Marc Smith on Educating a New Generation of Mainframers
Reg Harbeck talks with Marc Smith about how he educates and trains high school and college students on mainframe technology.
By Reg Harbeck06/04/2020
Marc Smith: Well, Reg, I started back with IBM back in 1979 and made it to about '82 before I actually joined the mainframe team working for VM development, actually did the migration or, excuse me, the debug guide for the VM migration aid when they were moving to VM/ESA. And from there, I had to do that for a year, then they promised me a position within the organization and I took one in the project office which is basically what they called project management at the time. I did the project management for several releases of VM/HPO. Back in, I think it was 1989, they moved the mission to Endicott from Kingston, New York, where I started. I joined the early support team, ESP team, where we ran some early support programs with VM and some new hardware that was coming out. Then I went into some VM marketing, the VM marketing team in the Glendale lab there in Endicott, took a sabbatical down to Boca Raton to work on OS/2 for a short period of time, got moved from Boca to Austin, Texas where I live today. I was eager to get away from those itty-bitty machines in OS/2 and move back into the mainframe.
Reg: Now, my impression has always been that OS/2 is the closest thing to a real operating system that the PC ever had. Having been right in the middle of OS/2, what are your thoughts about you know the relative quality of OS/2 compared to other offerings on the PC, but also in terms of its IBM heritage?
Marc: Well, that's a good question, Reg. I mean, I think most of the customers that had OS/2 that were business-oriented customers were quite pleased with the quality of the operating system. They definitely preferred it over Microsoft Windows at the time, and unfortunately, you know, it just didn't last in the marketplace. No longer being with IBM, because I did retire in 2012, I can say that I don't think they put enough resources into the marketing of it, to the consumer as well as the investing in the ISVs to build their applications to run on it so that's kind of where it went. When it started going downhill, I jumped ship, like I said, and came back to the big iron.
Reg: Well, it's sort of, if I may make a pun, a bit of the big irony that one of the things that the PC revolution taught IBM, even though they were in so many ways one of the originators of it, was that their core competence is as a business to business company and they could let other companies be consumer companies. It sounds like you were right in the middle of them discovering that.
Marc: Absolutely, absolutely. It's funny you talk about that because as you know I go out and I talk about IT's best kept secret–
Marc: Which is the mainframe, to students both high school and college students around Austin and other places. In fact, here at SHARE, I visited with SMU, 14 students at SMU, and I do University of Dallas tomorrow but the point is is that I asked the students last night, how many of you knew about IBM? Most of them knew about IBM, knew who we were or they are. But when I asked how many of you are familiar with the mainframe, not one hand went up.
Marc: Not one hand went up and even when I talk to high school students, it's usually 90%– and this is in Austin Texas where there is a lab–90% of the students never heard of IBM, right, which goes back to the fact that they're a business to business company now and not a consumer. There's no consumer presence at all. I recounted last night to the students that I used to go into Sam's Club and I'd buy a box of printer paper; it had IBM all over it right so when, you know, not only don't they have printer paper that's logo'ed anymore but obviously they don't sell the PCs –
Marc: And other consumer goods that would have–
Marc: Exactly. Typewriters, yeah. You're dating yourself.
Reg: Yeah, so that said, somewhere along the way you discovered that there was a need for a new generation on the mainframe. My guess is that you and I made the discovery around the same time. I know I wrote my white paper in 2004 and I think you were already pretty active in working to develop a new generation at that point as well, weren't you?
Marc: Actually, I think I came along a little after you. I think in 2007, I was in New York City when we rolled out the IBM Destination Z web community, right?
Marc: At that point, I had been working a little bit with some of the folks who were rolling out training and visibility to the youth, just before the Academic Initiative was put into place.
Marc: It was called something else which escapes my mind at the moment, but I did get involved around 2006-2007 with the Academic Initiative, became a university ambassador for IBM. I went to various places in Houston, Dallas, and Austin and San Antonio and San Marcos, Texas to try and recruit colleges to start picking up mainframe curriculum and so I kind of got my start doing that. Then around that time, there was a conference coming to Austin and I was thinking about this. I said, you know, IBM at that time was moving real mainframes, usually business class machine, but sometimes the big one depending what the launch cycle was around the country to the SHARE and TechU's and the System Z universities, whatever we called them over time, and I thought about it. I said, if these machines are going to be in various locations, we should be bringing students in to see the technology, talk to the vendors and the people who run on these things to make them aware that this is out there. Going back to the lack of visibility of IBM to the youth, this is one way of introducing them to an environment that they had no idea existed, right? So I started, for years, I was coordinating bringing in students, both high school and college students, to these events, trying to recruit colleges, like I said, through the Academic Initiative.
Reg: And I remember you also asked zNextGen'ers to co-present with you when you set things up at SHARE.
Marc: Absolutely I did, had some great conversations. I even tried to get an IBM exec to come and introduce the session, depending on their availability of course, so it's kind of like been a passion of mine. Even after I retired in 2012 from IBM after 33 years, I'm still out there doing this because I've got Z in my blood, and I did retire a little young. It kind of keeps me within the community. It keeps me excited about going out and talking to the students about IT's best kept secret, something they've never seen.
Reg: Well and this is–I mean, one of your best kept secrets, which fortunately is not that secret, and is becoming more and more well known, is this presentation you've put together and crafted up so that on the one hand, you're willing to go out and present it online or in person so many places, but you're sharing with other people and encouraging them to present it as well.
Marc: Absolutely. Absolutely, and any of your listeners here that are listening to this, I encourage you to take a look at it. In fact, I just talked to the IBM System magazine folks and they're going to–
Marc: They're going to work with me to post it.
Marc: And in the January/February edition of the magazine is an article I wrote about–
Marc: You know, bringing in new blood into the mainframe community.
Reg: Now of course, after you retired from IBM, you didn't just go out on your own. You've been so active in the community. You've also been working with key organizations about education such as ProTech. How did that happen?
Marc: Well, it was pretty funny, because my Facebook page was spoofed.
Marc: And basically, Scott McFall who is the vice president of ProTech, somehow, we had become friends on Facebook and he alerted me to the fact that he thought I was spoofed. We talked a little bit about it. I got on the phone with him and we talked a little about it. He said hey, why don't you come and help us talk to clients in Texas?
Marc: Because you know how to speak IBM Z®, right. It's a language all its own, of course, and I decided to join them and see what I could do to help them out getting to reconnect with some of their clients that they used to have in Texas.
Reg: Now with all this other stuff going on, you've achieved a few other things. One of them that I've sort of been highlighting recently is this wonderful program that IBM has now for really active mainframers. The mainframe Champion as part of the great IBM Champion program, the IBM Z Champion. And you've been an IBM Z Champion. You are right now. Tell us about that journey.
Marc: Well, it was one of those things like everybody else I was unaware of it, and one day I was talking to one of the Academic Initiative contacts at IBM who I've always stayed in touch with. I basically always approach them every year and say hey, let's make sure my pitch is up to date in terms of the technology and some pictures and things. They mentioned the Champion program and said here's a link. I went ahead and nominated myself, which I thought was funny.
Reg: Well, and you know I interviewed Teresa about this and I said well, should people consider nominating themselves? and she said yes, please do. You know when you look at how much they ask you, you know not many people know that much about another person–
Reg: So, it makes a lot of sense to do that and since you're an ex-IBM'er you're eligible.
Marc: Right. You cannot be an IBM'er and be an IBM Champion but since I'm an ex-IBM'er I was eligible and sure enough. It was really mostly my forte and the basis for my nomination was going out to schools and pitching this pitch, keeping it up to date and evangelizing it the best I could.
Reg: Hmm. Well, it's made a big difference. Now what are your thoughts about where we're going now with the future of the mainframe in the workforce and obviously you know they say the best way to predict the future is to make it happen and you're doing that but given that you know if you were as effective as you possibly could be and have the result you wanted, what do you see happening over the next few decades on the mainframe and our workforce?
Marc: Well, you know, I'm not tied directly in with IBM anymore in terms of the technology and the strategies and stuff so–
Marc: You know I would really–for me to tell you to give you a prediction would be just that, a prediction.
Reg: Okay, fair enough.
Marc: But from my perspective, from what I'm seen, I think it's going to be around for a long time. The students I talk to, after they pick their jaws up off the table–
Marc: After hearing about this opportunity that they never knew about, because their teachers, their professors at the schools they're at just either aren't believers or are just naïve–
Marc: About what's out there, so I think it's going to be around for a long time with the latest technologies again going back. Because I'm an ex-IBMer, I can divulge the fact that I was very happy that they finally changed the footprint of the system.
Reg: Oh, yeah. I call that the Cinderella footprint.
Marc: The Cinderella footprint. The question is, why didn't they do that ten years ago?
Marc: Right, so?
Reg: Now suddenly, it fits on one tile like any other rack system. It's amazing.
Marc: It's just amazing that it took us this long–or took them. I say us. You know, I still wear an IBM hat at times.
Marc: Especially when I'm talking to the students because I tell I'm representing IBM as a retiree.
Reg: Well, you're an emeritus.
Marc: There you go. There's a better word for it. There's a better word for it.
Reg: So that said, you know, maybe as we sort of look for some closing thoughts. What are some other things you wanted to share with everyone just to have them keeping in mind?
Marc: You know, again, my thing here is really obviously training. If you need professional training, come see ProTech, ProTech training but I really want to make sure that folks know that my presentation is available, encourage them to go out and pitch to their local high schools or their alma mater.
Reg: And how can people contact you?
Marc: They can reach me through by email, obviously.
Reg: And maybe spell that for them because your spelling is unique.
Marc: Okay. I'm going to give you my ProTech ID, because obviously they're sponsoring me and supporting me in this effort as well, and that would firstname.lastname@example.org. M-S-M-I-T-H at P-R-O-T-E-C-H-T-R-A-I-N-I-N-G.com.
Reg: Perfect. Well, Marc, this has been really enjoyable and interesting. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Marc: You're very welcome.
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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