Back in my electric fish days I helped my French friend “Bullet” Micheloud develop a computer simulation.

Bullet had laboriously collected sex ratio data on two species of fig wasps (if you like Fig Newtons you don’t want to know – trust me). We ran the simulation on a Texas Instruments programmable calculator because I was a weenie, but not enough of a weenie to use a Hewlett Packard. We based our simulation on the theory of sex ratio selection, and predicted his results pretty well.

Back then we knew the difference between mainframes, minicomputers, and microcomputers: Mainframes had 32 bits, minis had 16 bits, and micros had 8. It was simple, clear, and easy to keep track of.

Now it’s all a matter of opinion, and it’s my opinion that the mainframe is dead, despite the thirty-seven articles you’ve just read declaring “The Big Iron is Back”. It’s IBM that’s back, and you can learn from its strategy … after I put another nail in the mainframe’s coffin.

The mainframe really is dead, and IBM just killed it. It still sells boxes it calls mainframes, but that’s just marketing.

Have you seen these puppies? They’re the size of a big file server. They’re built around a bunch of microprocessors. They include the whole AIX API, according to IBM – in other words, UNIX.

IBM can call this a mainframe if it wants, it can tell me it now runs AIX on its mainframes, and it can repeats its mantra that “the mainframe is just the biggest server on the network”.

Heck, IBM can explain that teenagers from Arcturus get bored on Saturday nights, fly to Earth, make big circles in cornfields, and then laugh hysterically at the stupid Terrans who come to gawk.

It can tell me this all it wants, but that won’t make me believe it.

IBM could have announced that it had ported MVS to its midrange computers instead. It’s all in how you look at it, of course, and if it makes Big Blue happy to call its new superserver a teeny weeny mainframe, well, so be it.

Regardless, we’re all going to wake up one day soon and discover something remarkable. IBM, while we weren’t paying attention but in plain sight, will have transformed its entire product line into a single platform, built around PowerPC technology. All of its boxes will be able to run MVS, AIX, and OS/400, and Windows NT as well.

Who knows? Rhapsody may run on it, too, now that Apple has survived Larry Ellison’s silly takeover idea. (I never could understand why someone who hates the idea of stand-alone PCs as much as Ellison wanted a company that caters to the most rabidly independent PC users on the planet.)

This forecast doesn’t bode well for OS/2, of course, but very little has bade well for OS/2 since IBM took it over from Microsoft.

Now about that career lesson:

Think of the technology marketplace as an employer, and IBM as a corporate executive who took some highly public mis-steps and found his career in the doldrums. It happens in every large company, and it can happen to you.

If you don’t want to find other employment and you do want to resuscitate your career, you can take some lessons from IBM right now. IBM first did everything wrong, announcing semi-annual reorganizations, pricing changes, and a variety of incomprehensible strategies – it was in denial. It has since found the right answer: Great engineering and solid execution. It has started to stick to its knitting so it will have real successes to point to, while the nonsense fades into memory and its rival overplays its hand.

If your career has taken a wrong turn, follow IBM’s current strategy: Stick to your own knitting and amass some clear successes. Ask for a project or problem area to clean up, drop out of sight for awhile, and do a lot of stuff right. Eventually, your own nonsense will fade into memory, and your own rivals will overplay their hands.

There are worse ways to succeed.

An old bit of folk wisdom warns you to be careful what you ask for, because you might get it.

Those of us who have worked in the trenches of PC support have fallen into this trap. Up to our eyeballs in frustration with end-users who want to know no more about how PCs work than they do about their cars, we wish they’d become just a bit more technically literate., and actually want to know about the remarkable technology we’ve put in front of them.

And what do we do when we get our wish? Complain about those irresponsible power users who insist on loading lots of non-standard software packages onto their computers, making support a nightmare while creating huge numbers of undocumented departmental applications we “just know we’re going to be asked to support”.

As the White Queen said in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” So do we, Alice.

So you’re a PC analyst and you think you have problems? Let’s take it up a few levels and see how the same situation plays out at the executive level. CIOs have griped for years that company executives don’t want to understand technology, don’t want to know about it, don’t view it as a strategic resource, and don’t want to understand why IS costs so much. We’ve begged senior executives to become more technically literate.

Well guess what, sports fans … we got our wish. According to a recent A.T. Kearney survey, the vast majority of CEOs feel comfortable dealing with technology issues, most have a working knowledge of the ones in use within their companies, and nearly half spend up to a half day each week learning about “relevant technologies”.

Life just isn’t fair. After years of CIOs believing business knowledge is more important than technical literacy, along come these “Power-User Executives” (PUEs) running in the opposite direction. (And does this mean an EIS must sport a PUE GUI?)

I’m guessing quite a few companies have PUEs with a better handle on how technology can advance their business strategy than their Technically Illiterate CIO (TICIO).

PC analysts can give TICIOs some good advice on how to handle this challenge.

When a PC analyst interacts with a power user, the analyst has to simultaneously respect the power user’s knowledge – business and technical – and to demonstrate dimensions of expertise beyond what the power user knows. “What you’re doing with Excel is really very good,” you might say. “Have you considered converting it to Access? This looks like it would work even better as a database. You could turn it into something that’s really cool, and that the whole department could share.”

CIOs need to do the same thing with PUEs. Respect their insights and knowledge of technology: “You’re right – Domino would be a great tool to help us communicate more effectively with our business partners. Projects like these get complicated in three areas: figuring out the intercorporate networking, agreeing on content responsibilities across the two separate company structures, and actually changing everyone’s behavior so they use it. Let’s start pulling a team together to look at how to make it happen.”

You have to both acknowledge your user’s expertise and extend it. Otherwise you’re just a bottleneck, getting between executives and the resources they need to get their projects done. And they’ll wonder how you can be leading IS when they know more than you do about technology.

Everyone in leadership manages relationships in four directions: up (to the boss), down (to staff), left (to service recipients), and right (to peers). Most of us master only two of these. If you’re focused on career advancement, you usually look up and to the right. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to actually succeed at your job you look down and left.

As CEOs gain sophisticated understanding of technology, the technically illiterate CIO will find him or herself trapped in a shrinking circle of organizational irrelevance, creating no value in any direction.