to achieve and what we should be doing instead… and meanwhile that other project trying to simplify how many enterprise licenses of each system we seem to have keeps bumping up against every other ‘lights on’ initiative while the business is trying to push on ahead and be competitive…
I get why the CTO may be a little testy when they come into the meeting with you to talk about all the things they know they have to do but frankly they barely have the time, energy, budget or mental fortitude right now to chart a path from the this they are inheriting to the that you are describing.
That’s the meeting we are used to.
And it’s not just the CTO. It’s their team, trained to prepare the ground for him, coming into prep meetings aggressive and ready-armed with a list of questions to disqualify you. Not qualify you.
And if you disappoint by having credible answers to all their questions, they come up with new questions or challenge your answers not on the basis of ‘getting a bit deeper’ but rather in the hope that you will trip and make it easier for them to say no and have one less thing to worry about right now.
It’s their compliance team and their procurement team and their legal team and their product team coming in trying to find reasons why not because frankly there’s only so much headspace and they know their starting point hamstrings them. Plus they know what their boss is like and what holes he will poke into whatever they bring back.
They know the score.
They come into the meeting ready-loaded to take away from the meeting something that will be useful to them back in the context of their work and their life. It’s not an abstract, open-ended conversation. It never is.
I’ve been that guy. Try as I might to not be that guy, I have been that guy. And I have sat opposite that guy. Many a time. And I get it. I actually don’t begrudge the angry banker any of this. I get it. In many ways it’s my job to help the guy navigate this. Because that’s the exam question for all of us: how to get from here to there, from this to that. Together.
It’s not always fun, I will give you that. But it’s what it is.
And we do it.
But sometimes, some blessed, rare and wonderful times, that’s not how the meeting goes.
Sometimes, you go into a conversation ready with your bulletproof patter: the compact and tight ‘pitch’ of what it is you do and what it is you believe in, honed to a water-tight resilience after many an underhanded and slightly irrelevant attack. But no matter, you learn. You learn and learn and refine and now can pitch your story, whatever it is, pre-empting 99.9% of known ballistics.
And sometimes, some rare and wonderful times, you don’t get an attack.
Instead, as you start speaking, you see the CTO giving his architect a side glance. You see them leaning forward. You see their questions bubbling up and their smiles widen. You see recognition in their eyes. You see your tribe.
That’s not when you make the sale, by the way.
The sale will take a long, long time and entail a lot of the types of folks described above.
There are some times when you go into a meeting expecting the usual resistance and find kindred spirits instead. You find people who rejoice in the help you can give them through the work you’ve been doing all this time. Who stare into the work they still need to do and don’t blame you for it. They don’t blame anyone for it. They are just grateful they get to do it and you are here to help.
You won’t have this meeting often.
But cherish it when you do.
And then help those folks go back to the farm and explain to their CTO that there’s nothing wrong with his mainframes… per se… but maybe we should stare into another way of doing things?
Another question to ask?
Since we are where we are and there is no choice about that and we have to move forward one way or another.
And maybe, just maybe, there is a better way of doing what we all agree must be done.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem. She is chief client officer at 10x Future Technologies.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!