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Of Elephants and Mainframes

8/2/2019 9:45:36 AM |
If you’re a regular participant in SHARE, you probably know some of the traditional mascots by now: the eagle for MVS (previously the tur(n)key), the roadrunner for CICS, the teddy bear for VM. Well, I’m here to tell you that the elephant has a special relevance for us mainframers too. In fact, as a mainframer myself, having spent a long time among my ilk, I have come to the conclusion that there are at least five (and probably a lot more) reasons why mainframers are like elephants:

1.     We have long memories
2.     We’re very versatile
3.     We work for peanuts
4.     We’re surprisingly sensitive
5.     We’re mostly grey

Interestingly, each one of these resonates with our tradition of free mainframe software that goes back to the founding of SHARE, and emerged even more explicitly in 1975 with the creation of the CBT Tape.

Here’s why:

Long Memories

Think back… think way back, possibly to before you were born. Think of the reasons why SHARE was founded in 1955, and the main activities of SHARE. Once upon a time, when electronic computing technology was still being figured out, each new machine was so different from its predecessors that it was necessary to rewrite a whole new set of utilities and drivers and applications for it. The choice and quality of application programming languages was quite limited (even the first COBOL compiler wasn’t available until 1960), and low-level operating routines often had to be written in machine language.

As a result, one of the first things that the members of the nascent SHARE user group did was to live up to its name and share programs with each other, to avoid duplication of effort. They also shared input to IBM about how to continue improving its products to better meet emerging business computing needs.

Around this time, the word “software” also began to be used to describe the stored programs on computing technology that were being written and shared, though a distinct industry of writing and selling software was yet to emerge. Soon, the demand for software to operate computers such as the IBM 709 led to the development of the SHARE OS (SOS) in 1959, which was offered by the SHARE user group for the IBM 709 and 7090 until IBM produced its own OS to replace it.

This tradition of sharing programs continued and took root in the mainframe culture, and especially among those associated with mainframe user groups such as SHARE, NaSPA and GUIDE. Thus, it was a natural outgrowth of the culture when, in 1975, the first CBT Tape emerged, with a dynamically growing and improving library of free mainframe software, contributed to and used by mainframers who were able to arrange the sharing of these programs and the tapes they were on.

By the turn of the millennium, the web was so sufficiently pervasive that the contents of this tape became available on a website. Other sites for sharing mainframe software also became available online.

Knowing this, you are now one of the keepers of the memory of how we got to this point. But why did we do it?

Very Versatile 

We did it because we could, and, more specifically, because we—and especially our predecessors—were competently able to create these useful programs, and happy to make them available to each other.

The fact is, back in the days when the word “hacker” was a compliment for the very best of computer geniuses, there were a lot of people who fit that description, and who hacked together some amazing solutions for accomplishing very practical results. They did it because there was a need, because they had the insight and ability to fill that need, and because it was fun. And sharing that with each other was a bonus.

Supportive employers such as the (now defunct) Connecticut Bank and Trust (CBT) Company encouraged computing professionals to participate in the ecosystem, and benefited from doing so. So, in 1975 CBT employee Arnold Casinghino began collecting and distributing these innovative solutions on tapes to mainframe colleagues who requested them. When CBT folded, the ownership, maintenance and distribution of this CBT Tape was passed along to NaSPA and Sam Golob, and then shared with Sam Knutson who made it available online.

With each iteration of this tape, new and ingenious tools and examples became available. Today, that tradition continues. And it continues to be free, because, like other people who take a professional approach to having skin in the game with their career such as teachers, dedicated mainframers tend to give more of themselves than they receive as compensation.

Working for Peanuts 

Yeah, we mainframers have often been a bit like Charlie Brown, doing our best while feeling that our value is not exactly commensurate with our recognition. And yet we don’t give up, even when, like Charlie Brown’s friend Lucy and her football, management changes things without warning and expects us to adapt. So, the main commercially-available software on our mainframes is likely there more due to a compelling financial deal than being exactly what the mainframe technologists hoped for.

Of course, such working conditions aren’t unique to the mainframe. Technologists from every platform have had reasons for fostering and contributing to the open-source movement, and sometimes even profiting from it. Mainframers, however, have continued to be financially altruistic with their contributions, not turning them into a business but rather using them as a form of frugal collegiality.

Sensitivity 

One of the interesting aspects of mainframe collegiality, however, is that mainframers tend to be very careful about self-aggrandizement or other forms of visibility. Indeed, Casinghino reportedly told Golob, when passing the baton to him, that he had not been allowed by his employer to even advertise for contributions to his tape.

This is the mainframe culture: We have very sensitive roles in organizations that are very circumspect about unintentional publicity. Public sharing of information, even if it brings you credibility, can lead to rumblings of displeasure from deep in the corporate viscera.

Add to that the fact that a large majority of mainframers are the kind of introverts who’d rather do excellent work than tell anyone about it, and you get a culture of people who care but are very careful not to get attention. So sharing value without receiving fanfare is a typically sensible and sensitive way to deal with this. For, share we must, lest a new generation arrive without an intellectual inheritance.

Silver Linings 

A new generation is coming on the mainframe, if not quickly. And the current generation won’t last forever, even though many of us are already surpassing the normal age of retirement.

Nor are we the first generation, of course: They were the people who founded SHARE back in the 1950s, and were succeeded by the baby boomers in the 1970s, only to have a thinner and thinner cohort of new mainframers arrive to take their place in the 1980s and 1990s. By Y2K, the backfilling of vacant mainframe positions had slowed to a trickle, and so the average age was steadily rising. Even the founding of zNextGen and related initiatives beginning around 2005 had only a moderate impact, which is still very slowly gathering steam.

Of course, just as necessity is the mother of invention, so the need for new mainframers will soon become an irresistible mandate as the current generation begins to move on. And as the new generation arrives, we have some important gifts to give them, as a sort of implicit mentoring in the ways of mainframe excellence. And among those gifts, some of the most precious are the virtuoso-written treasures on the CBT Tape and other mainframe software sharing sites.

Packed Decimal Pachyderms

So, the elephants continue to march, as we bear our platform that predates commodity consumer electronics computers with raptor-sharp innovations and we continue to run down the road of excellence in computing and shared insights.

We are, perhaps, not quite as ill-disposed to mice as our ponderous namesakes, but we certainly share many other traits with the tusk-and-trunk set, just as we share our innovations and insights with each other.
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