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A Next-Generation Mainframer Finds Her Way

Emma Skovgård on the challenges and rewards of her new systems programming career

This transcript is edited for clarity.

Reg Harbeck: Hi. I’m Reg Harbeck and today I’m here with Emma Skovgård, who is an IBM Champion for z or zed mainframes and an apprentice systems programmer. Welcome, Emma.

Emma Skovgård: Thank you so much for having me.

Reg: So first thing I want to find out is how did you end up where you are right now as a mainframer? I mean, as a next-generation mainframer, there is always a unique story. What brought you to being a mainframer?

Emma: So early last year I started studying IT infrastructure in Denmark and I was really like struggling to find my way. I was putting out tons of different applications—and going into it, I thought wow, this is going to be easy. I already know some programming and I have a passion for this. I’m sure employers will recognize that. That was not my experience like, at all. I was really, really struggling. During an interview with this insurance company—it was a group interview, so there was a bunch of different people there. I think we were seven people in total. They were like pitching working on the mainframe as a career path that was like very viable and an area that really needed extra people. I didn’t think that much of it at the time. They weren’t just trying to get people for the mainframe, they needed people in all sorts of different departments. And then a few days later I got a rejection letter and I was like, this is not going that well. So I started learning about this mainframe because I was just desperate to get a job at that point. I started learning a little bit of COBOL, and I asked one of the people I met during the interview, one of the people working for insurance companies, what kind of technologies they were actually using on the mainframe. Because it was difficult finding information on it online—at least when I didn’t know what to search for. Then like a few weeks into my mainframe self-studies, I suddenly get this call from an unknown caller and when I checked my voicemail, it was apparently one of the managers from the insurance company and she was like oh, we’re really interested in talking to you. I think it was a mistake rejecting you. I called her back and said I was interested, and a few months later I finally got my second interview with the company. I basically got hired on the spot because I said I was willing to work on the mainframe.

Reg: Wow. Excellent. Now so you’re based in Denmark, I guess in Copenhagen, so I’m going to guess that the company that hired you is also in the Copenhagen area. Is that fair?

Emma: Yeah.

Reg: Cool. Now what sort of educational background did you have before learning mainframe? Was it some technical institute or university or other studies?

Emma: Just self-studying. I’ve been playing around with programming since I was about 13, I think. So I’ve been doing this for over a decade but mostly in a hobby capacity.

Reg: Now what languages did you learn on your own?

Emma: I did a little bit of Lua and Python before going onto the mainframe. I think those languages actually are pretty great for getting into the mainframe because they are also a little bit English-like, not quite as much as Rexx and COBOL, but there was some sense of familiarity I think.

Reg: Now since starting to study the mainframe, you’ve obviously learned a few additional languages. You mentioned Rexx, you mentioned COBOL. I know there’s some debate about whether it counts as a language, but you probably learned a bit of JCL. Any other languages you’ve sort of picked up?

Emma: I’ve done a course on CLIST, but I haven’t really done any CLIST scripting yet.

Reg: Well if you’re doing Rexx, it’s hard to justify knowing more CLIST than is absolutely necessary to maintain things that are in CLIST rather than Rexx—although it’s sort of interesting. Have you done much Rexx yet?

Emma: Yeah, I’ve done a little bit of work. I was given a task to do some storage management. I had to do this little utility that had to check for misconfigurations in our storage set up. I did that in Rexx. It was a pretty smooth experience for the most part.

Reg: Cool, but you’ve also studied some COBOL. Have you had a chance to work on any applications on COBOL on the mainframe yet?

Emma: No and I probably won’t to get to do that because I’m pretty set on the systems programming side, and at least in our shop the system programmers don’t touch COBOL at all.

Reg: I get that. Now what are the popular languages among the system programmers at your shop?

Emma: Mostly Rexx, honestly. I’ve been trying to advocate for getting a little bit of Python in there, because IBM announced I think it was last year that 98% of Python workloads are zIIP-eligible, but it’s an uphill battle right now.

Reg: Oh yeah, I’m sure. But I’m going to be honest: That’s going to be your career journey. You are part of the cohort that’s going to help move the whole mainframe space forward and you’re going to be carrying that on your shoulders, so it’s always going to feel like an uphill battle until you look back one day and realize that you’re no longer the youngest person there. One of the reasons I know that is because when I started out on the mainframe in 1987, I was the youngest person by about half a generation compared to all of my colleagues, so I went on a similar journey. That said, we didn’t have Python, we didn’t have UNIX System Services when I started on the mainframe. Now are you doing Python outside of USS, or is it all pretty much entirely under USS?

Emma: Just under USS so far. I haven’t done it on our own system yet, but I’ve done it a little bit on the IBM Z Xplore system.

Reg: Cool, so IBM Z Xplore is a really big part of your learning and growing. What are some of the other resources you took advantage of in order to really help—continue to take advantage of to help build you as a mainframer?

Emma: I’ve been using Interskill a lot.

Reg: Oh, excellent.

Emma: I’ve done I think almost 90 courses on Interskill or something like that.

Reg: Wow. Wow. Where do you keep all the badges [laughs]? Cool. Now somehow you got involved in the IBM Champions world as well, which is really cool. How did that happen?

Emma: I actually wasn’t going to get into that as early as I did originally. I was like, I’ll wait a bit with that. But then I think it was Sabine [Diemt]. She nominated me and it was like okay, I guess I’m doing this now.

Reg: Well Sabine is a fascinating mover and shaker in the mainframe space. As you know I just recently interviewed her for this podcast—in fact she recommended that I interview you. So it’s really neat to see that connection, and it’s one of the things that really has struck me about the mainframe is the closeness of the culture. You know because we’re not you know like a billion users all working technically, people get to know each other right around the planet. And you know so Sabine is, I guess, based in the Arabian Peninsula but originally from Germany. You’re based in Denmark and you guys have this really neat connection. Now, one of the connections of course is the conferences. This week when I’m talking to you there is going to be GSE. Are you going to be—probably not in person but at least remote in attendance at any of those sessions?

Emma: I’m probably going to skip that one because I’ve been a bit busy lately, but I do try to watch as many events as I can and attend as many in-person conferences as my manager will pay for.

Reg: Now you were at Barcelona, right?

Emma: No I wasn’t, unfortunately. I really wanted to attend that one but I wasn’t able to. Like I found out about that one like right after registration ended I think, so I missed out on that one.

Reg: So do you have some conferences you are planning to attend in person this year?

Emma: I really want to attend the SHARE conference in Kansas City.

Reg: Oh cool. Well I hope to see you there for sure. Now as you grow as a systems programmer, obviously the development of a system programmer is a unique path compared to other mainframe paths even though they have a lot in common, and one of the challenges of course is having to get used to 3270 and its ultimate manifestation under ISPF. You know Joe Winchester, he has some wonderful diatribes—they’re diatribes against 3270 that just happen to be manifested through ISPF. What’s your journey of learning 3270 and ISPF been like so far?

Emma: It was a bit intimidating at first, but I’m slowly getting used to it. I can navigate around the panels and customize them and stuff. I’m not that fond of the ISPF editor though. I don’t really mind the panels, but I haven’t really become friends with the editor yet. So right now I mostly use VS Code for my editing.

Reg: Ah, okay. So you’re using Zowe for that?

Emma: Yeah, I’m using Zowe Explorer and a bunch of different plugins at this point. I also really want to get into like making my own custom plugins, because I feel like there’s a lot of untapped potential in like the z/OS Management Facility REST APIs.

Reg: You know when I first started on the mainframe, I had spent a whole degree learning non-mainframe. I started the mainframe in 1987 and I graduated from my computer science degree in ’86. I had learned Emacs and I had learned edit macros and keyboard macros, and one of the things that really struck me on the mainframe is it couldn’t hear you type. You know when you’re sitting there typing 3270, you can’t do a keyboard macro unless you’re using your emulator to do it, because the mainframe couldn’t tell or care what you’re doing until you hit a function key. But of course once you’re doing VS Code, then you can do a whole lot more of that stuff. But one of the things I really loved about the mainframe was that I could do Rexx edit macros. So I’m going to guess that you probably have something similar that you’re using with your editor that allow you to do your own personal customizations. So how are you customizing your system programming style editing under VS Code?

Emma: I mostly use the stock settings right now. I’ve set up a few shortcuts and stuff like that, but I try not to do too many custom things because if I lose that configuration, or if I hypothetically were to change jobs or something, I won’t have that environment anymore. So I try my best to get used to defaults as much as possible, unless the default is just completely insufferable. That’s kind of my mentality, but yeah, there’s always a few exceptions to the rule.

Reg: Well you know that makes sense. I know it’s one of the things that I’ve been talking to people about is one of the biggest challenges—I like the word legacy. I think it’s not a put down; I think it’s you know, something of value from the past. But it doesn’t change the fact that some of our legacies on the mainframe probably would do well to be replaced, and one of them is local customizations. Really the products now offer features that are the same only better and somebody else maintains them, so I think being able to use products as much out of the box with as little customization is a good way to position for the future. What are some of the interesting quirks, you know local customizations or other quirks you’ve encountered that have sort of made you stand back and say “really?”

Emma: Hmm. I’ve seen a lot of funky stuff at our shop. Like our login screen is completely different from what I’ve seen on a different test systems and from the screen shots of other people’s configurations and stuff. I do think ours is actually a little bit better than the default; it’s just a little bit more user friendly. But in general I do prefer just defaults even if they’re slightly more annoying because as I said, it gets used to something that isn’t standard. Like that could go away if a different systems administrator comes in or if you get a different job or whatever. So I don’t really like that and you also have more stuff you need to maintain and that’s just a lot of resources you need to dedicate to that and I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Reg: Fair enough. Now that said, one thing I’ve thought for a long time—actually since I first started as a system programmer and there was already so many decades of legacy before me—is that one of the things a new mainframer brings to the job is they haven’t gotten used to stuff that’s not good enough, and they still have an idea of how it could be better you know and haven’t kind of put that on a shelf and forgotten about it. What are some of the things that really struck you—you know, this could be better if the following were introduced or changed?

Emma: I would really like to see more REST APIs for the system. There’s still a lot of stuff you can only do through 3270 or have to do in very indirect ways. I was looking into extending some of the VS Code plugins recently and I just discovered that there’s no way to extract the information I wanted from the system in an easy way. It’s just very annoying to me because the mainframe should at the end of the day be a server where you can extract information from it, and if we don’t offer enough REST APIs and stuff like that, it just becomes like this black box that only a few people understand, and I don’t think that’s good.

Reg: Now one of the things—and of course obviously being in Europe, you know you’re used to dealing with multiple languages—but one of the things that I think is sort of unique about the mainframe is EBCDIC. It takes awhile to get used to it because the sort order is different and there’s this big gap in the middle of the alphabet and all that stuff. Have you had any sort of what-the-heck experiences with EBCDIC?

Emma: A little bit. Like I think the hashtag has been turned into a letter here and it makes YAML files and a lot of logs look very funky—like $AVRS is one of the tools we use here, but the $ sign has also been turned into a local letter character. So people don’t call it “savers,” they have this like weird name for it and it just sounds so stupid every time people talk about $AVRS. It’s just always weird little quirks from having standardized characters turned into letters. Yeah, I wish there was a better way to do it, because it looks very stupid.

Reg: Now you’re sort of overlapping with another topic that I think is interesting and that is just the experience of dealing with a platform that, although it grew up with you know multiple languages and with Europe and other things, still has such a strong English tendency that you have to always sort of deal with the fact that different characters and words in different languages are sort of second nature to the mainframe. What are some of the other experiences you’ve had that have really stood out both in terms of it being difficult, but also in terms of interesting ways to deal with it?

Emma: I don’t know. I always try to use English when I’m doing stuff because it just works a little better, but there’s no standard at our shop. So some people will write comments in Danish and some will do it in English.

Reg: Fair enough. Now one of the things that of course you bring with you is you’ve got the sensibilities of effectively a millennial coming into a platform that has been around since just slightly past halfway through the previous century and kind of coming to it with the experience of being what a lot of people call a digital native. As somebody with a natural or more natural sense of technology compared to people who have worked on the mainframe, what are some of the best things you’ve experienced about the mainframe that really stood out as “that’s how computing should be done right in the first place”?

Emma: I always bring up the fact that mainframe is so power efficient and green. The decentralized platforms—it’s like, oh it doesn’t matter that we’re using thousands of watts for a server that can handle I don’t know, like a fraction of the amount of transactions that the mainframe can do. I just think that’s completely insane. So like how environmentally friendly the mainframes are, I think that’s honestly the strongest link. We’re going through a massive environmental crisis right now, and I think it’s honestly the most objective backing for why mainframes are better.

Reg: Cool. So looking forward now—and here’s the thing is that right now if you choose to stay on the mainframe, you’ve got a massively you know long excellent career ahead of you if you choose to on the mainframe and you probably already have a sense of what you would like that career to look like if it were up to you, and what you’d like the mainframe to be like. So looking forward to you know, another say 20, 30, 40 years in the future if you’re still working on the mainframe, what are you hoping the mainframe will be like? How are you hoping it will improve, and especially if you have anything to say about it?

Emma: I would really like to see a bigger focus on like simplifying things, standardizing things and just in general making it like more user-friendly. I don’t think it’s quite as bad as the critics say, but I do think there’s just too many options on the platform. I do think it allows you to customize things too much. The amount of like, variety between mainframe shops is a little bit insane [laughs].

Reg: Fair enough. Now just before we finish up, and I know it is sort of taking us a bit longer because there’s so much interest that I’m getting from here, but I really am curious to know what your thoughts are about the mainframe culture. Of course you see the mainframe culture from a different perspective, different point of view than a lot of the folks in North America, but also because you’re from a different generation from so many of the people who are currently in the mainframe, so you sort of see a lot about that and yet you’ve obviously already been welcomed into that culture and very much a part of it. What are your thoughts about where the mainframe culture is and where it can be?

Emma: There are some things I really like about the mainframe culture and there’s also some things I really dislike. Let’s start with the stuff I like. I really like how helpful people are. There’s a way greater sense of community on the mainframe than on other platforms. At least in my experience people are very willing to help out. It’s easy to get into the major mainframe conferences for free if you’re a student. So that’s some really good stuff there, but I don’t really like how the mainframe culture is when it comes to interacting with other platforms. I see a lot of like elitism and disparaging comments regarding other platforms and I don’t really think that’s helpful. I’ve also encountered people who are like, oh, we can’t learn anything from other platforms. Ours is just the best. I do think overall the mainframe is the best platform, but it’s just a little bit insane to me to claim with a straight face that there’s nothing that can be learned from other platforms. I think we’ve seen a lot of great ideas come in from other platforms, like the REST APIs and the VS Code stuff and the containers as well, actually. So I do think there’s some great stuff coming from other platforms and to just say oh that stuff doesn’t matter, it’s worthless, that’s just really insane to me. It just reinforces a lot of the criticism that we get from the people on the other platforms who are like oh, mainframers are out of touch and so on.

Reg: Okay. So, as we sort of tie up and look to the future, any closing thoughts you’d like to offer? Anything you’d especially sort of like to address or tell people or ask people or just share about your thoughts on the mainframe?

Emma: I think we need to focus more on getting in touch with non-mainframers, like getting into non-mainframe conferences and talking about why the mainframe still exists, why companies should consider stuff like LinuxONE. Right now I feel like we’re preaching a little bit to the choir. Non-mainframers don’t go to GSE and SHARE and conferences like that, so we need to get into all those other conferences to actually improve the PR situation for our platform.

Reg: Well thank you so much, Emma, for taking the time for this. I’ve really enjoyed it. 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.