Marlaina Chirdon on Assembler, IBM Z User Groups and zNextGen
Reg Harbeck talks with Marlaina Chirdon about Assembler, helpful IBM Z user groups that facilitate key knowledge and why zNextGen has been important to her mainframe journey.
By Reg Harbeck01/02/2020
Marlaina Chirdon: Sure, so I graduated from University of Pittsburgh in 2009 and I went to a job fair. CA Technologies had a booth there and they were looking for associate software engineers. My Assembler background seemed of interest to them and I kind of thought that they were joking that they were looking for Assembler programmers but they were very serious and they offered an eight-week training course with I think there was 25 other entry-level applicants from across the world so I was interested in the training course because I had an internship and they kind of just threw you on a project. There was no real on boarding or training available so I was really interested in the 25 people in a classroom setting all getting trained the same way so that's how I got into the mainframe.
Reg: Now of course you and I first met at SHARE when you just recently joined CA. How did you—I think if I recall correctly it was SHARE in Boston. Does that sound right to you?
Reg: How did you end up at SHARE?
Marlaina: Luckily for me one of the-one of the ASE members in my class already knew about SHARE and already knew about zNextGen and was working in the industry for a while. Well he had the whole group attend the zNextGen call where they introduced SHARE so I kind of pushed my management to attending SHARE because I wanted to get more involved in the zNextGen group which ultimately they did and I was able to go to SHARE Boston in 2009.
Reg: That's pretty cool. Now you mentioned Assembler and that's sort of interesting. Obviously one of the most valuable and somewhat rare skills even in the world of mainframe is Assembler programmers but you said you already knew Assembler before you started on the mainframe?
Marlaina: Yes. The University of Pittsburgh had a two-year mandatory course in Assembler. I think they used it to weed out the students that weren’t really serious about computer science.
Reg: Cool. So then you ended up working in Assembler at CA Technologies working on a number of the famous Pittsburgh mainframe products if I understand correctly beginning with MIM. Is that right?
Marlaina: Yes. I worked on MIM which is a competitor to GRS. We did very low-level operating system serialization event queues and tape drives so I started on that. I worked there for about four years and then they switched me to OPS/MVS which is an automation product. I was still in Assembler but I was able to write a little bit more in Rexx.
Reg: Now Rexx as anybody who knows me knows it is my favorite language. How do you feel about the differences between Assembler and Rexx and how much you enjoy each of them?
Marlaina: Well I love Rexx because you can get a lot done and it's a very easy language to pick up but there are some things that require the tenacity of Assembler to really get performance or optimize what you are doing so I see the benefits to both.
Reg: Now as somebody who is a very deep techie of course, you also had some really great technical mentoring at CA I understand. Are there any particular aspects of that you’d like to highlight?
Marlaina: Yes so part of the training, they gave two mentors, a business mentor and a technical mentor so I utilized both of them often. I met with my technical mentor every week and my business mentor every other week. My business mentor was a woman. She was pretty high in the hierarchy of CA but she was able to go through different business dealings or high-level architecture or any questions I had regarding stuff on a professional development level and then of courses my technical mentor was able to go through coding candors and more of the bits and bytes if you will.
Reg: Of course that business mentor is the mentor you and I share, Jeanette Stroud, who is a good friend and somebody who really helped me when I worked at CA as well. Of course you have continued that in some ways not only getting additional mentors but also doing some mentoring yourself. You've even recently mentored my wife who is just an early mainframer and learning computing security. Of course you didn't start in computing security. How did you end up in that field?
Marlaina: Well like I said, I started on the mainframe low-level architecture so I've always been interested in security even you know from a higher level like a hacking or Kali Linux level so whenever I got to SHARE I was introduced to like Philip Young and Chad Rikansrud who kind of expanded from a mainframe infrastructure to a whole enterprise-wide infrastructure for security and that really got me interested in what mainframe does in terms of security. So I was introduced to Vanguard Integrity Professionals who does a lot of compliance and pen testing on the mainframe so I ended up accepting a position with them about five years into my career.
Reg: Cool. Now being in a career for a little while on the mainframe now I'm sure you have encountered some interesting obstacles and opportunities. What are some of the challenges you've encountered and how you have dealt with them?
Marlaina: I think the challenge for me was you know sometimes, in any field I presume, you get kind of stagnant in the day to day operations and you need to kind of find a spark of passion or just excitement within your day to day stuff so I found that going to SHARE or other conferences and even user groups helped me like keep the passion and keep interested in new technologies and different subject areas.
Reg: I understand also in your personal life you've got come aspects that are complimentary to your development including a very strong fitness practice, some of the cross fit and that sort of stuff. How does that kind of all work into your journey forward?
Marlaina: I think just tackling any large project whether it be fitness or a development goal—you kind of have to look at it and break it down into smaller pieces to make it more manageable. If you look at some huge product idea, it kind of feels overwhelming at first, but if you break it down into logical steps that are much more accomplishable in a shorter time, you gain momentum and confidence. You're able to accomplish those little steps which eventually lead up to the bigger picture.
Reg: That makes sense. Of course one of the other big pictures things that I know you've been working on recently is developing your ability to do public speaking both presenting at SHARE and also getting involved with Toastmasters. How has that become part of your journey?
Marlaina: Right so I love attending SHARE and through Vanguard I was able to attend DEF CON and different women's conferences. So they want you to be able to present your ideas and you know present on behalf of your company and I was terrified of public speaking for so long. I ended up joining Toastmasters to kind of practice giving speeches or it might not even be a speech. It might be just like an elevator pitch or presenting your ideas to a small user group but I found that going to Toastmasters in a non-technical setting really helped develop my confidence there.
Reg: Now I sense, knowing that you are a person who really sets and achieves goals, that you've probably got some neat ideas both about the future of your own career and the future of the mainframe ecosystem generally. What are your thoughts on those areas?
Marlaina: Yeah, I definitely want to bring mainframe to like the enterprise-wide security platform like as I mentioned before I know Phil and Chad do DEF CON and Black Hat conferences. I believe they are hit or miss. I know the one I attended, there was standing room only and the whole room was packed and then others they are empty so I really want to bring the mainframe to them and show that, yes, it is the most secure platform if you secure it properly.
Reg: Right. Okay. Any other thoughts about the state or future of the mainframe ecosystem or how you'd like to make changes in it?
Marlaina: Well I'm very interested in the open-source platform. I'm really interested in doing plug-ins to bring the mainframe to auditors and to these industry-wide pen testers to give them the information to be able to work in their own environment and still see mainframe data. So I think for me, doing security and compliance, that's kind of where my focus is in, really learning the technology on the other side to do the pen testing from a whole network perspective into the mainframe, into the CICS application and tracing it back. I think that would be so cool.
Reg: Cool. Well it's been really interesting. Thank you Marlaina. Any last thoughts you wanted to share?
Marlaina: No. I just think it's really important to find different groups or people that inspire you to like try new things or think outside the box, do innovation on your own, so zNextGen has been that platform for me on the mainframe. I found lots of meet ups, technical group meet ups in all of these different cities where you go and you just learn new things all the time. I think that's really important.
Reg: Well thank you very much Marlaina. It's been a pleasure.
Marlaina: Thank you.
Reg Harbeck is a mainframe enthusiast who has worked IT and mainframes for over three decades. He's the chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics ltd.
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