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Matt Deres on Nursing, Music and the Humanity of the Mainframe

Reg Harbeck talks with Matt Deres about his background in nursing and rock and roll, and how his experiences help his career in the mainframe.

Reg Harbeck: Hi. This is Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with Matt Deres, who is the CIO of Rocket Software. Matt, tell us how did you end up being CIO at Rocket?
 
Matt Deres: That's a great question. So, I worked in a number of mid-sized companies mostly related to financial services but they were all technology companies. They wrote software for them and they were all these billion-dollar companies that had grown through acquisition and they really had just a mess in their backyard where they never really paid attention to all the technology debt and things that they had around acquisition integrations and everything else. What I was looking for in my next opportunity is one where I could take a roll in a company to do a few things. One is a slightly smaller business that I could help grow and influence how it might take shape and how it might deal with acquisition debt before it happens, but then also how I can help shape the company, be a member of the leadership team, and be a champion for IT services in a company that actually sells software other IT organizations.
 
Reg: Cool. Now of course, one of the common threads through all of these interviews I do is I'm interviewing mainframers, so that therefore must mean that you have some mainframe responsibilities, but you sort of came at them from a somewhat different approach. What's the nature of your mainframe responsibilities right now?
 
Matt: So today I've got a group of about 17 folks who look after mainframe for developers at Rocket. Rocket Software has about 900 folks that connect to mainframe on a daily basis and so my teams actually are the ones who are responsible for the care and the feeding and engineering of the mainframes for those developers.
 
Reg: Now is this the first mainframe job you've had, or have you done mainframe at your previous positions as well?
 
Matt: In previous companies, I’ve certainly had to help manage teams that were responsible for mainframes. I worked for a large global scientific manufacturer that had a number of mainframes in different areas of their business as well as stock transfer agency that had a mainframe from an acquisition that they had. We unfortunately moved away from it to an OpenVMS platform but nonetheless I still had some responsibilities managing those teams.
 
Reg: Okay. Now my sense is then that youre experience with dealing with mainframe is primarily dealing with mainframers in strategic matters. Is that a good evaluation?
 
Matt: Absolutely, yes.
 
Reg: Now I understand that your journey to doing that has involved some really people-oriented activities, everything from nursing to rock and roll. How did that all come together?
 
Matt: My family kind of called me the lost child for a while. I looked to actually become a musician when I was younger and I had a number of different jobs in music. I was a performing musician in a band. I worked as an educator of instruments for elementary schools for about a year. My family had a medical background, and so when I was leaving high school, I was looking to go off to Berkley College of Music, but my family was strongly encouraging me to have a plan B first before exploring a career in music, so I had gone to nursing school at the time. Of course, that wasn't necessarily my passion so after completing nursing school, I worked in a couple of other odd jobs in the hospital including working in X-ray. I did autopsies for a number of years as well –
 
Reg: Oh.
 
Matt: It’s a fun job but when I was still touring as a musician, working as musician, you know we were trying to really push the band to become much bigger than it was and so we took jobs. A couple of members of the band and I took jobs working for some companies that did catering for rock and roll shows and for movie sets, and so in the summer times we would leave, go, and travel around the US with the bands and with the backstage crew and do catering for all the crew and all the bands wherever they might be. Or if there was a movie being filmed in the areas where we lived, we would do all the catering for all those movies as well so it disrupted that path of working 9-5 in a hospital. After a couple of those summers, I stopped and the band actually broke up unfortunately, so I ended up having to just take the job that I could, which was driving a truck for Yankee Candle Company. Eventually, my friends were taking pity on me to say, you know you really you should get a real job again, and that's how they helped me to get a job in computers working in a capital company for Fidelity systems. And the rest is, as they say, history.
 
Reg: Now, you know you've given me so many gems to work with here. Anybody who knows me knows I love a good play on words and I have to say that one of the important things a CIO should be good at is postmortems. Do you find there's a connection in there?
 
Matt: Oh, absolutely. I pull on a lot of different things I learned in school between how to approach a problem in a postmortem; there's a very rigid process that you go through and I think one of the most interesting things I learned in a hospital is that when you're learning a new skill, and I think in technology you're almost always learning a new skill, they have a three step process. You see it; you do it; you teach it right. And so, when I did my first autopsy, I sat in a room and a guy took me through the entire process. Then the very next day I did one on my own while he watched me, and the very next day, I had to teach him how I was doing it.
 
Reg: Wow.
 
Matt: By following that three-step process, you actually reinforce those skills in your mind in such a way that if you can tell somebody how to do something, then you really do understand that process. Today, when going through new technologies or new things you are trying to learn, I encourage people that work for me to do the same process. It really helps to make those things stick a lot faster.
 
Reg: Okay, cool. Now of course, being somebody who's a bit of a rock and roll fan, there's one other connection I mentioned to you in talking about the beforehand. I can say, if you do an autopsy that really honors the deceased you might call that creating a Grateful Dead. I understand you actually are a fan of that particular band. Do you see any connection there?
 
Matt: Yeah, absolutely yeah. I've seen the Dead a number of times before in the 90s. I actually got to see Jerry Garcia in November of 1993 in Albany which was a real treat before he died. Yeah, but I think if you can follow something that you love, you'll definitely put a lot of time, effort, and energy into it and I see that with music, with bands that I appreciate and even the work that I do today.
 
Reg: Now, one of the things that you know I really respect about having that nursing background that you have is just how deeply human it is. But there’s also something that's really deeply human that you referred to in another occupation and that's breaking bread with people. I understand you've had the opportunity to break bread and perhaps liquid beer – what do they call it, liquid bread as well, and other beverages with some pretty high-profile rock and rollers.
 
Matt: Absolutely yeah. I've had the good fortunate to cook for a good number of bands, Iggy Pop, Reverend Horton Heat, the Nixons, Sponge, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It's fun because you go in the morning, you do all your work, you set everything up and you get to cook dinner before the show actually starts, so you get to sit back stage and watch the concerts. There's really not a better place to watch a concert than from backstage. You can really see very much up close how things are going on, and then afterwards absolutely. I mean, the bands would come back. You'd have a beer with them from time to time and there were a couple of bands like the Bloodhound Gang where we'd sit and have a meal with them, which is always a good time.
 
Reg: Very cool. Now taking all of that, that nursing background, that socializing and breaking bread with high profile people, and all of that and bring that into a role as CIO at a pretty visible mainframe and other software company, how do you see that human connection? Just to give you an insight into my journey, like one of the things I'm doing is I'm finishing my master's thesis about the humanity of the mainframe. For me that whole issue of bringing together technology and humanity as more than just a GUI you know is so important, and I'd really be interested in your thoughts about how to do that well.
 
Matt: You know, it's people that actually use mainframes, and it’s people that use computers in general, but you know mainframes are delivering services that are critical to people's survival and that's never more evident as it is today. If you think about the numbers of unemployment claims that are being processed, and those are almost always being processed through a mainframe system. In this call throughout the network of people to come and try to bring life back to some of the older applications that are being run on these mainframe systems, but it's being done in the name of actually trying to help people. It’s not an automated process where if you say go mainframe, go program an application; it's somebody doing that and you're going to take care of that person. Because the other thing about a mainframe is that if you're not necessarily helping a human service, you're probably doing some other thing that is a critical business process that really helps keep a business alive, whether it's issuing millions of telephone bills for some large telecommunications provider or if it's maintaining credit card transactions for some very large bank. Those are things that are critical to the operation of that business, and you really want the people that are operating that system and care, feeding that system, and modernizing that system to be in tune with what the business is doing. You have to have this mutual relationship with each other. If you're going to care for your thing that runs your business, you need to take of them; you want them to be happy; you want them to understand how your business works.
 
Reg: That is so important. I know for me, having worked with a number of companies that do mainframe software, it's easy to forget that those companies that create mainframe software have to have their own mainframe infrastructure. That's a special part of the organization. I know some of my favorite people in places I've worked in, including people I'm still friends with, have been the people who kept the mainframe alive and well. How do you ensure there's a strong connection between the people who are writing and maintaining mainframe software at your company and the people who are in your organization who are keeping those mainframes meeting the needs of those people?
 
Matt: That's a great question. I think in life, if you don't understand your customer and what drives your customer, then you're not going to be a very good provider. I think one of the things that I've – people that have worked for me in the past is that in IT today, outside of the mainframe especially there's a number of people who can do your job for you, right? There's no reason why a company these days has to have open system server administrators, because you can just get your servers from Amazon. There's no reason for you to have people to support your CRM system or ERP system because there's lots of people that do that, and so the way that you stay employed in a company is if you keep your IT organization-relevant. The way that you keep relevant is if you understand your consumers of your services and really try to treat everything that you do as a service that you'd want to take and provide a very good service for right. So, one of the things, you know, when you provide a service in a company, that service is your reputation and I like to have a good reputation and I feel like others do as well. I think as an administrator of a mainframe, if you understand what's driving your consumer and in this case your consumer is probably the person developing the application, they're being driven by the business to help drive what the business needs and that business outcomes are. If you're giving them a hard time about some crazy process or something that is just you know inflexible or doesn't meet the needs of that person, they can't do what they're being asked to do as well. There's got to an understanding of what's driving the consumption of your service so that you can better provide that service to your consumers.
 
Reg: That makes good sense. Now speaking of making sense, I guess one of the things I'd really be interested in, because of course you're in a position where you have to be thinking about the future all the time. I'm interested in your thoughts about the future of the mainframe and the mainframe ecosystem; you know, if you wish maybe specifically relevant to your organization but also relevant just to the context at large, the whole industry, and where the mainframe is going over the next ten to say, 100 years.
 
Matt: That's a great question. This is something that I've kind of taken on as a responsibility. I've been with Rocket now just over a year, about 13 months and coming into the company one of the things that I was talking through in my interview was as a CIO for a company that sells software to other CIOs or other IT organizations, I'd like to think about what is it that drives me and what are the things that are important to me that I can perhaps go and try to think about new ways to bring things into the ecosystem. To that end, what I've done is I've started to reach out to other hardware providers that are not currently in the ecosystem and to see if there's an opportunity for companies that I've used and know that would want to then try to enter the mainframe market. It's not something that people immediately think of, but what's nice is that I think as somebody who has responsibility for mainframe and who has ever worked under a budget, you kind of know that people look at the biggest dollar signs first and you've got to sit and justify and justify and justify but you know there's a lot of things that connect into the mainframe. Certainly when you've got more choice around different hardware providers that can feed into the ecosystem, whether it's a firewall for some kind of reason or some kind of security product or some kind of storage product or something, you're providing competition that will help drive down the costs for the mainframe ecosystem, which in turn helps all those other IT organizations around the world not have to work quite so hard to keep the finance folks out of their pocket and keep the mainframe going. The other thing that it does is it brings kind of the latest technology into that ecosystem at the same time, which I think is really important. It’s important to me that the mainframe, because of its ability to scale and to deliver services so reliably, that it stay modern in everything that it does. So how do we help other people who may not be aware of the capabilities of mainframe or what it can deliver for people and bring that awareness into their organizations and get them excited about wanting to support mainframe in the first place?
 
Reg: Hmmm. Cool. Now I guess we're sort of getting to the end of the time here, but I really wanted to give you chance if there is anything else you'd really wanted to talk, or just highlight or make sure people are thinking about.
 
Matt: Yeah, I think that the mainframe is here to stay and it's a critical part of a lot of businesses. I think as people should be sharing tips and the tricks of how they've been successful across the ecosystem and like I said, I feel like any hardware vendor in the world should be excited about picking up the phone and calling IBM or Rocket or whomever else they can to just try to get into the ecosystem in the first place, because it's a great place to be and it will be for a long time.
 
Reg: Cool. Well, Matt, thank you very much. This has been really good.
 
Matt: Yeah, no, thank you. I really appreciate the time.
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