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Alixander Joel Laffredo-Dietrich on Joining the Tech Industry and Looking to the Future

Reg Harbeck is joined by Alixander Joel Laffredo-Dietrich to discuss his unusual journey into the mainframe ecosystem, his work with the IBM Champions program and the future of the mainframe.

Reg Harbeck: Hi, I’m Reg Harbeck and today I’m here with Alixander Joel Laffredo-Dietrich, or Alix, and he is now the person in charge, among other things, of the mainframe or IBM Z or Zed portion of the IBM Champions program and a whole lot of other really interesting stuff that he’s up to. Well, rather than telling you myself, let me introduce you to him. Alix, how did you end up with the mainframe and IBM and what was your journey like getting there?
 
Alix Laffredo-Dietrich: Oh, it was a really roundabout way. Actually, I have a very weird background, if you will. I went to school in Richmond, Virginia and I went to school to be a concept artist. For those of you who may not know exactly what a concept artist does, think about an animated movie that you like, maybe Pixar or something like that. I like Avatar and my job as a concept artist could range from taking the director’s and the producer’s vision for what the blue avatars look like and turning that into a 2-D image and taking that 2-D image and 3-D modeling it, animating it, texturing it, and all of that sort of stuff. So I was very much into the entertainment design aspect of it and when I was going to university, I really, really, really found my niche within 3-D modeling. I loved 3-D modeling, working with Mayan Z-Brush and all of these different tools. It is something that I found a really great passion for, and so through that, there were a couple areas within Richmond, Virginia that I naturally began to gravitate to because of that. The first was an organization within VCU, which is where I went, called the DaVinci Center and what they did is they brought in the School of the Arts and School of Business and Engineering. There is a lot of cross collaboration to show you how to build your own businesses and things of that nature and it was by far the best decision I ever made going to VCU. The second place, though, that really ties into how I found my way into the mainframe was I had an internship as a 3-D modeler at a place called 3-D Central which is a phenomenal shop run by a great set of owners who really care about their clients. They saved me on many a school project more than once and I was their in-house 3-D modeler doing anything from making toys to prototypes to prosthetic limbs. I did it all there and through that, what ended up happening is I began to use a lot of my 3-D modeling skills and my connections at 3-D Central into the DaVinci Center and that got a lot of the teams that I was on a lot of businesses that I was making within that program a fair amount of attention and through that, it just kind of became one of those things where I met a guy who knew a girl who knew a guy that said hey, have you ever considered working at IBM? I’m like huh, honestly, I hadn’t at that time. It wasn’t really on my radar, but they said well, you know why you don’t come to—they had these design thinking workshops which was very—that process was very similar to really how you work as an artist and how we worked in the DaVinci Center and so I saw this side of IBM that I really didn’t know existed, this very quick iterative, I’ll even say casual but purposeful method of working that I found very attractive, even more so than a lot of the places that I was looking into working at the time like game studios and what not. So I went through the interview process and got to go on their sites a couple times and say you know what? I think I could really like working for this place and I got a job as the go-to-market offering manager for LinuxONE which is pretty much the mainframe that runs on Linux operating system.
 
Reg: I got to ask you: Have you done some 3-D models of penguins since then?
 
Alix: I’ve been asked and I really need to and the reason why - I really want to - the reason why is the programs that I used to work with, I had student licenses for those so they were free but now I’m not a student, so they cost like $2,000 a year for a subscription, but I’m learning Blender which is an open-source 3-D modeling program so once I get good at that, I will be making penguins galore.
 
Reg: Awesome.
 
Alix: Yes, so I was the go-to-market offering manager for LinuxONE and began to get exposed to this brand-new – well, for me a brand-new technology that I soon found had a lot in common with design, animation, and art and here’s why I say that. The mainframe is so core to how our modern-day society runs. You make a card transaction, you call somebody, you book a hotel, you do anything, chances are it’s running through a mainframe of some sort and what’s beautiful about the mainframe is a good set of hardware. You know it’s good when nobody notices it’s there.
 
Reg: Yeah, squeaky wheel or rather, nonsqueaky wheel. It reminds me of a joke I read once that housework is something nobody notices unless you don’t do it. I sort of think the mainframe is kind of like that.
 
Alix: Yeah, it is. It’s so central, it’s so core to everything that goes on and it’s very much that way like design or animation. You can pick terrible animation from a mile away or bad design from a mile away, like when you’re driving down the road and you look at a billboard and you’re like yuck - that’s terrible. But the good ones are or even if you watch a movie with great design vs at a low budget film. You expect it to be that way and so it was very much this parallel to creating something that my version of appreciation for it or how take appreciation is if nobody knows that it’s there and so I began to find great kinship within the community in that regard. A lot of people who support and root for and truly understand how vital this piece of technology is at the same time how do you have others appreciate it for something that’s made to not be appreciated. It’s this weird, weird balance but something that I can really I don’t even want to say empathize but sympathize with, really feel that emotional connection so with that, as I was working on the LinuxONE, there were a couple opportunities to start moving into the ecosystem because I wanted to be more client facing and sure enough, after working in the ecosystem for a little bit, they said hey, we have this group of very, very, very passionate supporters and advocates for the IBM Z called the Champions and they’re a rowdy bunch.
 
Reg: Especially the mainframers.
 
Alix: Especially the mainframers and I’m like hey, you know what? The rowdier the better, let’s do it and they placed me on this organization which I’m relatively new to. I think I’ve really only been at it for maybe two weeks now.
 
Reg: I sense that Theresa, she used to be Hans and now she is Materise, who was previously in that position did some mentoring of you to help you get on board.
 
Alix: Yeah, she has been phenomenal. She has shown me really all that there is to the Champions and all that she is doing. There are two spectrums to being onboarded: the getting thrown in the deep end without a flotation device and then being shown all this information, which is really good. She is not short on information. She is very patient with teaching and explaining to me even if I need to hear it a couple of times but, yeah, she has been a phenomenal, phenomenal mentor and the other people on the other Champions programs, there’s very much this comradery around this program.
 
Reg: Now, of course, you and I connected on LinkedIn and also Facebook on a number of mainframe groups a few months before you took this position so you’d obviously already been interested in moving into mainframe. You are of course quite young for somebody in the mainframe. You don’t have the typical Marine haircut among other things. So I’m just curious how much of this was just your initiative of reaching out to the mainframe community before they even asked you to do this job?
 
Alix: Yeah, so I’ll answer that in two fold. For people who haven’t seen me, I actually have very long hair and a bandana.
 
Reg: I know. It was like this guy is interested in mainframe and he’s got like a 1960’s look. This is really interesting.
 
Alix: Yeah, I have a different style if you will, but as far as reaching out to people when I first joined the role, my manager was saying hey, with the ecosystem, we really try to reach out to people and get acquainted with the community so take some time and explore the channels that are out there. So I said, okay, let me set up some social media profiles because I’m not a big social media person, if you will, but I started looking at the different groups and looking at the Facebook groups and what else? There’s Twitter and—
 
Reg: LinkedIn.
 
Alix: LinkedIn and I saw all these groups for mainframers and so I dropped in and just kind of started poking around to see what people were about and Reg, you were actually the first person I met like he’s really passionate. I noticed how much that you were putting stuff out there which by the way when I joined the Champions program and they’re like yeah, we have Reg up in Canada. I’m like oh, I know Reg. So I just really wanted to get out there and kind of see what was being talked about and what people liked talking about, some of their ailments as far as trying to spread the word and just kind of get my feet wet, start connecting with people and by doing that, a couple of months later, they’re like you should check out the Champions program.
 
Reg: Well, that is a really neat journey. Now, you must by now have gotten some real inspirations about how you—let me back up half a step and say one of my theories in life is that the better something is, the more room it has for improvement. It’s like surface area, you have more surface area, you have more area you can add stuff to, and so the better you get, the more room you have for improvement, so as you discover just how awesome the mainframe ecosystem, technology, and people are, bringing your insights from the design and other parts of your background, you must have some ideas of things that you’d either like to see happen or even make happen to make the mainframe ecosystem even better. I’m curious about some of your thoughts on that.
 
Alix: Yeah, from a high level point of view I would love to see people view the mainframe as I’ll even say as sexy as it is, like Apple is to the laptop or like iMac or the iPhone that piece of hardware that design almost becomes ubiquitous with their life. Well, we have the ubiquity of the mainframe and they do look freaking sweet. If you’ve ever seen one in person, they are amazing pieces of machinery and like I said, I don’t come from a traditional tech background, but the first time I saw one, I’m like that thing is cool.
 
Reg: Yeah, it is.
 
Alix: and you know, I want to see this—have that same level of appeal to people and however that manifests itself, I don’t know, but I think really where design in a very abstract sense is how we introduce this piece of machinery to everybody’s life in a way that it is not just something that runs in the background, but is also something that’s like hey, I’m here. Like it becomes a household name if you will. That’s what I’m looking for, becomes a household name like a laptop or a phone—
 
Reg: Yeah.
 
Alix: Or the mainframe, you know. That’s what I would like to see.
 
Reg: I’m totally on board with that idea and I think that’s something we should all be thinking about. Certainly I encourage everybody who listens to these podcasts as well because I think the world has really suffered from having decision makers not understand that we have successfully bet the had the world economy on the mainframe and as we double down on that investment, we get more value and to even think of creating a new application on a platform other than the mainframe without seriously considering what the mainframe has to offer, I think, is always a mistake, so welcome to the effort to get the world to wake up to this. Any other thoughts you wanted to share just about what you’ve seen, where you’re going, where you see the ecosystem going?
 
Alix: I think just one thing to build off on what you said is the best pieces of technology or just everyday use are things that have been around for awhile. I think the fact that they’ve existed for so long is a testament to their effectiveness and we live in a world where we really like the new thing, the shiny new thing—
 
Reg: Yeah.
 
Alix: And it can get really time consuming, expensive, and often times doesn’t even do what we really want it to do. We have this wonderful piece of technology that’s absolutely incredible, that is very much open to innovation in and of itself. You can have the shiny new thing on the mainframe for sure—
 
Reg: Yeah.
 
Alix: But we have this beautiful piece of technology that just works so well and you can do so much with it. I think if we spent more time investing in what we can do with the mainframe rather than seeking a replacement or whatever that is, our rate of growth is going to skyrocket. I’m sure of that.
 
Reg: Well, I am 100% in agreement with you on that, Alix, so welcome aboard to the ecosystem. Great to have you here and thank you so much for taking the time today.
 
Alix: Thank you for having me, Reg, this is an honor. It’s great to get to talk to you and like I said, you’re my first contact into this wonderful ecosystem so this has been an honor on my part for sure.
 
Reg: That’s awesome. So I’ll be back with another podcast next month, but in the meantime, check out the other content on TechChannel. You can also subscribe to their weekly newsletters, webinars, e-books, solutions directory, and more on the subscription page. I’m Reg Harbeck.
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