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IBM Z: Your Mother’s Mainframe

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:31 PM


“Who can find a virtuous computer? Her value is beyond calculation.”

What would you think if you heard someone say that? Before System/360, that could have seemed like praise for people whose job title was “computer” because they manually did computations. After all, that’s where the word came from, and those “pre-electronic computers” were often women. In fact, the demographics of the early proto-mainframers were in some ways more reminiscent of either the home front during the second world war (when men were often occupied with military service so other key roles were more heavily staffed with women), or today’s more egalitarian context, than of “typical” computer nerds over the past half century.

“Typical.” Hmmm: What made us think that there was anything typical about members of the mainframe workforce, anyway? Since I started working on the IBM mainframe (now IBM Z) in 1987, I have had the pleasure of working with a wide range of people. That includes role models, bosses, coworkers and customers who were women. But for some reason, the media’s portrayal of typical mainframers often seemed more narrow.

Fortunately, we are finally entering the era when women in IT are being recognized for the important contributions they’ve always made (I’m reminded of the outstanding movie, “Hidden Figures,” as an illustration), giving us the opportunity to rediscover that, if today’s mainframe “isn’t your grandfather’s computer,” it certainly continues to be “your mother’s mainframe.” And while the traits that make a great mainframer have never been about gender or such demographics, there have been many women who have clearly lived out the wisdom that exceeds mere intelligence in building and running the mainframe ecosystem.

Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and Others: Walking With Wisdom

Ah, wisdom. King Solomon’s most desired gift, much of classical literature has portrayed wisdom as being a lady (e.g. “Sophia”), and that probably came at least in part from the first people to impart wisdom in many of our lives: our mothers. And if the annals of history have not given us enough stories of the great women who have built humanity over the ages, we thankfully still have many illustrations of their excellence and wisdom to draw from.

But where to start? Probably not with the story of Helen and high waters that involved the first Trojan Horse. Even great science fiction visionaries such as Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), while more current, don’t seem demonstrative of modern computing.

Probably a better figure would be Lady Ada Lovelace (Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, née Byron; 1815 –1852), that 19th century polymath who turbo-charged the thinking of those around her such as Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871), leapfrogging his innovations by writing the world’s first computer program on a theoretical computer (OK, Analytical Engine) he’d dreamed up that hadn’t even been built yet.

Now that the foundations of computing were in place, it didn’t take long for one of the greatest figures in computing history to arrive, as the mother of business computing began to make her mark.

Some might call her the mother of COBOL; others, simply the mother of electronic computing. But for my money, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992) lifted us above binary digits and placed computing squarely on a dollars-and-sense business footing that remains one of the great strengths of the modern mainframe—as well as key languages that run on it such as COBOL.

Now, interestingly, one of the practical insights that Lovelace had to offer was, “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform.” A century later, Hopper discovered the other side of that coin: “I had a running compiler and nobody would touch it. … they carefully told me, computers could only do arithmetic; they could not do programs.”

That said, Hopper moved the ball forward in many ways, from helping people think in terms of what computers could do today and tomorrow, with a solid business perspective, to going beyond knowledge in the journey of wisdom, part of which was discovering that the most important things about computers aren’t things at all. So, on the one hand, she made it clear that, “You don't manage people, you manage things. You lead people.” But on the other hand, she also pointed out that, “Some day, on the corporate balance sheet, there will be an entry which reads, ‘Information;’ for in most cases, the information is more valuable than the hardware which processes it.”

Such wisdom was essential—even inherent—to the creation of System/360. Consequently, this perspective of common-sense wisdom (which has actually been so uncommon in the history of computing) became inherent in the creation of the datacenters that were soon running the world economy. 

Women Who Run the Mainframe Ecosystem

“Housework is something nobody notices unless you don’t do it.”

I’ve often quoted this aphorism as an illustration of how the mainframe is the ultimate non-squeaky wheel. People have stopped noticing the mainframe since it became the system of record for the world economy because it works so well. Once we got past all the “do not fold, spindle or mutilate” and “to err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer” days in the 1970s and early 1980s, we stopped noticing the mainframe, as all the bugs hitting our windows were coming from commodity consumer electronics computers on the “information superhighway.”

The women in IT have often suffered from this same condition, almost invisibly making things run (again, think of “Hidden Figures”), while building some of the systems that were essential to definitive achievements like getting us on the moon. One great example of this is Margaret Hamilton, the engineer who wrote the code for Apollo 11's on-board flight software.

There have been many down-to-earth achievements as well, as the entire mainframe ecosystem has continued pulling together to keep the world economy functioning. And, just as the story of the mainframe began before the 1964 announcement of System/360, so it has included the SHARE user association, founded in 1955, which has been the place that many people have made important contributions. Among many other examples have been presidents of SHARE, including my friends Anne Caluori, Pamela Taylor and Janet Sun. I’ve even had the chance to interview Taylor in one of my zTalks.

There have also been other visionaries who helped us build practical value with compelling insights, such as the perspectives and strategies shared by Cheryl Watson, also a friend of mine. In fact, I have already had the opportunity
to interview her and many other key women in mainframe IT as part of my zTalks, and I recommend these interviews as great listening and/or reading in building an appreciation of their roles and contributions. I intend to continue these interviews for the foreseeable future, and many of my interviewees will continue to be compelling role models and future-oriented thought leaders, such as Luisa Martinez, the current IBM rep to the zNextGen SHARE project.

The Future of Women in IT

Which brings us to the future, when the essential role of women in IT is increasingly recognized and valued. And Luisa Martinez is one of the ever-growing number of women who have helped move the mainframe ecosystem forward with a special focus on SHARE and the zNextGen project. In fact, the project—which will soon be 15 years old—was originally founded by two other outstanding women of IT in 2005: Kristine Bastin (née Harper) and Iris Rivera. I am honored to count all three of them as friends of mine.

I’m also honored to count key IBM visionaries such as Marna Walle, Rosalind Radcliffe and Misty Decker (all of whom I’ve interviewed for zTalks), and many more great SHARE contributors, as friends. That’s important: Friendship is one of the ways that our mainframe ecosystem goes beyond mere collegiality to genuine humanity, as we all work together to build the future.

So, as we look to the future, and are guided by leaders such as IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, I am thankful that our mainframe ecosystem has been built by so many world-class people of every description, including many great women in IT. Now that’s a platform that truly is your mother’s mainframe, and not just a motherboard!