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Skip Robinson on SHARE, JES2 and Programming Over the Years

Reg Harbeck talks with Skip Robinson about his career journey, his contribution to SHARE, the JES2 project, his experience with VM and Rexx, and other anecdotes from his time in the industry.

Reg Harbeck: Hi, this is Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with my friend and colleague Skip Robinson who is a major contributor at SHARE and a really experienced mainframer. Well rather than tell you all about it myself, Skip, welcome. Tell us. How did you end up at the mainframe and SHARE?
 
Skip Robinson: Well, I ended up where I'm at through kind of a winding road and that windingness really goes back a long way. When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an engineer. That was my goal so age I don't know 9, 10 something like that.  Part of the problem was I had absolutely no idea what an engineer did. I remember walking home from school one day and sitting down to watch an electric lineman on the top of a pole doing something thinking that if I watched him, I would get some sort of clue as to what my future life might be. I was way off base but anyway didn't matter. Went to–got through elementary school first try you know; not everybody does.
 
Reg: I have relatives who didn't.
 
Skip: Went through junior high school and I always had a proclivity for math which in those days was you know a lot simpler but still. Then went into high school and a similar kind of thing. I still had this goal of being an engineer.  Still didn't spend any time knowing what that was but that was just kind of-it was kind of a thing that was out there sort of lighting the way. So, then I­–then I went you know went off and got to college and in fact I was a little–getting a little wary about science and engineering at that point for reasons that really have nothing to do with those subjects proper, but this was during the Vietnam War. It was easy to kind of interpret a lot of what I saw in the news and whatnot of what scientists did was things that blew up and burned and whatnot, so I was a little wary. I mean let's just put it that way. It wasn't like I was on a crusade, but I chose–when I had a choice of a few colleges and I specifically chose one that had a good engineering program but would allow for other possibilities so even at that point I was a little bit-a little bit unsure.  Meanwhile this was a time in the early 60's when computers were really obscure, okay.  They just-they were around someplace but I never came in contact, never-never rubbed shoulders with a computer at all. Got into college and I was pursuing you know a sort of preengineering course. I had a roommate who-who was an engineer also, but he was a little more single minded that I guess-than I was, and he was taking computer courses. I remember him coming back way late at night from the computer lab having solved some problem that I was-and I told him well that's so trivial why are you bothering to use a machine for this? I don't know. The square root of a number, something like that. Well, he told me it's not the answer that's important, it's the process. I go okay, fine, fine. Well sure enough as it turns out after-after the first year or two I really did move away from engineering and in fact ended up graduating with a degree in English.
 
Reg: Oh.
 
Skip: Didn't deliberately pick something as far as possible but I had some facility in-in language so that's kind of what I picked. So, time goes on and we're still-we're still in the Vietnam era where I don't know. Did you grow up in Canada? I know you made some comment about moving–
 
Reg:  Well, you're assuming I grew up but yeah–
 
Skip:  Ah, well.
 
Reg: I came to Canada a one–year–old.
 
Skip: Got you.
 
Reg: My formative years were in the late 60s, early 70s in Canada.
 
Skip: Okay. So, during that period of time the draft was a burning fireball on the-on the horizon and as a young guy of draftable age, you have complete freedom of choice as to what you might want to do. You couldn't just wake up one morning and say hey, I think I'll do such and such. You had to take some account of whether your local draft board would likely go along with that choice and I mean that's just-that was-that was life the way it was until the draft finally ended in the 70's so still, I was–I was chugging along. One day when I was working in the cafeteria as a–as a hasher as we called it, my girlfriend came in and said hey, let's join the Peace Corps. It was–it was just like that right out of the clear blue sky and of course I knew that there were Peace Corps recruiters on campus. I mean it was a well–known fact but I had never actually pictured myself doing that, but she was really enthusiastic. Oh yeah, let's do this. Let's-let's go some place. So, I went through the process of filling out the application and doing the-well there was groundwork okay and it was more than just something that I would do. I was observed I found out later on by some civil service guy whose job it was to just take a look at-at people who were thinking of joining the Peace Corps.  So anyway, I pursued it and got an offer, got an invitation to join. Meanwhile the girlfriend went off to graduate school and so-and I went off the Peace Corps.
 
Reg: Oh? So, she didn't join you after all that.
 
Skip: She did not. She did not. She was so enthusiastic about it, but she ended up deciding she wanted a PhD and so that's what she did, and I ended up going to West Africa in the Peace Corps.  So that was the first of a number of huge decisions in my life that just kind of fell out of the sky. I really look at it as completely unmotivated. I didn't do any research. I didn't sit down and think about consequences. She said let's do it and I said okay fine and I ended up there.  So-and that was the first of a number. So, I went off to the Peace Corps and at this point I had a degree in English, and a teaching degree in math and science but I was–I was in Nigeria. That’s where–that's where I was sent.
 
Reg: Okay.
 
Skip: So, I did that. I came back finally. Well, I extended for a year-oh meanwhile there was a civil war going on in Nigeria.
 
Reg: Oh, wow.
 
Skip: It was-it was a troublesome time to be in West Africa. I was not personally affected by it but-other than having my post reassigned to a different country. I went to Liberia and I extended an extra year so a total of three years. Then I came back and decided that I was going to go to UCLA graduate school and study English as a second language, teaching it and linguistics.
 
Reg: Cool.
 
Skip: And so that's what I did. When I came after a fairly short time, I met the young lady who was to become my wife and okay then I finished graduate school I finished my degrees. She had hers as well and at that point I wasn't exactly sure what to do but an opportunity came up to be a university lecturer in Nigeria in the field of linguistics and so we talked it over and we both went. 
 
Reg: Wow.
 
Skip: I went as the university guy and she got a job teaching at a girl's secondary school so–so we spent two years there, had a baby toward the end–
 
Reg: Wow.
 
Skip: And about that time we decided ahhh, probably want to come back. The grandparents were anxious to see the kid and the future didn't necessarily look all that-all that solid, so we came back after a couple of years. So, she became a teacher, actually was already a teacher at Los Angeles Unified and I was the one that stayed home with the kid the first year because I was conveniently unemployed. So, I decided to apply for local jobs, high school, or junior high I preferred, sorry junior college I preferred, and I wasn't having too much luck with that. So meanwhile during that period she was home you know kind of under the weather watching daytime TV and at that time in those years, airways were saturated with ads for computer trade schools. So, she was watching–she was watching this one particular set and went and took the aptitude test because she wasn't as thrilled with the way her teaching was going. She was teaching in junior high school which is really hard anyway. So, she took the aptitude test and she encouraged me to take the aptitude test. So, I did. I took the aptitude test.  Meanwhile she began to feel better about teaching and went back to her regular school and I went into computer school. So, this is the second of the great falling from the sky not expecting a thing to happen and several months later I had a certificate in computers whatever that meant in those days. Now this was the days the 360/370 was-was the thing.  That was what you found.
 
Reg: So, this would have been the early 70's?
 
Skip: Yeah, yes. Actually no. At this point it was already the late 70's.
 
Reg: Oh okay.
 
Skip: Yeah. So, I'm sure there were other more sophisticated computers around but at least what I would see as a student in computer trade school, that's what I saw. I saw 360/70.  So–so I went ahead, and you know and took my certificate and decided that I would get a job. That turned out to be really easy. I had a university degree which was a big help just in terms of applying for a job. It-it didn't necessarily make me more hirable, but it showed that I was literate okay and that was a big deal. So, I got a job pretty early on as application programmer trainee at TRW Credit Data which the name today doesn't-doesn't exist anymore, but that company eventually became Experian. It was doing computerized credit reporting which was a pretty new thing in those days.  That was the first job I took. So meanwhile we had a second kid. Okay, that was-that was a cool thing and then I was slogging away at my-at my trainee-computer trainee job and after a while I began to get kind of itchy feet a little bit and whereas I couldn't find a job teaching, it was not at all difficult to find a job in computers and so–and so I did that. Eventually after a couple of job changes, I wasn't flitting from one to another, but I did make a few changes. I ended up at a bank, a bank which no longer exists but at that time was 100 years old. I ended up there but meanwhile I had moved into systems programming from my original application job.
 
Reg: Now what languages did you write your applications in? Was it COBOL or Assembler or–?
 
Skip: It was COBOL and Assembler, but I–I was really lucky. I had a heavy Assembler application that I supported, and I did some COBOL. I mean there was a bit of that, but it really was mainly application Assembler programming so that–that was a great start for a person who was interested in getting into systems. I actually chose–
 
Reg: Would that be when you met Ed Jaffe?
 
Skip: Umm that's where he–yes, that is where I met Ed Jaffe, at Security Pacific Bank.
 
Reg: Cool.
 
Skip: He was on the application side, but he was not your run of the mill application guy. He was–as you can imagine, he was an application guy who was constantly busy writing tools to use for himself and for his colleagues. So, for example and this I mean-this really stands out as–as how Ed worked. He called me up one day and said you know there's a problem with ISPF. Okay. I wasn't aware of it. We had put some maintenance on it recently. He said if you sort a table that has no elements in it, you get an 0C4. [Laughter]
 
Reg: Oh.
 
Skip: Okay fine, all right. So, in those days we didn't have the tools to check with IBM and do research in their database, but we did have tapes that came from them that we would load up and I was able to look in there and sure enough, I found an APAR for exactly that problem. There was a single PTF for it and I put it on.  He tested it out and he says hey, thanks, that's fine.  So-so that's the kind of application guy he was and plus he also–as I say he had applications that he had written that were used by his colleagues and when it came time for Ed Jaffe to move on, that kind of left his-his colleagues kind of high and dry. I couldn't really do much for them because these were, you know, tools that he had written but–but that shows he was-he was functioning a lot like a systems person for his you know his colleagues. I'm pretty sure from what I remember that Ed wanted to be a systems guy at that time and had made some-some moves in the direction of the-of the systems programming department, but he didn't get any positive response. I don't know exactly when the moment was, but I think he pretty much said if you guys won't–won't take me on doing this, I'll go somewhere else and so he left Security Pacific Bank.
 
Reg: But meanwhile you stuck around for awhile because you already were a system programmer.
 
Skip: Yeah. Oh yeah, yes, I did stick around, yeah. I was there for a total of ten years from '83 to '93 basically.
 
 Reg: Okay.
 
Skip: So, through that acquisition by–by Bank of America and all that sort of thing so yeah, I stayed but Ed went off to do other things. Now that was a JES2 shop and so I know how thoroughly saturated he is with JES3. He didn't get that at Security Pacific. I assume that it was from Phoenix if he went directly to Phoenix. I'm a little fuzzy–
 
Reg: Yeah.
 
Skip: On where he went but yeah and so he became a real devotee of JES3. Meanwhile I stayed at Security Pacific for awhile and eventually moved off after we were taken over by Bank of America.  There were no Southern California opportunities for systems programming. It was–it was pretty much do just routine installs coming out of San Francisco or move on and so I did the move on. I eventually ended up at–at SCE, Southern California Edison which had a really good system. It was, I would say between Security Pacific and SCE, they really had first rate computer systems but more than just hardware. It was the way they dealt with people. People were given a lot of autonomy. There was–you didn't get stuck in these teams of endless number of people doing things that you know you only had a touch of. The way I like to describe it was you would get a product. It would come and if you were tasked to be the person, you opened the box. You took out the tapes. You put the–you went to the tape room with the tapes, loaded everything up, did first runs of it and you-you stuck with it until the first IPL when it went into production and you took the first problem call. I mean that's-that's how personal it was.
 
Reg: Nice.
 
Skip: A lot of shops don't do that. A lot of shops you know compartmentalized okay you do this part of it and you do that part. I personally really believe in the–in the follow through where you take it from beginning to end because when things happen, you know.  Now the downside of that is that you are the person that knows it. If a problem comes up, it is hard to find backup but still I mean as far as the company is concerned, I think they end up with the best opportunities.
 
Reg: Now are you still with them?
 
Skip: I am. I'm actually retired but there as a contractor so–
 
Reg: Okay. You know I used to joke that–I used to joke that the average mainframer's retirement plan was to come back as a high price contractor doing the same job but I had to change that joke when I realized that they're not paying that much better or even any better when people come back as a retiree.
 
Skip: Yeah, let's just say they're paying well enough, okay.
 
Reg: Okay well that's good.
 
Skip:  I'm comfortable as they say.
 
Reg: Well, that's good.
 
Skip: Now where does SHARE come along? Well, the boss that I had at the time Steve Medak who still posts on IBM main occasionally. He said hey, let's go to SHARE and I go hmmm, okay and so we-we packed up our suitcases and went to–went to a SHARE. He and I were both interested in doing JES2 so we went and visited the JES2 project at that time and then this is yet another falling into things. He decided that he was headed more toward management. He wasn't going to do SHARE but I went back and eventually became project manager of SHARE for a long time.
 
Reg: Which project?
 
Skip: Sorry? It was JES2.
 
Reg: Okay so you've been JES-oh, oh, oh! So, you've been JES2 and Ed's been JES3 like almost from the earliest days!
 
Skip: Yes, yes, yes.
 
Reg: Oh, that's so fun.
 
Skip: Yes, yes and they used to joke in the JES2 project that I was the first project manager that was actually running a supported JES. [Laughter] It was-it was kind of–it was you know kind of a standing joke that the project managers all ran such old versions of JES that they were not officially supported so part of their–
 
Reg: And probably because they have the source code, right?
 
Skip: Yes. In those days you had source code for most everything so-and so part of their motivation for doing this was to make sure that they could keep JES2 going in their own shop. I mean my–my JES2 was–was still–you know, it was always officially supported up to the end.  Meanwhile, you know I ran across Ed. I forget exactly when we-when we met up but by that time he was-he was doing JES3. I was doing JES2 and as time went on, he–I kind of stayed in JES2 for awhile and he did the MVSE, MVS Core project and then he eventually moved on. We both–we both finally became comanagers we call ourselves in the MVS program itself which is–which includes a bunch of different MVS projects including both JES2 and JES3. It still stands that way today. We are still–we're still comanagers of that-that program. He is still at Phoenix where he has been for so long and I'm still at–at Southern California Edison where I've been for such a long time so kind of a wandering course of events that led us from various points to a very similar kind of–of–of place in SHARE. 
 
Reg: Well, that's been really interesting. Now I'd be interested if there is any special highlights or memories that you wanted to share either from SHARE or just from your mainframe career that really you know as you look back on it, you say well this was you know some one or two really special things that I think you know I'll always kind of carry with me as either something really fun or really neat or really innovative that you just kind of take to heart.
 
Skip: One little you know anecdote I like to tell if you could call it that actually goes all the way back to when I was in programming school, the trade school and that was you would sit there working on a project, on an assignment and you just couldn't get it right, just work, work, work and it wouldn't work. You'd look at it; you'd look at the book and everything and then a colleague, not the instructor but just another student would walk by and reach over and put his finger on the spot in the code that was wrong. Okay. Something missing, something that shouldn't have been there, whatever and I–it–that kind of thing has happened to one degree or another over the years and I've heard other–other computer people say the same thing that you get so absorbed into trying to solve a particular problem that it takes just a pair of fresh eyes to come along that can see the problem almost instantly even though you're the one that's invested all the time. You're the one that has–has looked at the doc and yet they look at it and say ahhh, I see the problem. It's right there.
 
Reg: I know exactly what you're talking about. You've got such a clear picture of what's supposed to be the case that it is hard to see what is the case sometimes.
 
Skip: Yes, yes, yes. So, I–I haven't written a whole lot of code, have written that is a whole lot of code but I do write system tools and I started out with CLIST because that's what there was. When I got into the business CLIST was–was the tool that you would use, the high–level interpretive language. Then along came Rexx. Rexx was a–was a foreign invader from VM at least that's the way it looked to me because at some point I just said to myself. This is back–back at the bank Security Pacific that I needed to learn Rexx. It was just obvious that that's the way things were headed. So, I would run constantly. We ran VM at that time. We had VM and they had Rexx. Rexx was their thing so I was constantly running from the MVS area over to–sorry-yeah from MVS over to VM to get assistance because I would play with it for a certain length of time and then I needed some guidance. At that time there were still some differences between the MVS and VM versions, but it was–they were close enough that I could usually get answers to what I needed. So, at some point I just decided–and this is all the way back certainly in the 80's, when I said okay from now on, it's all Rexx. The only time I would do any CLIST work is if I just needed to–to tweak an existing CLIST that had-had been in place a long time but if I was going to write any thing from scratch, it was going to be Rexx. My buddy Tom Brennan who is famous for having written Vista 3270, I kind of pushed him into Rexx at some point. At first he complained a lot about the structure of it; he says oh I can't stand the way it looks, complain, complain but now he you know he has long since moved into Rexx himself but he was-he wrote Vista in C because he's the only system programmer I know who actually knows the PC world well enough that he could write something like the emulator, the TN3270 emulator, Vista that he could write that in C because he really knew C but he was also a working system programmer so he would put a lot of programming well okay tools. He would put in a lot of useful aids into the emulator that only a system programmer or a real certainly a 3270 person would know so you know you're looking at a PC screen and unless you have a background in  mainframe, you wouldn't really know necessarily what to do other than yeah, convert this to that but he has a lot of usability. Let's just call it that usability tweaks in the product that would only come from a person who was a professional mainframe programmer as well.
 
Reg: Cool.
 
Skip: So, Tom has-Tom has gone off to another company. He's now kind of in the sales end of hardware and software both and I'm still plugging along. See I get into a spot and I just kind of stay there. I was in the JES2 project for ten years. I've been in the MVS program for a long, long time.  Other people move along and I've just never really kind of gotten into that. If I got into something else at this point it would be because I fell into it because that seems to be–that seems to be the pattern in my life. I make big changes by accident.
 
Reg: Well, it sounds like it's been a heck of a great journey so far.
 
Skip: It has.
 
Reg:  Any closing thoughts before we finish up with this great conversation?
 
Skip:  It's a profession I believe in. It doesn't have quite the–the bright sort of rainbow to it that it did I guess when I got into it. When I first got into it, people had no idea what I did, okay and you know they didn't know what computers did–
 
Reg: Right.
 
Skip: And when people did get computers, they were the wrong kind. 
 
Reg: Yeah.
 
Skip: So, people would come to me and say hey, can you fix my PC? Sorry. I use it as a tool but it's like asking a taxi driver to fix your car just because he uses it so–so I still think it's a great thing.  The mainframe itself is a fantastic platform that's going to be around for a long time, not doing always what it used to do. For one thing, we can–we can do much more with the same number of hands that we used to–
 
Reg: Yeah.
 
Skip:  So, there aren't–aren't people breaking down your door to get you to change jobs the way there were in the 70's and 80's but still it's going to keep baby in shoes.
 
Reg: Hmm oh yeah. Well thank you so much Skip. This has been a real pleasure.
 
Skip: Sure. Yeah, I hope you can make some use of it.
 
Reg: Yup.
 
Skip: Whittle it down, sand off the corners a bit.
 
Reg: Okay, well I think I'm going to keep the whole thing so thank you very much.
 
Skip: Okay, okay. Thank you, Reg, appreciate the opportunity.
 
Reg: Yeah absolutely. 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, ebooks, solutions directory, and more on the subscription page. I'm Reg Harbeck.
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