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Martha McConaghy on SHARE and Women in Technology

Reg Harbeck: Hi, this is Reg Harbeck and I'm here today with Martha McConaghy who is a vice president at SHARE and has been a very active mainframer for quite some time and is involved in some really new exciting initiatives as well. Martha, welcome. Maybe if you can tell us, how did you end up on the mainframe?
Martha McConaghy: I think I inherited it. You know I grew up in Hyde Park, New York, which is just north of Poughkeepsie where the mainframes are built still today and my father was a 30-year IBM employee so I was a “baby BeeMer,” and kind of grew up in the culture. When I started college here at Marist College, that's what we had was a mainframe in part because of our ongoing relationship with IBM. I started with my computer science classes and fell in love with APL and then fell in love with the machine it was running on, got a job as a student in the computer center and it just kind of grew from there. So I've been here now 30, almost 35 years.
Reg: Wow.
Martha: Not counting my four years as a student, I'm what I call a lifer.
Reg: So you basically started out as a student at Marist and then immediately went to work for Marist, and then worked your way deeper and deeper into the mainframe environment there.
Martha: Yes. I mean I was doing application programming as a student employee especially my last semester when I did an internship but I was always interested in the underlying infrastructure and so there was a job opening when I was about to graduate for a systems programmer, an entry-level job, so I applied for it and got it. My father was an engineer so I think I've always had that love of how the hardware works and how the infrastructure fits together, that whole thing.
Reg: That's cool. Of course one of the neat things about the mainframe is how it is so utterly optimized together—everything from the hardware, the OS, everything is designed specifically to work together, and so you have that neat insight in every direction. Now you mentioned you like APL. I'll bet you've written a number of languages on the mainframe. Got any favorite languages?
Martha: Well I mean I always have a soft spot for APL just because once you master it, you feel like you have got the secret of the universe that only a few people understand but I did a lot of work with Fortran and Fortran II. We ran a system called MUSIC for a number of years that came from McGill University and that was kind of an MVS “lite” kind of thing but it was developed specifically for colleges and it was based on Fortran so that's why I needed to learn it so I wrote the email system that ran on it.
Reg: Oh, neat.
Martha: We ran the college for probably over a decade on that email system. Then when they finally got rid of the 370 architecture in the machines, that's when we had to say goodbye to MUSIC because it was never going to do 390 architecture.
Reg: Oh, I suppose there must have been a little bit of a Buddy Holly feeling on that day, the day the MUSIC died?
Martha: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You know, it was a wonderful system.
Reg: Now you at some point got involved with SHARE and you've been one of these people both visually and invisibly keeping SHARE alive, well and functioning. How the heck did you end up so involved in SHARE?
Martha: It was slow. I started going to SHARE literally the summer after I started working as a professional so I was real wet behind the ears. It was my primary education for what I needed to know. You know the first one I went to was in New York City. There were 5,000 people at it so it was very intimidating at the time but we were implementing a token ring network with SNA and no one at the college knew anything about either token ring or SNA. So I was told, well you need to go learn that, so that's what I did. I went to my first SHARE and spent a lot of the time in VTAM sessions trying to figure out how VTAM and SNA worked. That's the only real education I got on it and I ended up running the campus network for several years before we actually decided to hire a networking department.
Reg: Cool. So I'm going to guess that the networking side of SHARE and the related project was probably one of your first project involvements with SHARE. Is that a good guess?
Martha: Actually, no. I spent a number of years just attending as an attendee going just once a year in the summer and absorbing as much as I possibly could. That's how I got most of my education on z/VM, or VM/SP at the time, and things like that so I would go to as many sessions as I could on a lot of subjects. My first involvement with the actual organization of SHARE was joining the technical steering committee for VM and that was probably almost ten years after I first started attending SHARE so it took me a while to warm up to feel like I was knowledgeable enough to join the ribbon wearers.
Reg: I know that feeling. It can be intimating the first few times you go to SHARE because you're surrounded by all these world-class experts who are just chatting with each other like normal people and you think, “Wow. How do I belong among such amazing people?” Of course the other thing is that each one in our way when we got to SHARE is sort of an exception. We find our way in. One of the ways I suppose that you found that you're weren't among the majority is that, although we have a lot of outstanding female role models at SHARE, they haven't generally been in the majority and that must have been an important part of your journey.
Martha: Oh definitely. You know, women have not been very common in the technology industry in general and definitely not in the mainframe side of things, the enterprise technology and yet the women who have been involved have been extremely important and in at least one case legendary with Grace Hopper, so SHARE has had its share of very strong female leaders even though the vast minority of the people who volunteer at or attend SHARE are women. So I was lucky enough to find not just male role models but also a number of females that were good role models for me over the years— Melinda Varian, for example. So that was always very helpful.
Reg: Now I understand just recently you've taken that to the next level and you're leading a charge to really encourage women in IT on the mainframe and at SHARE. Maybe you can tell us a bit about that.
Martha: Sure. I'm a little embarrassed to say that when the idea was suggested, a lot of us kind of hit our foreheads and said why haven't we done this a long time ago? The idea of the women in IT effort at SHARE is really very similar to what we've done with the zNextGen group in trying to encourage both women who are already in the industry but also trying to do outreach to women and younger women particularly who might be interested in it or are already joining it but are very new to pave the way a little bit, provide a welcome and also provide mutual support amongst those of us who've been around a lot of years and have seen the industry change to help them understand what opportunities exist and also what some of the challenges might be.
Reg: Cool. Now as you take a look then, obviously this is a very future-looking way of doing things. You probably have a sense of where you see the future of the mainframe both in terms of women in IT and just generally in terms of the mainframe's role in the world economy and the world of computing and especially in terms of SHARE. I would be curious given the fact that you have this important role at SHARE that gives you such an opportunity to participate in so many ways how you envision the mainframe ecosystem moving forward over the next few decades.
Martha: Oh, I wish I was clairvoyant. I've never been very good at that. It's always surprised me, just when I think I understand where things are going, it makes a turn somewhere. You know I've been very involved in open source for many years. I've been very involved in the effort to bring Linux to the mainframe and so that still seems to be quite the opportunity and particularly the number of applications now that are moving to Linux on the mainframe. IBM has now introduced Zowe, which I'm not entirely sure I understand but I think it is their effort to make z/OS a more open platform than it has been in the past so I think that's all positive trends.
Things seem to move very quickly and our kind of traditional mainframe approach of test, test again and test some more is changing. We have to evolve with that whether we like it or not. It's a little scary for those of us who've been around for a long time but I don't think it will be scary for the people that are coming after us so I think it's important for us to bridge that gap and make it possible for them to come into the industry and therefore make it possible for the industry to change.
Reg: Cool. Now that said, if you could have one important—I don't know if I want to say change, but influence, in the future of the mainframe, to make something either change or make sure it happens either through the roles that you have or if you could just sort of wave a magic wand and say, “Well, make this happen,” what important one or two changes would you like to see or at least new directions to ensure the healthy future of our ecosystem?
Martha: Hmmm.
Reg: I put you on the spot here.
Martha: Yeah, really. I don't really know.
Reg: Are you pretty happy with how it is just progressing organically and with all the excellent people and just a lot of hope that things are going to continue to turn out better and better?
Martha: Well I don't think we have a choice. I don't think we're steering the boat. I think we probably thought we were for many years but the reality is we're not steering this boat. It's steering us in a lot of ways that we don't have always have control over the changes that are happening and not just in the mainframe ecosystem but you know we're impacted by the changes outside that ecosystem. That's the part I think we usually don't grasp. I've seen the communication gap grow between the people who have figured this out and are working on it and those who really like the old way of doing things and really don't want to see that go away. The reality is you don't have a choice. It's, what is the song from the Sound of Music, you know what can you do with Maria?
Reg: How do you solve a problem like the mainframe?
Martha: Right, yeah. I mean how do you, I’ve forgotten the words now, how do you catch a moonbeam in your hand kind of thing. You really don't have a lot of control over some of this. You know Microsoft is going to do what they do. Other vendors are going to do what they do and then you've got the vast open-source community which is constantly pushing for innovations and all of those impact the way that the mainframe is going to be a part of this environment moving forward so if you think you can turn back the hands of time, you really can't. And it's hard and it's uncomfortable to grasp. I understand that. I've had to wrestle with it myself but denial is not really going to help you.
Reg: Fair enough. Those are really good insights. Speaking of insights, any last thoughts you wanted to share with us before we finish up?
Martha: I mean, I still find the whole environment exciting. I mean new things that are coming along. You know I've been the last few years supporting something called the LinuxONE Community Cloud which is giving free Linux servers to people for a few months to be able to try new things out and while we have our share of challenges with some of the bad guys, for the most part I think that kind of stuff is exciting because you couldn't even imagine doing that ten years ago, much less 20 years ago. So you just have to keep trying to move forward and even though the change comes really fast and while it is hard sometimes to embrace, it also can be exciting. So it's a lot more fun to be on that side of it than the side of trying to keep time from moving on.
Reg: Well this has been really interesting. Thank you so much Martha. I really appreciate you taking the time for this.
Martha: You're welcome.