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Michael Stack on SHARE, Assembler and the Mainframe’s Future

Reg Harbeck: Hi. I'm Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with Michael Stack who is a mainframer of some significant contribution through SHARE and other things; I'm really excited to have him here. He has talked about Assembler and all kinds of other neat stuff at SHARE. Michael, before I start trying to tell everybody about you, maybe if you could give us an introduction about yourself and just how you ended up on the mainframe, at SHARE, and anything you'd just like to let us know about yourself.
Michael Stack: Sure Reg. I'm glad to talk to you today. This all started for me in the late 60s when I came to Northern Illinois University to finish up a math degree and wound up taking a course in Fortran. I found it much more interesting than math I'm afraid, and the next semester I took a course in Assembler, the second time it was taught at NIU; we went from there. I continued a year of graduate math work but the computer still hooked me so when I was offered a job in application development I took it even though that wasn't necessarily what I wanted to do. Within a year I was over in OS support, the systems programming area, and that's where I stayed for the rest of my career. I wound up going to a SHARE meeting in 1973 and that was my introduction to SHARE conferences and so that's been 45 years of doing that.
Reg: Wow.
Michael: That's pretty amazing actually, when I think about it. That's a lot of years. So that was the basic start for me and I wound up doing a lot of things in Assembler both at work and at SHARE. We can get to some of those later on if you want.
Reg: Sure. So now, my impression is that if you were to say your top three programming languages, I might not be able to guess the other two. Maybe one of them is Fortran, maybe not, but probably the top is Assembler. What would you say?
Michael: Yeah, certainly the top one would be Assembler. I didn't spend a lot of time doing other things but at the time that I moved from application development, I was doing PL1 programming and you know PL1 was pretty hot at the time. I actually learned a lot of PL1 simply because I knew Assembler. That was a very handy thing to do so I had a lot of fun with that. I've talked to others who have done the same sort of thing. Once you know Assembler, a lot of things in programming languages come pretty easily. For a third language, no. That would probably be Assembler again.
Reg: Okay. Now would that be the same Assembler or are there multiple architectures that you enjoy doing Assembler on?
Michael: No, I stuck pretty much with IBM mainframe Assembler. It was interesting enough in and of itself that we could do some useful things with it and still be stumped by an occasional problem so it kept us busy.
Reg: Now I know one of the things you've done at SHARE is you've taught sessions and even boot camps on Assembler and so I'm curious. Have you ever had a professorial role at your employer or have you always been sort of rolled up sleeves right in the middle of the stuff jobs?
Michael: No, I did teach at NIU starting in 1980 or 1982. I can't remember which. Somewhere in there, I started teaching a systems programming class, a graduate course. The professor who had taught it left and I was offered a chance to teach what we actually did and that was actually more fun than anything else. It certainly wasn't a research course but we produced a lot of people who knew a lot about IBM mainframe systems programming. A lot of those people still have jobs in the Chicago area surprisingly.
Reg: Cool.
Michael: Although I imagine they’re getting close to retirement. So I taught that for a lot of years. Then as I got close to retiring, I picked up a few more courses, primarily Assembler and then also teaching data structures in Assembler which I think was just about the most fun I've ever had. We used Knuth Volume 1 and Volume 3 if you're familiar with those as the textbook but then we did all the programming on the mainframe so teaching was a lot of fun. When I retired from doing OS support, I kept teaching for another six years so that was handy too.
Reg: Cool. So I gather that you've got more than just a bachelor's degree with all this academic stuff you've been doing.
Michael: I did wind up with a master's degree. It's half advanced math and half OS and other types of computer courses. I never went for a PhD because I never really wanted to do research. I just wanted to do the stuff so nothing to be gained for me at least. For other people it certainly is a good path. I did want to mention you had talked about the boot camp. Somewhere around 2000, John Ehrman of IBM approached me and said, you know what SHARE really needs is an Assembler boot camp. Boot camps were pretty popular in those days and I said I can do that so I sat down one summer of 2001 and created ten sessions. We gave them in Minneapolis for the first time at a SHARE meeting and they were pretty successful. We got a lot of good reviews, got a best session award and so on. So we did that over and over. I just had a great time doing it. It was a wonderful thing and people seemed to really like it. We used to ask people if the boot camp was the reason that they came to SHARE. They said no—a couple of them said no, it's the only reason we came to SHARE. So I thought that was pretty funny.  
Reg: You've been teaching and giving sessions at SHARE for quite some time now. You said you first started coming to SHARE in the early 70s. When did you start actually giving presentations?
Michael: Oh, I think probably almost right away. First thing I did was join the MVT/MFP project that Robert Rannie was creating in 1973 and I must say that was a bit of excitement. There were about 50 people who showed up for the organizational meeting and a number of them have gone on to be president of SHARE and other such things so I must say it was a pretty interesting group. So Robert got me teaching at SHARE teaching and presenting and I think if it hadn't been for the speaker training that I got by doing that, I might never have taught at NIU ten years later, eight years later.
Reg: Cool.
Michael: So it was good for me and I had a lot of fun doing it. I've given presentations all along just depending on what was the project that I was working with. I was with the OS/2 project for a while. I was with tech support and management, and wound up at the Assembler project.
Reg: Cool. Now one thing that has been implicit in our conversation so far is Illinois and I suppose one might even go as far as to say being in driving distance from downtown Chicago. That's sort of one of the things I haven't really highlighted a lot in my podcasts is the incredibly important role of driving distance from downtown Chicago in the history of both the mainframe and SHARE of course because their headquarters are downtown Illinois. What's your feeling about all these universities that are such mainstays of the history and the current education of the mainframe?
Michael: Well at the moment, education of the mainframe is one of those iffy things. Nobody is really quite sure where that's going. Mainframes of course—they're out there and people need to know how to work them, how to program them, even how to program in Assembler but SHARE being downtown Chicago I think was certainly convenient for me living where I do. I can easily get downtown. It takes about an hour and a half. There are other universities teaching mainframe. NIU still does. Illinois State University down in Bloomington-Normal does. I don't know about universities in Chicago but what I can tell you is that I mentioned graduates of the systems programming class I took getting jobs in Chicago but they were also part of the program that NIU had established with a lot of companies for internships so students would go there for internships and they would wind up getting a job there. Lots of companies hired our graduates over the decades, no names, but they know who they are and I'm certain NIU appreciated it very much. I did certainly.
Reg: Cool. Now you've talked a lot about the formation of new mainframers throughout your career. Having had the opportunity to sort of watch at SHARE and the mainframe and certainly be involved in bringing up new mainframers with the boot camp and that sort of thing, I'd be curious about your thoughts about both where we're naturally going in the future of the mainframe workforce and what we can be doing to go in a good direction with that.
Michael: Well I've been through this discussion so many times. I will give you just a nutshell. The biggest problem we've had over the decades is IBM's reluctance to make available a version of the mainframe OS for people to play with. Oddly enough, they have made it available. It's been around at different times in different ways but not in a way that people who don't have a lot of money can do much about and so I think if we could convince IBM to make that available and then in addition convince IBM that the best way to get schools interested in teaching mainframes is for them to provide grants. I mean everybody knows who has been around a university that the way faculty get to be liked at a university—and I don't mean in their departments, I mean at the university—is to bring in grant money. Universities love to see grant money and if you can get a grant that's a significant amount of money, they love you. I'm not broaching any new territory here. This is well known but for reasons—I have no idea what the explanation is—but for some reason IBM just hasn't seen fit to do that so I'm hoping that they will.
Reg: Yeah.
Michael: I mean that's been my big hope for decades.
Reg: Well and I think that's reasonable to hope that. You know one of the neat things is that IBM has always taken such a leading role. When they do something the whole world of mainframe obviously does it with them and so I think that's a good thing to hope. Now I'm just thinking in terms of other things the rest of us can be doing. What can the rest of us be doing to move the mainframe space forward and really get a new generation in place, hopefully working with, but definitely building on and beyond what IBM might be doing.
Michael: When you say the rest of us, to whom are you referring?
Reg: Fair enough. All of those of us in the mainframe ecosystem who are above and beyond. I mean you think of things like Zowe, which we've got IBM plus CA plus Rocket and other people are getting on board. I think of things like Marist with their making these guest machines available for people and doing other stuff. You know, different things that members of the mainframe ecosystem can be doing that will continue to drive the mainframe forward as a platform that gets more and more interest in people given how essentially important it is the world economy.
Michael: I see, okay. I just wasn't sure who you were referring to so given that I would say that one of the biggest problems IBM faces and the mainframe faces is that nobody knows about it. And when I say nobody, of course I don't mean nobody but I mean that the population that is aware of it and understands it is very, very small relative to everybody else.
Reg: Yes.
Michael: Who's doing programming in whatever languages, Java, or whatever it might be and so somewhere along the line there is going to have to be some sort of cross over. People who do the mainframe but do other things might also be part of a different ecosystem and if they can bring in solutions from the mainframe or describe solutions that occur on the mainframe in papers, in email, in discussion lists, whatever there might be, I think it's really going to be necessary to bring this out. I'm past the point where I do much of that stuff so it’s difficult for me to say but I would think that splitting your time up with other things would be particularly helpful and unfortunately I just can't picture the internet world well enough at this point and how it's subdivided. I have a niece who just took a job a couple of years ago doing marketing analysis. I remember Google analytics. I shouldn't say marketing analytics. When Google analytics came out, it was brand new and really something special. Now everybody is doing it and so there are so many dimensions to this that don't depend on whether it’s the mainframe or something else. It's going to be difficult to spread the word too much into those areas I think. It will take some work.
Reg: Well this has certainly been really interesting and I appreciate you taking the time, Michael. Any additional closing thoughts in the last few seconds of our conversation that you really wanted to make sure to share with everybody?
Michael: Well you said the magic word SHARE and the only thing I'd like to do is to share SHARE. SHARE is no longer, it's SHARE—what is it?
Reg: Association?
Michael: Huh?
Reg: Is it SHARE Association? Does that sound right?
Michael: SHARE association, right. Thank you. Memory tends to lapse sometimes. Yeah, it's now SHARE Association and it's a really important part of the lives of very many people who have been going to SHARE meetings for a long time and new people who keep coming to SHARE. I just would encourage people to look into it if they're at all interested in mainframe activity because it's a wonderful organization and it's a good chance to learn how to do some things that you might not otherwise know.
Reg: Awesome. Well thank you very much for taking this time. It's been wonderful to start to get to know you a little bit better and share your excellent experiences and insights on the mainframe.
Michael: Thank you Reg, appreciate it.