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Jeff Cherrington on Rocket Software’s Evolution and IBM Z Contributions

Reg Harbeck: Hi, this is Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with my friend and colleague Jeff Cherrington who is the vice president of product management, Z Systems—I think I missed a word or two there—at Rocket Software. So, Jeff, I guess what we're going to talk about today is just the whole journey that Rocket Software—it's sort of the invisible giant in mainframe software in some ways—has had, and really get an appreciation of it … Maybe if we can start with maybe a bit of a sense of your own journey into Rocket. I understand you came with the ASG acquisition. How did you get to Rocket where you are today?
Jeff Harrington: I did. So, I joined Rocket here over the summer and became a Rocketeer as we're all called, as Rocket Software acquired ASG Technologies last April. I had the good fortune that they invited me to be part of the senior management team and I've really found it be, you know, quite exhilarating. It is a thrilling company to be with. For those of you who may not be aware of Rocket, it's been around for over 30 years, which is almost as long as I've been in this particular technology space. I actually started with mainframes when I was a lad mounting tapes and running disk packs for my stepfather in the data center of one of the local banks and by 1983 I was actually working in enterprise software and had been either building, buying, or selling enterprise software ever since. I've worked for companies such as CA Technologies and PKWARE, which many folks know that provides some leading cryptographic offerings for mainframe as well as the other platforms.
Reg: Hmm cool—and now you joined ASG a few years ago now, didn't you?
Jeff: I joined ASG three and a half years ago. They recruited me in because they needed someone to run product management for their Z offerings there and so this has been a natural evolution for me in terms of my role with Rocket.
Reg: Now that's kind of neat to know because the joining of your career to ASG and then to Rocket Software parallels so interestingly then the acquisition of ASG by Rocket Software as Rocket has sort of become a more and more visible participant in the mainframe ecosystem so maybe if you could kind of give a sense of what happened? How did ASG suddenly become part of Rocket?
Jeff: So those of us who know Rocket, many of us in the industry do, those of us who go to the SHARE conferences, to Z University or things of that are familiar with the presence of Rocketeers and the thought leadership they provide. Andy Youniss founded the company 30 years ago and has had a very, I think, studied way of approaching the market and acquiring good companies or acquiring technology IP in a manner that allows us to continue to promote and support the mainframe ecosystem. It is important to understand of course that Rocket is more than just the Z business unit. We do have additional business units that focus on Linux and IBM i on Power and on database and connectivity. I'll probably restrict most of my questions to the mainframe because that's my patch and that's where I have knowledge and expertise.
Reg: In fact, I understand not just the mainframe but specifically Db2 was one of the original things that really got Andy inspired.
Jeff: It is. If you take a look at the history of the company, Andy started the company from a spare bedroom in his home back in 1990 and some of the earliest focuses were on providing capabilities for Db2 and that is something that has just continued. Andy had a standing relationship with IBM. He was already a respected engineer and leader within the mainframe space and so consequently has been able to develop a very close partnership with IBM from that very beginning that continues even yet to today.
Reg: Cool. Now as we look at that partnership—I mean obviously you can't really be part of the mainframe ecosystem without having some kind of relationship with IBM. It's sort of interesting to see the different ways that Rocket is sort of involved with the ecosystem and with IBM including with Rocket's own solutions that specifically interact with various aspects of the IBM mainframe. What are some of the different areas that Rocket provides solutions that are, you know, Rocket-branded solutions or ASG-branded solutions?
Jeff: So in terms of Rocket-branded solutions, there’s a number of things that many of us who have worked in the mainframe space will recognize certainly from the history of the company. It's well known that Andy and the team were contributing to QMF from an early time as well as to Db2 tools. In fact, if those of you who were paying attention in 2016, it was announced that IBM was actually even expanding the relationship with Rocket Software for the support and advancement of Db2 tools, and the same again for QMF in 2015, but for those products that we take to market directly, there's going to be at least some that I think will be familiar. The company has grown through acquisitions. My gosh, I think there's over 50 acquisitions—
Reg: Wow.
Jeff: That the company has engineered over the years. I've got a long list here in front of me and if I were to read it all off there would certainly be some that would be familiar to most everyone, but I can certainly point to the acquisition of the Shadow portfolio from Progress Software in 2012. Shadow is a set of capabilities for making mainframe available to non-mainframe technologies now branded as Rocket Data Virtualization. It's something that's being used broadly to help with those customers who are keen to modernize their mainframe in place, continue to reap the value of their investments. Equally there was the acquisition of Mainstar in 2006 and anyone who has worked in the mainframe storage space will be familiar with Mainstar offerings such as Mainstar Catalog RecoveryPlus or CRPlus, the Mainstar Backup and Recovery Manager. I had a chance to work with it at one point in my career and certainly I can't talk to this without mentioning the profound leadership role that Rocket has taken along with IBM and others to ensure that the mainframe embraces open source software as much as any other platform. We were one of the primary architects of something known as Zowe, Z-O-W-E, and again those of us who attend SHARE or some of the other conferences will recognize that as an infrastructure that the Open Mainframe Project has chartered for modernizing user experiences with no sacrifice of mainframe capability. Add to that that we have created open source ports for Git, Bash, Curl, Make, OpenSSL and a list of over 20 open source tools and you begin to see that while we embrace and will always appreciate our mainframe heritage and all that it represents, we're also looking to ensure that we embrace every bit of technology that's available within the space to ensure that our customers can maximize their value. I can't walk away from the conversation without mentioning of course the products that came into Rocket from the ASG acquisition: our very well received Zeke and Z Team workload automation offerings for mainframe, the enterprise orchestrator capabilities that we have for orchestrating DevOps tool chains across all the tech stacks in the enterprise data center, most particularly including the mainframe, and of course our JCL quality and management offerings, including JCLPREP, JOB/SCAN and PRO/JCL.
Reg: Hmmm. Now you talked about the amazing legacy we have on the mainframe and how Rocket has really gotten deeply woven into the past of the mainframe, but I sense just as you're referring to how it's part of the future with the Zowe and all the other open source, there's other aspects of Rocket, including your culture where you're really trying to take a leading role of moving to the future, and maybe if you can sort of give us some insights into that.
Jeff: Yeah, there's really no doubt about that, and it is one of the most invigorating things about joining Rocket. They are committed to the mainframe platform and we're committed to helping our customers modernize their mainframe however they may want to approach that. We might expand on that later in the conversation, but you can also see this commitment to vitality and ensuring that not only is the mainframe market space vital but Rocket is vital and the way that we engage with our coworkers. There's just really so many things to talk to around that. I want to start with what is critically important: the foundational tenets that we live by at Rocket is a commitment to our core values of empathy, humanity, trust, and love. This is one of the first things that every new Rocketeer is introduced as they're brought on board and it's something that genuinely informs all that we do. It makes for the workplace being a superior place to work and it makes for a genuinely unique work family. We see this cascading throughout the organization. Clearly Andy, when he founded the company, wanted to have this be an engineering-led organization. It is an organization that was created by engineers to give engineers the chance to excel, and part of that that continues to be exemplified today is that annually we have Rocket Build. It's a two-day hackathon; it usually takes about a week for all in on the competition but teams of Rocketeers from all walks of the business—not just those who are daily coding but everyone in the organization—has a chance to join a hackathon team and create new technology. Not only does that create great espirit, it brings us together, it helps us learn more about each other. It's also developing some great technology, much of which rolls right into use either internally or externally within Rocket. And last, you know—I won't say last but certainly I don't want to leave the conversation without saying that we also have a profound commitment to women in technology, which is just one aspect of the overall commitment for diversity throughout the organization in all of our different locations worldwide.
Reg: Very cool. Now of course when you have that kind of culture that obviously brings up some spectacular innovations, I assume you also have some rather spectacular people that emerge from that culture as natural leaders, and my sense is that the founder is one of them, but maybe you can tell us a little bit about them.
Jeff: So, you know I'll expand a little bit. Those of you who have had a chance to meet Andy Youniss know that he leaves an indelible impression and part of that has been something that has been traditional for Rocket I think from the very beginning. Again, if you've attended conferences, attended any of the conventions where we might gather as mainframers, it's very frequent that you would find that Andy would be playing guitar, either by himself or with our Rocket band, which had a rotating cast of characters over the years with Andy as a lead for that. But he's also done gigs playing for Aerosmith, Elton John, Maroon 5, even Elvis Costello-
Reg: Wow.
Jeff: And so again it portrays this idea that Rocket is more than just a technology company whose only interest is in creating a bottom-line impact. It is a lifestyle. It is a tribe of folks who are committed to both engineering excellence and doing it in a manner that is infused by the values that I describe, and we attract great people as a consequence. I'll call out a couple of others and one of them I want to talk to particularly is a woman by the name of Megan Yee. Megan is what I view as the future of the mainframe. She's from the millennial generation. She self-selected after university to become involved with the mainframe, did a short number of years with IBM and then came to Rocket, and she now is a product manager in our IBM Z business unit in charge of a really significant amount of the development we do for Db2 tools and Db2 utilities. She's embraced the idea of mainframe as a career path and she continues to show leadership time and again. She's been involved with Rocket Build. She is always a contributing member to the team. She's been on one of the winning teams and I'm actually the beneficiary of some of the things that she's done in that, joining Rocket from outside, I'm still struggling to get my arms around all of the information I want to have available to me in my role, and a Rocket Build exercise she did with others to create a dashboard pulling in information about how our customers are experiencing our products is something that I now use daily.
Reg: Hmmm, cool.
Jeff: A contrasting example: There's a fellow by the name of Ron Bisceglia. Ron is an IBM Champion just as you are as well as being one of our primary developers of new technology. He is really responsible for keeping vitality in the IMS space of the mainframe database and data stores by creating great new technologies, new utilities and tools for IMS at a period where it was not getting as much attention as it might have enjoyed.
Reg: Well the journey that IMS has had on the mainframe is such a fascinating, you know, part of the mainframe history and culture you know that it was sort of the first really visible database because it was used for the Apollo space program and essentially was glommed together and structured to be the same structure as the rockets of all things, you know, and so that Rocket connection is kind of fun that here the IMS database was structured to hold components of a rocket in a structural manner and now Rocket is one of the organizations keeping IMS alive and well all these decades later.
Jeff: Absolutely.
Reg: There must be some other interesting examples like that of stuff that you guys are sort of doing that have taken that deep, good legacy of the mainframe and really cherishing it and moving it forward.
Jeff: Yeah, certainly there is and in so many different directions. We remain involved with the critical spaces of security particularly around the capabilities that are needed by the mainframe enterprise security managers, the RACF, Top Secret, ACF/2, and capabilities that they need for multifactor authentication. We continue to make investments in storage and in fact we anticipate that that will be a big growth area for us over this next year as we bring new capabilities to market to help our customers deal with both their primary and more particularly their second story—I'm sorry, second tier—storage challenges.
Reg: Now one of the things that I kind of know a little bit about Rocket from outside perspective is that not only are you involved with Zowe, but you're doing some other really interesting things of moving legacy behaviors into the future and for example by creating, I guess, a 3270 emulator that runs entirely in a browser window. What's that all about?
Jeff: So that was actually another one of the Rocket Build hackathon outcomes. It was something that really was very thrilling to witness. I wasn't there. I only heard about it second-hand being a newer Rocketeer, but my more tenured coworkers tell me that in 2016, as they were going through Rocket Build, a team of hackers if you will, the hackathon hackers, came together—two of which were under 30—and in two all-nighter sessions created a 3270 emulator that they could deploy directly from within a browser. Now I don't know that we have productized that for consumption by the external third parties, but it is a good example of the type of, again, energy the engineering groups and others who engage in these hackathons bring forward. And the degree of expertise that can be assembled and we apply those same sorts of energies and intelligence to the things we do for our customers, whether those are customers that we're providing technology capabilities for them to resell or it's our own products that we take directly to market.
Reg: Now speaking of your customers and just your role in the ecosystem, I guess that's another area I'd be sort of interested to know is some of the ways that Rocket has taken their approach and used that to advance just the nature of business relationships in the mainframe ecosystem.
Jeff: I'm sorry. Can you expand on the question just a little bit, please?
Reg: Oh sure. Sure. So I'm just sort of thinking that you know the various vendors on the mainframe have struggled over the various decades of, you know, how do we set up a contract? How do we bill for things? How do we sell things that meet the need and then, you know, represent the value being received and you know each different vendor has sort of had their own contribution to that, and I'm sort of curious about some of the contributions that Rocket has had to kind of move that space forward and make it more humane, if you will?
Jeff: Well, that's an excellent question and one I really do invite. For those who have the time, I really do encourage you to go to the website, click on the About link and then take a look at our self-description. You picked up the word nicely there, Reg, of humanity, and the commitment to humanity extends beyond just the things that we've talked about in terms of building a great corporate culture or the sort of working relationships that we have with customers. It also kind of extends to the postures we take with customers as we are engaging with them commercially. It's not a secret that in that in this space the largest players in the market have a defined strategy of locking customers in with particular contractual approaches, enterprise license agreements that get them locked in to extended periods of time for large bodies of licensed software that really aren't very tractable. We work with customers all the time who say "I did have a license agreement" or "I do have a license agreement with a particular vendor. There's a lot of products in there and there are a couple of them that just don't work for me anymore, and when I approach the vendor and say 'hey, I want to discontinue licensing this. I want to go to work with Rocket on what they have to offer,' the answer is 'great. We'll be happy to stop licensing that product to you but it won't change your ongoing charges.'" They've got a model that's such that you're paying for the enterprise license agreement. You're not paying for the products individually and taking products out or substituting products has no impact on the overall cost. It's really gotten to the point in the industry where some are coming to us and saying "I want to abandon my relationship with these competitors, these other software vendors, completely. How can you help us?" And we are helping them. We're doing work around the world to help customers get to a model that doesn't have that sort of enterprise license agreement lock-in so they've got better options to be able to pursue their business and their technology goals.
Reg: Interesting. Yeah, certainly licensing is one of the big challenges we have on the mainframe because the mainframe is this one single point of functionality. It's also a single point of cost and that certainly freaks a lot of CFOs when they see a single cost for the mainframe, whereas the costs of the other platforms are so widely distributed.
Jeff: You know it really is something that is challenging for the industry and it's too bad that we don't have more of the item cost accounting folks dealing with technology across the board. I think you—and I would agree, Reg—that when you actually do apples to apples comparisons of cost, the unit of cost per whatever transaction, data store, whatever it might be, when all the costs are tabulated are still far lower for the mainframe than they are for the other technology stacks—
Reg: Oh yeah.
Jeff: Which is not to say the other technology stacks don't have a role to play. They do. They do some wonderful things and that's where we do spend a lot of time and energy in our engagement with the market, because we are committed to helping our customers modernize. We will help them modernize their data centers and that may take multiple aspects. It can be modernization of the mainframe in place. Many of our customers have looked at what they've invested in the mainframe over decades, the accumulation of their unique and compelling advantages in the marketplace that are represented by the business rules that have been captured in this code that's been developed, refined, polished, proven, tested, and they decide we are going to remain committed to the mainframe. We want to modernize in place which in many cases means taking things like radio—I'm sorry, taking Rocket capabilities to expose the mainframe data to their open systems, applications, tools, and processes. There are others who say you know, we are going to be shifting some of our workloads off mainframe, and in those situations, we have capabilities that they can use to help with that as well. Certainly the distributed workload automation offering we have – Zena is a good example of that. It can be used to manage and schedule your mainframe workloads as well as your distributed workloads, and can become that off-ramp for moving those workloads off mainframe onto distributed technology if you want to.
Reg: Or alternatively maybe an on-ramp for those workloads where they discovered they are just large enough that it's time for them to move to a world-class server.
Jeff: And we do see that, you know, working with some of the global banks here recently. I was talking with one of the senior executives there who said, you know, "we've reversed the trend. We've actually moved 90 different applications back onto the mainframe because they need that high level of reliability, serviceability, and availability that is going to make them appropriate for what our customers demand."
Reg: You know it's so interesting to see that, even if you do just a basic apples to apples comparison, if you could find another platform that gave you everything the mainframe gives you, which you can't, actually. In fact, I've got a couple of articles at TechChannel that I've just published this month and coming up the end of the month about all the different things that people just take for granted that aren't part of the platforms. But even if you could do that comparison and do a one off—you know, where you're getting brand new—the fact is if you're moving stuff to the mainframe, you already have a mainframe and the incremental costs of adding new workloads is so microscopic that I think as organizations really wake up to the real cost of technology and get beyond, you know, the latest bells and whistles to see real business value. You know it's neat to see how well Rocket is positioned to help organizations then take advantage of rediscovering the mainframe. Maybe some other thoughts on that from you.
Jeff: Well certainly those of us who have worked around the mainframe and have had to deal with mission-critical applications and particularly those that require real time online processing, the industries where I've spent the bulk of my career such as electronic payments or anything dealing with the financial transactions from the consumer point of sale. There really is no platform that can give the four 9s, five 9s, sometimes even six 9s reliability that really is expected in that market space. There's just nothing that can even to this day gives that sort of capability regardless of the price, and certainly when you amortize the cost of the mainframe over all that it can do for an enterprise and all it has done for decades, it still is a tremendous value.
Reg: Well now of course we're going to be building on this with a follow-on podcast. We're sort of looking to the future and how Rocket is sort of going to be part of that, among other things. But maybe if we can give some—not exactly spoilers, but some closing thoughts—just for people to bear in mind as they wait with bated breath for part two.
Jeff: Well certainly we want to talk about what's in the future with Rocket. We've talked a good deal about our history. We've talked a bit about the nature of Rocket as an organization, but we certainly believe that we have contributions to make that are going to be material, that are going to help our customers pursue their strategic goals both commercially and technically. We've got a great team that we've assembled bringing the best of Rocket and ASG and the other companies that have been acquired in recent periods together so that we come forward with really a profound set of capabilities—technical, intellectual, and commercial—to help them achieve what they want to achieve.
Reg: Cool. Well, this has been really great. Any last thoughts before we call it a first half interview?
Jeff: You know not at this point, Reg, other than to say thank you very much for this opportunity. I genuinely appreciate it. It's always great to talk with you. I'm glad that we were able to get back together again and I look forward to doing it again here soon.
Reg: Awesome. Well thank you so much Jeff and you have a great day.
Jeff: Cheers.