Sudharsana Srinivasan on Mainframe Advocacy and Education
IBM's Sudharsana Srinivasan and host Reg Harbeck discuss the joys of advocacy, and how the mainframe is being made more accessible to the next generation of learners
Sudharsana Srinivasan: Thank you so much Reg. It’s great to be here, looking forward to our conversation.
Reg: Yeah, so you and I have kind of got to know each other over the past few months or even maybe a year. I saw you in person at SHARE and you’ve got such a fascinating story. I’m almost at a loss exactly where to begin but I guess like they say in "The Sound of Music," start at the very beginning—a very good place to start. I understand that you started on the other side of the planet and you already had a bachelor’s degree by the time you got to this side of the planet. Maybe you can kind of just give us a little bit of an autobiography on how you ended up in the United States working with IBM.
Sudharsana: Absolutely. You stole my line, by the way. I was going to say the beginning is a good place to start. Yeah, so yes, I grew up in India in the beautiful city of Mumbai and went to school, got my bachelor’s in computer science and moved to the US to do my masters, also in computer science. So right after my masters, I worked for another really big company, a solid company that we all very much know about and knew of, Ericsson. So that’s my sort of foray into the tech world and being a developer and really working in one of these big kinds of systems where transactions are key. It’s important—and accuracy is also important, right? You can’t afford to miss and slip cell tower when you’re going from one cell tower to another and things like that. So I think that sort of was part of my journey. It’s so interesting. I’ve always worked on big systems. It was never these little you know, traditional IT roles or supporting applications, that kind of thing. I’ve always been fascinated thinking about my own journey—but anyway, back to my journey itself. I then moved up to New York. This was all in Dallas where I went to school, University of Texas at Dallas, and then I got married, had my first kid and had to move up to New York. That brought in a sharp break in my career fairly early on, but that’s when I was in Poughkeepsie and what is in Poughkeepsie? IBM Poughkeepsie, and that was my foray if you will into the world of mainframes. My first job at IBM was IBM firmware developer. I started with the I/O coupling team, worked on the emulator project for a little bit and then actually moved on to being part of the coupling facility team. So I’ve worked on some CFCC code and I can probably say that my code runs on a z13.
Reg: Hmm cool.
Sudharsana: Yeah, so that’s how passionate I am about a mainframe. Then again, family and all of that moved over to California from New York, again another break, and my second stint with IBM this time around is on the ecosystem side of things with IBM z ecosystem. This is where I now sort of have this role of an IBM z advocacy program manager—and I’ll tell you Reg, I absolutely love every minute of what I do, but that’s the long and short of my journey to mainframes and what has kept me here is truly what this platform is. It is amazing. It drives the world, the world’s economy, and as an advocate, I talk about it all the time to everyone, right? It’s something we need to make sure—
Reg: We need that.
Sudharsana: Yeah, we need to make sure everybody knows—and especially that next generation. But that’s a good conversation.
Reg: Yes, and we should perhaps have that. You and I have very similar journeys. I started out a much longer time ago than I’d like to admit to myself with my computer science degree and then after a few jobs doing early Intel work—this is pre-Windows, Windows 2.0—I found myself very fortunately in my first mainframe job as a CICS systems programmer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and I was techie for quite a long time. Then after a whole bunch of other stuff happened in my life—basically one year ago this coming weekend I graduated 35 years almost to the day after getting my computer science degree with a masters of art in interdisciplinary humanities and focused on the humanity of the mainframe. And so what you’re doing is so right in the sweet spot of that whole idea of the humanity of the mainframe, because we have been conned into believing that a graphical user interface counts as the humanity of something. And of course you know all of these things that are sometimes more like carbon monoxide to our system than oxygen have really kind of side-tracked us in a lot of ways on what we’ve always known was humanity until the advent of computing, and there’s a need to rediscover it. It’s so interesting that the ideal platform in many ways to rediscover humanity is that very one that we used to kick at, saying do not fold, spindle, or mutilate me—you know, not just your punch cards. Humanities are just part of our humanity, but there’s a part that we’ve substantially ignored over the past 58 years and yet the mainframe itself—as Dr. Fred Brooks himself said—the mainframe hardware was basically a platonic ideal form that the manifestion was. So you’ve got all these ideas and if you read Fred Brooks’s two books about the mainframe, "The Mythical Man-Month" and then—
Reg: "The Design of Design," you see that he has harkened back to all these humanities and humanity concepts that were standard thinking before we let technology kind of cleanse us of that. That said, you know as you briefly related your career and your journey and everything, I’m wondering if I can get you to rewind way, way back to the beginning in Mumbai and think about what sort of things inspired you—not just the technology, but also on the whole journey of technology to see the humanity in it, because I see that those come together in your current job. Maybe you can give us some insights about your own journey about how humanity became such a key part of being such a technologist.
Sudharsana: Um so when I do rewind way, way back, the one thing that I will tell you is what really got me excited about computer science or technology in general was—again I’m probably dating myself by saying this, but I’m going to say it anyway—is my computer science lab in I want to say 11th grade. We had these little Motorola chips. I think it was an 8088 and that’s how I first learned how to program with Assembler, and when I saw these little boards and we were programming and writing little Assembler programs, I thought that was the most fascinating thing ever, right? So that was my introduction to computer science if you will. What really got me interested and wanting to study computer science in my academic years, you know, Reg, to your thing about humanities and mainframe back to when I rewind to when I was in college, Software Engineering 101 was a class that I had to take and "The Mythical Man-Month" was something that we had to study as part of the software engineering process. And the project for the class was to actually plan a software project and then see if you were unable to meet a deadline, would it really help throwing more people? I mean that’s the real—
Sudharsana: Up there of "The Mythical Man-Month," right? Just throwing more resources sometimes is not the solution. So that’s one thing that comes to mind when we talk about sort of the humanity and mainframe, and in my current role as an advocacy program manager, I really see it on a day-to-day basis. And if I were to interpret humanity in my mind, it is all about the humanity of the people and their feelings and what they see and what they feel about the mainframes and really getting them excited about the technology. Even the next generation that we’re talking about, they may not know about the mainframe just yet but it is in that process of us trying to get to them, to reach out to them, to engage with them. If I were to just go bits and bytes and talk bits and bytes it’s just any other platform, but the why about mainframe? You know, what does it do for you? Can you believe it that every credit card swipe you do goes to a mainframe? It’s these stories that really draw that attention. That’s what really makes that connection, and once somebody who is new to the platform or hasn’t heard about it would want then to come and explore it more, right?
Reg: This is important. How do we pull people into something that—some people misperceive the mainframe as being an antiquated architecture and everything like that. That’s like saying the wheel is antiquated because we have hover craft. The fact is it’s still the basic technology for the majority of land-based transport. Likewise with the mainframe that for real business processing, which of course it touches everybody. It still is the unparalleled technology. But so often we forget that business is essentially about humanity. I am going to guess you’ve probably had this chance to sort of see that connection of reaching out to people in a business role and helping them make that connection to the mainframe, to humanity, and to the need to keep the future in mind as we try to get a new generation in place.
Sudharsana: Exactly, and I think that goes back to my current role as well. It is about activating. It’s one thing that I do—I enjoy speaking to the next generation and growing the community, but it’s also about activating many more people to be able to become advocates and so it’s sort of that domino effect, if you will. So creating that community of advocates, creating the community of people who already are so passionate about the platform back to that humanity. I will tell you one thing: what I have noticed and realized in my 15+ years as a mainframer myself is this is a community of people who are really passionate about the technology that they work on, the technology that they work with every single day. So for mainframers to go out and advocate about the mainframe I think comes somewhat easily if I could say it that way. The reason I say that is they are really passionate. So this is where I really enjoy because I’m able to now go out there and activate and get so many of the other passionate mainframers to be able to go and further go and spread the joy of the mainframe if you will, right?
Reg: This is so important. You know one of the things that I’ve really been unhappy about it in my journey of trying to get the word out about the mainframe is that mainframers have been told to sit down and shut up by everybody who they might talk to for—since time immemorial. You know we have this Tall Poppy Syndrome thing happening. Are you familiar with Tall Poppy Syndrome?
Sudharsana: No, I’m not sure I am.
Reg: Okay so the idea behind the Tall Poppy Syndrome—if you think back to the original "Wizard of Oz," there was one scene where there was just a carpet of red poppies that just went on forever. You imagine if one poppy was twice as tall as the rest of them, it would wreck the effect, right? Well any organization large enough to have a mainframe usually has something like Tall Poppy Syndrome as well. They don’t want people rocking the boat. They don’t want you to have or exhibit abilities outside of just doing your job well and more or less invisibly—you know, as nearly a commodity. Of course that’s on the one hand challenging for technology people, but those are the ones who have been naturally selected to stick around in the mainframe are the ones who are capable of coming to work day after day, being 100% reliable and keeping their mouths shut—which makes one wonder how I have managed to survive in this field. But the issue is all these people who know how good the mainframe is, and they just needed permission to tell people this. My sense is that’s finally somebody doing that is yourself. You’re finding a way to activate these amazing people and get them to get the word out. I’m curious about some of your experiences and ideas about how to do that.
Sudharsana: Absolutely. I mean I’ll talk about the whole IBM zSystems Advocacy program and all of the resources and opportunities that we have, for sure. To your point about always being asked to shut up and not really speak up, the comment you made got me thinking about when I was a developer myself as well. This is a few years ago. I would have loved to have an opportunity, right? If someone had come and said hey, would you like to go speak to students about the work you do and about how amazing the mainframe platform is, I would certainly have raised my hand up. You know, now maybe that’s something that what I felt like I was missing, and so I personally feel this is my way and opportunity to really enable all such folks who are out in the development world as well who might want to come out and speak at a conference or write a blog or create some content, because everybody has their own unique way of sort of showcasing and sharing their knowledge, right? Not everyone is going to be a speaker at a conference, but some folks might be good at creating short videos and blogs or you know, mentoring. Mentoring is a great, great way to give back and sort of groom that next generation. Here I go, I’m already throwing out ways that someone could advocate, right? It doesn’t have to be a huge effort and an additional sort of a side hustle and a job or something. It’s just something you do as part of your everyday and having fun doing it. Like I said, it goes back to that passion. It has to come from within. And the other thing is advocacy is not a one and done, right? It’s a journey. It’s a journey. You’re an advocate for life kind of thing. You do it because you enjoy doing it, and the more you do it, you want to do more of it. So it's a vicious cycle there.
Reg: Well you remind me of one of my favorite tropes. It is the idea of the overflowing cup that when you fill yourself up with something sufficiently, it just naturally overflows. I think one of the most common examples of it is if somebody has a hobby they absolutely love or maybe a car they love or something like that that. No matter what you talk to them about, somehow mysteriously that subject enters into the conversation because they’re so full of that pastime, it’s so important to them that everything relates to it, everything connects to it, and so it just automatically flows in. For me I think that’s one of the things we have to give ourselves permission to do as mainframers, because once we’ve worked on the mainframe, we realize there is just nothing else out there like it. It’s amazing in every dimension, and to allow ourselves to be enthusiastic enough about that that we’re not afraid of letting that overflow when we go to our social events or service clubs or maybe even religious community, or you know standing, waiting for your luggage in the airport. You end up in a casual chat with someone and they say "what do you do?" And you’re not finding a way to say mainframe, but don’t say mainframe. You know they say, "I work on the mainframe." "Oh, isn’t that thing dead?" "Oh, heck no!" and get excited about it. I think the time has come for us to all start doing that, so I really love the idea of you provoking that from people and I’m curious what some of your ideas about other areas that go far beyond academia, school, and all these things, and really getting people to speak mainframe just because they’re so enthusiastic about it.
Sudharsana: So, you know talking about mainframe, another one topic that gets a lot of flak is COBOL, and I know you and I share a common passion there as well with the Open Mainframe Project and the COBOL programming course and the COBOL working group. Halloween just passed us, and I remember last year it was a big decoration at somebody’s front yard. It was all these programming languages with a RIP on it like tombstones created for Pascal, FORTRAN, Basic, and there was one for COBOL as well, and someone shared that picture with me. That got me thinking and I actually posted on LinkedIn about this last year, right after Halloween, and I said the irony of it is somewhere some COBOL program ran to drive that transaction to purchase that COBOL RIP tombstone.
Reg: Hmm. I like it.
Sudharsana: Yeah. You know talking about mainframe is dead and such, that incident came to mind. Sorry, I digress.
Reg: That’s fine.
Sudharsana: But advocacy is what I’m really passionate about. Mainframes I’m absolutely passionate about. It is the reality of our lives that we live. If we want to be able to live the lives that we are so used to, mainframes are an integral part of it. There’s no denying it. I mean we could talk about it all we want, but there is no denying it. It’s a fact, right? So that is one aspect of it and when it comes to advocacy, like I said, it is all about really enabling and giving our community, that large community of folks who are willing to, who are eager, who want to, the ability and the opportunities and all of the resources. So that’s where I enjoy my work because that means I get to put together a really strong program. I’m really looking forward to launching a brand new IBM zSystems Advocacy hub which will make that experience even bigger and better for our advocates. So that’s what’s cooking in my world and I’m looking forward to launch that out to all of our community members. We already have a part of that advocacy hub up and live already, so I could share a link with you Reg if that’s something you could share with our listeners.
Reg: Sure, sure. In fact we can just insert the link here when we put together the transcript. Is it a long one or can you read it to us?
Sudharsana: It’s fairly easy. It’s IBM.biz/IBMz-advocacy. Come check it out and share your feedback as well. We’ve soft-launched it and we have some of our features there with some resources and opportunities. We are looking to grow it for many, many more advocates to be able to tap into it and leverage and really go out there into the world and talk about how amazing this platform is. It is the truth, so it’s sort of our goal and job to go and talk about it, right?
Reg: Cool. Excellent. I have to admit that one of the ideas that comes to my mind right away is those little models of the z16—or zed16 as I like to say—mainframes because those I think are great because of that physical presence there. One of these days I’m hoping I get a hold of one of those because I those are a great conversation-starter among other things, but all the tchotchkes from SHARE, things like that that have that z16 stuff on it I think are all great ways to start the conversation. I think one of the beauties of mainframers is we know something of real value. We know it’s of real value and so if we get permission to talk about it, we have so much to say. In fact one wonders if maybe one of the advocacy roles might be to give people some specific focus topics they can talk about so they don’t have to try to boil the ocean.
Sudharsana: Exactly. Exactly, and that is exactly where even what the hub has to offer—because sometimes it can be intimidating as well if you’re not used to doing something like this. So there are smaller things one could do, right? Hey, come and help us socially amplify—for instance, the IBM Z Student Contest is going on right now. A small little blurb about it with a social tile to go with it and off you go, and you can be socially promoting the Z Student Contest. But it’s a small activity that you could get started on advocating and all of the resources you need to do that is available on that hub that I talked about. So that is really what we’re looking to do, which is to make that easy for our advocates to be able to advocate. Advocacy shouldn’t be hard work. Advocacy should be fun for an advocate—
Sudharsana: And that is the goal of bringing this hub together and making it everything that an advocate could think of from an advocacy perspective available on that hub for them to get started.
Reg: Hmm. Cool. Now as you know as somebody who has been in the mainframe space for long enough to get a really good sense of it, I’m sure you have sort of a vision for where it’s going to go that you get to participate in. You’re not just predicting, you’re kind of prodicting. You’re saying here’s what I’m going to do to make it happen. Maybe you could give us a sense of what the future looks like in the medium term and maybe long term, in part as a consequence of the advocacy work that you’re doing.
Sudharsana: Um okay so medium term, long term, the mainframe is here to stay, right? I personally don’t see it going away anywhere and as much as we want to debate even COBOL as being dead, as much as mainframe being dead was a conversation, they’re both going to be here. They’re going to stay. That is the way I see it, and from an advocacy perspective, because of all of what we’re able to do today and get the word out, I’ll tell you from several student events that I get to work on as part of my role, students are really excited to hear about this technology because they’ve never heard about it before. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? And when we go out there and we talk to these students—the next generation technologists—about it, they are really excited about learning about the fact that their credit card swipe ran on a mainframe. They did not know, but when they know that, it lights up a spark and they’re really curious to learn more. They’re interested and wanting to learn more, and that’s infectious, right? And then when they learn about it, they are now going out there and talking to other students. That’s the student ambassadors that we have. So I think we are in a very good time from a mainframe perspective and keeping it going and sort of future proofing the mainframe. We’re in a really good time in that historic timeline, if you will, Reg. Personally speaking, where we’re going to make this a really good future for the platform by bringing on some really strong next generation technologists. I think all that we are doing as a community together, advocating for it and really putting the messaging out there, is the trick. That’s really helping and I can see it there every time I go out and start talking to students and the next generation.
Reg: You remind me: I had the pleasure of interviewing Enzo Damato, who is a new mainframer who has got a mainframe in his basement and he’s still in high school. Amazing guy, and I asked his advice about what could make the mainframe a better place, and he said make mainframes available to students and people who are at the learning stage in their life. And so on the one hand I joke about having a little physical model mainframe, which I’d love to have, but I think one of the more important things that is a bigger deal is that IBM is now making pieces of mainframe that are human sized available. Individual students and such can play with a piece of a mainframe, including on the cloud. You know so here’s the cloud, which in many ways has always been, not merely foreshadowed by mainframe service bureaus, but in fact manifested. So I’m kind of curious what your thoughts are about the increasing pervasion of mainframe availability in terms of the future workforce and building the future of the ecosystem.
Sudharsana: Absolutely—I mean and to the point about making it available, that is exactly what the IBM Z Xplore learning platform is for. It is for any learner—not just students—for any learner, and it provides you an opportunity to learn about the topics that are related to mainframe, but not just learn in theory. You get to do hands on, and the labs are on a real mainframe—to your point, Reg, about they get a piece of a mainframe, a real mainframe that they’re working on. So that is something again—you know back to when I started my journey and started to learn, if I had known of such learning opportunities trust me, my learning journey would have been so much easier. But here we are today and that is why I feel like when I said we are in a really good time in that historical time line of the mainframe, it's that we have the right resources in terms of being able to educate and get the next generation really learning about a mainframe with access to the mainframe. I don’t think we’ve ever had a point in time where access to a mainframe was so easy. It is today with the IBM Z Xplore platform. It’s somewhat of a controlled environment, and that’s okay. It’s an educational environment, but that ability to say that I worked on a mainframe, you know by doing all of the challenges on IBM Z Xplore, is something students can say today—you couldn’t a few years ago. So I think this is a great time to be in this space and it is going to just explode even more from a skills perspective, and the future is bright.
Reg: Awesome. Awesome. Well Sudharsana, this has been an outstanding conversation. I have the sense that we’re going to have a whole lot more—may not record them but we are really both engaged in a tremendously historically important effort, and bringing more and more people to join us. I’m just excited about that. Before I finish up though, any last thoughts you wanted to share with everyone about this?
Sudharsana: I always like to lead with you don’t know what you don’t know. So I always like to tell anybody—not just students, anyone who is curious and wants to know what is this mainframe that Reg and Sudharsana have been talking about, is give it a try. You don’t know what you don’t know, and you might be surprised at what you learn, and you might actually really love what you see and learn something new for the day.
Reg: Cool. Thank you so much. I will be back with another podcast next month, but in the meantime check out the other content on TechChannel. You can also subscribe to the weekly newsletters, webinars, e-books, Solutions Directory and more on the subscription page. I’m Reg Harbeck.
About the author
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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