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Len Santalucia on His Mainframe Journey and Career

Reg Harbeck: Hi. I am Reg Harbeck and today I’m here with Len Santalucia, my friend and colleague who is the chief technology officer at Vicom Infinity, a Converge company. And you know if you’re on the mainframe, if there is one person you’re likely to know, it’s probably Len. He seems to have the biggest—as we like to say, those of us who have been around for awhile—the biggest Rolodex in the world of mainframe. So Len, tell us about yourself. How did you end up on the mainframe?

Len Santalucia: Oh, interesting story, but you know when I was born and raised in the hometown of IBM: Endicott, New York. That’s where IBM incorporated in 1914 and when my family migrated from Italy in the early 1900s, they came to work in the Endicott area because there was a shoe company by the name of Endicott Johnson Shoe Company there. They employed almost 30,000 people and my grandparents were all leather craftsmen, and that’s where you went to work when you came from Italy if you were a leather craftsman. As time went on, Endicott Johnson Shoe Company declined in employment because the imports were starting to take a toll on them, but then a fellow by the name of Thomas J. Watson Sr. decided to start a company in Endicott to draw from that labor force. And he incorporated three companies together in 1914, calling it International Business Machines because they opened up an office in Toronto, so it made them international. And so in 1936 my grandfather went to work for IBM, my father in 1950, and then me in 1978. So it’s kind of a long story and the rest is history. I’ve been involved with it ever since.
Reg: Wow. So now you started out your mainframe career in 1978 in IBM, and what did you do in IBM for how long?

Len: Well I started out as a what was then called a PSR, a program support rep in level 2 (L2) and level 3 (L3) support for operating systems that are still around today. First started out with VSE, then went to VM and then went to MVS, which is now z/OS. And after doing that for a while, for the first four or five years supporting clients remotely, I had an opportunity to move into marketing in the lab of what was then new mainframes known as the 9370 and the 4381. In the 1983-84 timeframe, I started traveling around making presentations at the Briefing Center and then down and around the Wall Street area because it was not too far away, about 3-4 hour ride. And before I knew it, I was starting to be asked to come onto the marketing and sales staff teams down in New York, and it was a very good thing to do actually for my career. I didn’t realize that at the time but before I knew it, I was involved with a lot of very large mainframe opportunities in and around Wall Street. A lot. I became associated with Wall Street financial firms that everybody knows that are still there today and it has kept evolving, evolving, and evolving. Eventually when our kids graduated from college, it got to the point that I was going down to New York so much my wife said let’s sell the house and let’s go live in Manhattan. So then we moved and lived in Manhattan. We had a ball.
Reg: Wow.
Len: It was a very good thing. Before I knew it, our kids did the same thing because they enjoyed Manhattan, got their own apartments. My son is still living there on East 26th Street, yeah. He’s still there but my daughter has moved on to a professor position over near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which isn’t very far from Manhattan. My office is still in Manhattan. I go there all the time for meetings and then also out and around the streets of Manhattan meeting with clients.
Reg: I want to say that I’ve always been impressed with Manhattan. You know I reached the conclusion early on that you could live a whole life in Manhattan and do something different each day for your whole life. There’s just so much.
Len: I recommend it to everybody. You know people at my age—and doing it has been a little disrupted with Covid—but a lot of people our age when you know, they become empty-nesters, say let’s do this. Let’s have some fun. So instead of driving a Mercedes off the cliff every year with college tuition, we decided to do the same for our rental of our place, because it is a little expensive. It’s not for the faint of heart, but what the heck? We enjoyed it very much.
Reg: Oh it is expensive. I remember a previous job where I traveled a lot and whenever I would go to Manhattan, I could almost be guaranteed the folks at expenses would call me on the carpet for how expensive my hotel was. It’s not cheap but it’s so cool.
Len: Right. I had such a high expense report every week because of the you know, going down on Monday, going back home on Friday, and staying in a hotel all the time. You know it’s hundreds of dollars a night you know to stay in Manhattan and especially around the holidays, it wouldn’t be hard to spend a thousand dollars a night for a hotel room.
Reg: Yeah. So that said, now somewhere in this time between 1978 and present day, you moved on from IBM. What was that all about?

Len: Well I was with IBM for 31 years, 1978 until almost 2009. I say 31 but it’s like 30 and three quarters—September of 2008. And after I did that, I came right to work for us. I retired. I was eligible to really retire and it was an opportunity to come to work here at Vicom Infinity, and I’ve been here since then. You know it’s almost 15 years here and it was—I was young to retire, I think. You know 55 years old was kind of a young time to retire, and I wanted to do some more—
Reg: Oh yeah.
Len: You know and I had an opportunity. It was very nice to become a CTO and leave on a great note with IBM, you know because I was eligible to retire and I still work very closely with IBM as an IBM business partner. You know we’re an IBM platinum business partner, so it’s like as if I never really left, as everybody tells me. I work so closely with IBM teams, and then in October of last year we were acquired by Converge Technology Solutions, where Converge Technology Solutions is based in Toronto.
Reg: Oh okay.
Len: Yeah. I didn’t know if you knew that, Reg.
Reg: I did not. No.
Len: I didn’t either—it was all new to me. And so we’ve been part of the company, we were like acquisition number twenty something—21, 22—and since we’ve been here, the company has acquired now many more companies, and I think they’re over 30 now. The company is growing in a way where they are really buying the best that they can find in the area of technology that they want to invest into, and so we’re really made up of a lot of great technologies all under one roof. We are the mainframe division—shall I call it or department, whatever you want to use—of Converge. That really is nice because a lot of the people who have accounts that had mainframes in them now have someone on the team who understands the mainframe as well as we do. You know we’re a very seasoned group of sales and technology, technical sales people. We’re also are involved with IBM storage systems, you know the DS and ESS, and then as far as a nice set of services teams that we have put in place all in around these technologies. So we’re a very complete unit and very, very well known in this business. Been in existence since the early 1990s because I met our owner Tom Amodio back in the 1996 timeframe. He was just starting off the company himself, one person, and then eventually we were in front of a company presenting together and he asked if I would work along with him to help him get into some other IBM companies. I said absolutely because what he was doing was very complimentary to what I was doing and vice versa. And then once he got started, we would divide and conquer. Lo and behold the company grew to what it is and then when I became eligible for retirement, Tom spoke to me and said why don’t you keep on going for a little while with us? Well I didn’t think it was going to be this long, and I’m still going. I don’t mind at all. I really enjoy what I’m doing and you know it’s never been a better time to be involved with the mainframe. It’s definitely just anybody that follows it will know how powerful this system is and there’s just nothing else like it in the world. Nothing.
Reg: That is so true. You know as we were chatting before we started the recording, we were talking about how I think that the zed16, or z16 as they say south of the border, is the greatest computer ever created—you know, until the next one comes along. I said that to one of my mainframe colleagues and he said actually it was the System/360 that was the greatest computer ever created, and I think both statements are correct because of course the beauty of it is that the z16 is the same computer, just elaborated further. I’m just so excited to be part of the greatest computer on earth and that ecosystem.
Len: Well you know with it getting its start in the lab that I sat in in Endicott was Building 32, built in 1932 as the very first lab IBM ever built. Thomas Watson Sr. sat in that lab. In my office—it became a sales office after while. It’s still there on North Street in Endicott and my office was literally direct diagonally across from where Watson sat.
Reg: Wow.
Len: You could see his image carved into the mahogany wall and his statements that he made about Think and other things carved right next to his figure in the wall. And you know in 1964, April 7, 1964 is when the System/360 was announced and when it was announced, I was 10 1/2 years old and my father and grandfather took me to the announcement. I touched the first System/360 that was used—
Reg: Wow.
Len: To show the families that you know, worked in the factory and everything all putting it together. It was a family day type of thing and it was—I don’t remember much, you know. Do you remember much when you were 10 years old? Not too much, right? But I can remember my father got mad at me. He says don’t touch. Don’t touch [laughs].
Reg: That is so cool. So now as far as the technology I get the sense that you supported it but that you moved into sort of a more responsible role before having to immerse yourself too much in the weeds of the technology, but you seem to have a really good understanding of it. How’d that happen?

Len: Well I didn’t really have it planned this way, but the way the cookie crumbles as I like to say is you know with that background of support, when I was that PSI role and having to really understand how the system worked and understand the internals of the operating systems and get people out of problems and you know, fix things. I had to work in a PL/I Assembler language, I had to work in COBOL and that knowledge base you know, it was good. I was a business major and it was good that I had this exposure because it was my computer courses in college at Binghamton University that got me the job at IBM. They didn’t even pay attention to my business courses. You know I had to take electives, so I took computer electives. I think I took APL, Assembler, some FORTRAN—I even did a little RPG and COBOL just because I had to take one every quarter—but all the rest were business courses. You know, personnel management and accounting and a couple of other things.
Reg: That’s so funny because that’s the right way to do it. You know so many of our colleagues, they learn technologies that they use in the first five years in their job doing technology, and they get moved into management and have no training in business.
Len: Oh man, and then what happened was with all that knowledge that I had coming into the job and then I saw the business opportunities in and around, which is where I got involved with the marketing and the sales stuff with the Wall Street clients. When I went and talked to customers, I noticed that my colleagues at IBM did not have that same background that I did. So when I was there and I saw well, I’ll have to get back to you. I’d go why do you have to get back to them? I know the answer. They looked at me kind of funny and would say, but you’re a sales guy. Well I’m a sales guy, but I have the background. Let me explain. And by the time I was done, the word started getting around real quickly that Santalucia kid really knew a lot, and it gave them an edge in the Wall Street area that competitors didn’t have with myself and a couple of other guys. So that lab background coupled with the business background and getting involved with the sales and supporting of clients, both sales-wise and technical-wise, was you know just something that really developed into what—even to this day, I still value that programming background because you really understand it both from a business and a technical perspective.
Reg: Cool. Well I see by my clock that your time is just about out. I’d be glad to chat longer. I don’t want to presume on your time but assuming that you do sort of have a bit of a hard stop, maybe—did you have any closing thoughts for us, including how you see the future of the mainframe ecosystem and how you intend to make that happen?
Len: Well with the things that are going on with the mainframe today, its new security capabilities, its new capabilities around containers, its new capabilities around HyperProtections, encryption, all these new things that are an integral part—and now especially with the z16 having the artificial intelligence acceleration unit built into the core of the system—really places this system way out in front of anything else. There’s nothing that comes close to it is my humble opinion, and I really believe that there is just nothing else out there that comes close to this mainframe and what it can do for the world today. You know if you think of it this way: turn off Google, turn off Facebook, turn off Instagram, turn off any of these social media offerings that are out there, and the world will keep on running, right? You might have to get out of your chair to go down to the store to buy something instead of buying it through Amazon. You might have to learn the Dewey Decimal System and go to a library and look up something else instead of doing a Google search, but the world would keep on functioning. Turn off all the mainframes in the world and you better go find a bunker to hide inside of, because airplanes would fall out of the sky. They couldn’t land or take off, or they would fall. The financial systems would crash. You couldn’t use your credit cards. Health systems would crash. The world would be Armageddon and you know a lot of times you hear people say, you know, that there are competitive alternatives. They’d say oh, we’re just like a mainframe. We’re mainframe-like. We’re just like the mainframe. My answer back to them is let me ask you this: When your child gets sick, do you take them to someone that’s like a doctor, or someone that is a doctor? They sit back and they what do you mean? What do you mean? I start explaining to them. An hour later, going through all these capabilities and what it can do, and they’re amazed. A lot of people that are making these claims are just never had the luxury and privilege that I had to be able to grow up through this world of mainframe. Now I take it upon myself, being involved with the Academic Initiative with IBM and other programs like that and the Open Mainframe Project. As you know, I’m the chair on the governing board of the Open Mainframe Project for just these very reasons to help carry on the legacy that I was so fortunate to be a part of, and I plan to keep doing it for as long as my health allows me to.
Reg: Well that is excellent and you know I think it’s such a great role model, because this is I think one of the things we’re starting to discover in the mainframe. You know 18 years ago I wrote a white paper about the need to get a new generation on the mainframe. Well the world of the mainframe hasn’t fallen apart even as we’ve been absolutely molasses slow about filling in a new generation, partly because it turns out that being a mainframer does not break you down like most careers do. Most mainframers who are in their 60s and 70s are just at peak—you know and it’s so interesting how many of our colleagues you know are moving straight into their 80s and still fully functional, as you know some of the very best mainframers because—
Len: Retirement, Reg, is not the same when my father and grandfather retired. They worked a long time. They worked for over 40—my grandpa was like 45 years, my father was like 45 years, 42 years, something like that. And you know I thought I was going to do the same thing—you know, 30-40 years. But you know when you reach the retirement age and then you start looking around, what are you going to do with yourself?
Reg: Yeah.
Len: There’s—how much golfing and playing cards of that kind of can you do after awhile? You’ve got to have some kind of purpose and you worked all your life to get to the point and do the accomplishments that you made. Why not share it with some others so that you can help them and at the same time you’re helping the community and the world at large, right? I mean do you agree with me? I think you agree with me, right?
Reg: Absolutely. Well you and I are involved in a lot of the same things for the same reasons you know, and I know you are such a great role model for so many of us because you show not only that it is possible, but it’s a good idea.
Len: Yeah, I think so. Thank you very much for the compliments. I appreciate that very much, very kind of you.
Reg: Len, we could talk for days definitely and I look forward to, you know next opportunity to converse. But I certainly appreciate you taking the time for this interview to really get a sense of who you are and who is this person who seems to know everybody in the world of mainframe. It’s been a real pleasure, so thank you very much.
Len: You’re very welcome and you know if anybody out there that might be listening to this, you know feel free always to reach out to me anytime. I’d be glad to talk with you and answer any questions you might have or looking for any kind of direction you might need.
Reg: Awesome. Thank you. 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.