Tom Harper on Why Mainframe Careers Are Dynamic
Reg Harbeck talks with Tom Harper on his mainframe career, how he ended up at SHARE and why the dynamic nature of mainframe careers makes late retirement an appealing option.
By Reg Harbeck05/01/2019
Tom Harper: I had a very wonderful teacher in the seventh grade Mr. Jack Yost who I later found out was a war hero from WWII and he arranged for a group of us who were volunteers to work at the University of California Berkeley Survey Research Center and we were allowed to use the IBM 1620 on Saturday mornings. I got hooked. I did that for six years and of course when I graduated from high school, there were no computer science majors at the time so I majored in mathematics and then in 1970 I started my professional career with the State of California.
Reg: Okay now what was your initial career with the State of California? Did it involve computers?
Tom: Yes. I was put in a programmer training class to learn 360 Assembler and COBOL and started out working for Caltrans on a bunch of their highway accident systems.
Reg: Interesting. So now would you-you say you were doing that in COBOL then.
Reg: So I'm going to guess that that would have probably been the mid ‘60s. Is that a good guess, or late ‘60s?
Tom: It was the early ‘70s.
Reg: Early ‘70s.
Tom: Close enough, yeah.
Reg: Okay, cool. Now somewhere along the way you took that COBOL ability and I’m going to guess probably some Assembler ability and started developing your own products. How did that all turn out?
Tom: Well I started attending SHARE in 1974.
Tom: Of course at that time SHARE had 5,000 attendees or so at each meeting and I became very interested in software development and so forth so I wrote a little program to put on the SHARE mods tape called the 3270 optimizer. Then a couple of years later, I was working on a Panvalet CICS interface for the State of California. I then saw an ad in Computerworld in 1980 where BMC Software had a 3270 optimizer and so I immediately thought, “Aha!” They lifted it from the SHARE mods tape and were selling it so I called up the owner of BMC Software not realizing he was the owner, John Moores, and started talking to him. I quickly realized that he not only had not copied the one I had written but instead he had developed a completely independently and far superior product.
Tom: So he came out and interviewed me and hired my wife Carol and I. We went to work for BMC Software, helped start the company and we wrote a CICS optimizer for CICS and one for IMS, one for VM and so forth. When we took the company public in 1988, those products were 59% of BMC's revenue stream at the time.
Reg: Wow. Okay now you mentioned Carol. So did you and she meet at the government of California then?
Tom: Yes. Actually I taught her in a programmer training class in 1974. We were both married to other people at the time and then I didn't see her for six years. Then unknown to me, my boss at that time hired her to help me because I was swamped with technical support stuff and so she came to work in the same office with me. By then we were both single and we worked together for a couple of years, dated and then we ended up getting married.
Reg: Now your daughter Kristine has a particularly important event in her life that she attended SHARE before she was born. Was this before or after you guys joined BMC?
Tom: This was after we joined BMC and after we got married of course. Carol got pregnant with Kristine and she did attend the New York SHARE when she was in utero.
Reg: I think that's so cool. As you may know my son Christopher likewise has attended the SHARE in Sacramento when my wife Kristen was pregnant with him so sort of something fun to share in common. Now speaking of SHARE, so you've been going to SHARE since the 1970s; what led you to start attending SHARE as somebody who is a government employee?
Tom: My manager at the time decided that she wanted to send me and SHARE was in Los Angeles. At the time, the State of California had a very strict rule, which is that if you're going within state it was pretty easy. If you went out of state, you had to have the governor’s office sign off for you. That was because some years before there was some hanky panky going on in a government State of California trip to Las Vegas.
Reg: Oh boy.
Tom: But going to SHARE in Los Angeles was a piece of cake so I went and I got hooked.
Reg: Oh, yeah. I certainly know that feeling. So then after you moved to BMC, helped found BMC and then you know went public with BMC, I guess your life changed a fair amount. I'm actually rather impressed because given that that must have a very lucrative experience, you nonetheless didn't just retire. You stayed very active.
Tom: That is true. I did have two friends that did retire in their 40s and the first year or two they were just excited but after about seven years, they were ready to climb the walls and could not wait to go back to work so I observed that and learned that and did not retire; however if I've made a classic mistake in my life, I've worked too much.
Tom: So I have tried to correct that.
Reg: That's really interesting. You know a lot of us are at the point in our careers where retirement is something that society would tell us is a good idea and a lot of us are saying yeah, I don't think it's such a good idea but of course our abilities and our interests do change and so there is that need to find that sweet spot between not being retired but not working yourself so hard that you don't have a real life. I gather you've worked really hard to find that place.
Tom: That's a very interesting question. My parents when they retired at 65 were totally worn out. I think that in the software business, the first ten years that you work is a gift from your employer. They're not getting much out of you but they are training you and so forth. Then when you hit your 40s and 50s, you become very productive. Then when you hit in your 60's, you're kind of at the peak of your game and because it's all a matter of learning, constant learning all the time. This is not only true in software. It's also true in other areas. Michael DeBakey, the famed heart surgeon, was doing open heart surgeries when he was 99 years old.
Tom: And he had the best success rate and was the highest demand doctor at the Methodist Hospital in Houston. The reason was because he knew everything that could go wrong and so when something did go wrong, he was able to tell the others “do this right now” so he had a very high success rate. Although I don't think any of us developers are 99 years old yet, it is a knowledge-based business and there is really no reason to quit at the peak of your game.
Reg: I love that. It's so much like a reversion to the wisdom of earlier times where people stay active and involved in culture rather than getting warehoused when they're all used up. I'm going to guess that you're probably intending to continue working. What is your trajectory if it were up to you over the next 10, 20, whatever years?
Tom: Well I'm working for a very fine company now, Phoenix Software, and I have a commitment to them for you know 10 or 12 years.
Tom: So they are happy with it and I'm happy with it.
Reg: Cool. Now if you were to think of advice to give to people who got mainframe careers that have gone 30-plus years, maybe 50-plus years, trying to decide what to do with their lives to feel like they've had a good life and they're not sure if they want to retire but they really don't want to be doing the same old, same old for the rest of their life. What advice would you give them to consider as they choose what they do next if they have the means to do whatever they want?
Tom: That is an intriguing question and I must say that in the mainframe world, the software aspects are so rich that you can change from one area to another and it's a completely new experience. I've worked in COBOL; I've worked in CICS for years and years. I've worked in IMS for years. I haven't worked in Db2. I could do something like that but there is so much depth and interest in every area.
Reg: OK, cool. Now of course there's more to life than just computing even for those of us who really love computing and I know each of your kids in your family has taken a direction that has really allowed them to expand and discover other sides of themselves whether it is Warren becoming a chess master, Kristine going from mainframe to becoming a nurse and you know raising a family and I gather you've done a fair number of things that have complimented but not been about computing whether it's your traveling to a place to Switzerland to work or doing other things. What sort of things have you found of interest to really add dimensions to your life?
Tom: Well I have a lot of other interests besides software believe it or not.
Reg: I believe that.
Tom: I'm an active philatelist.
Reg: Stamp collector.
Tom: Well yeah, kind of like that. Stamp collecting is part of philately.
Tom: And I have owned an aircraft. I also have raised six kids and I have eight grandchildren. I love to travel so I've done quite a few other things besides just work.
Reg: Now you've been in every different size of airplane from your own private jet to I'm going to guess you've probably traveled first class in a number of different aircraft. What are your favorite ways to travel long distances by air?
Tom: You know I seldom travel first class except when they upgrade me automatically.
Reg: Oh, OK.
Tom: Which happens about one third of the time because I was flying back and forth to Switzerland every month.
Tom: But you know I'm not a tall person. If I was six feet tall or something, I would ask for business class or first class. I had that privilege. For my company that would be fine but really the only difference when you get off the plane is you're several thousand dollars poorer and you've eaten a nice meal you know so to me it's not that big a deal.
Reg: OK, interesting. Now if you were to advise somebody who is just brand new in this career and finding themselves doing their initial business travel and they really want to get the most value and enjoyment out of doing business travel, what things would you tell them to think about and look into in order to really benefit from it?
Tom: Wow. I never thought about that before. I guess I would try to sign up for the airline frequent flyer programs and the hotel frequent programs, you know try to take advantage of some of the loyalty type kind of things and the same with car rentals and stuff.
Reg: OK, that certainly has been my experience as well. Well any other thoughts you want to share with everybody before we finish up here?
Tom: Well I know a lot of people think that writing software is a desk job and you sit there just nose down coding all the time but in actuality that is not really representative of the job at all. Software really means you're interacting with people to understand software designs. You're always talking to people and giving classes and taking classes. It's a constant learning. It's kind of like going to college for 50 years but it is certainly not a desk job like a clerk or something of that nature.
Reg: Well this has been really interesting and enjoyable. Thank you so much Tom.
Tom: You're so welcome Reg.
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.