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Holden O’Neal on How Jiujitsu Affected His Life as a Mainframer

Reg Harbeck talks with Holden O’Neal about what made his journey to the mainframe, his employer and SHARE so successful, focusing specifically on Jiujitsu and the life skills it taught him. Listen to the interview via the orange play button or read the transcript below.

Reg: Hi, I'm Reg Harbeck and I'm here today with Holden O'Neal. He among other things is in the zNextGen Executive at SHARE, but he also works at SAS. He is what we would call a next-generation mainframer. So Holden, welcome. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got to be a mainframer, got to be at SAS and got to be at SHARE?

Holden: Thank you for having me Reg. I really appreciate this opportunity. My first experience with the mainframe was actually in the Master the Mainframe contest when I was in high school. I completed phase I after being encouraged by my high school computer science instructor, and in doing so, I got my free T-shirt. I was very happy, and it was just another computer to me. I didn't have any negative bias. I then went on to pursue a degree in computer science from the North Carolina State University. During that experience after my freshman year in undergrad, I started applying to internships in the area. I applied to SAS, IBM and numerous other technology companies and I heard back from both SAS and IBM. I interviewed at SAS and I was just very excited for the opportunity. I accepted and I started an internship right after freshman year. After completing that summer of internship, I was given the opportunity to stay on year-round as a student intern and continue working during the rest of my undergrad, which I did.

Upon graduation, the team that I was on, which was the testing team, couldn't keep me on in the headcount, and my manager decided to introduce me to the development manager for the MVS research and development team. I was able to take on the opportunity and challenge, and I've been working on that team for the past almost three years now. During that time period, my manager and many other people within SAS were very active in SHARE and they were very encouraging of me going as a way to help onboard me into the mainframe ecosystem. I never received any formal training in my years in college and a lot of my coworkers took a lot of their own personal time to help teach me everything that they knew, and they all knew that me taking the initiative to go to SHARE, go to sessions and participate in things like the assembler boot camp, the z/OS bug busters academy and all of these other great offerings at SHARE would help leapfrog me into a skillset that would really help me do my job.

Reg: Cool. Now you mentioned North Carolina. I would think of Dr. Cameron Seay. Has he been part of your journey?

Holden: I actually first met Dr. Cameron Seay through SHARE.

Reg: Oh, cool.

Holden: I actually did not have much experience with him as he teaches at North Carolina State A&T-

Reg: OK. Right.

Holden: And I went to North Carolina State University. They are decently far apart.

Reg: OK. Cool. Now working at SAS, of course SAS is one the big longtime players on the mainframe but they do something that I think a lot of people don't automatically think of when they think of mainframing and yet they do something that is so essential. It’s really some of the original big data manipulation, dealing with data that is ambivalently structured or very structured. I would be really interested if you would tell us a little bit about how do you perceive SAS and what their product is and how they play in the mainframe ecosystem?

Holden: Yeah. SAS started as a research project at my alma mater, at North Carolina State University with funding from the Department of Agriculture to do research on cows and to study their eating habits, growth habits, and in order to try and crunch that data, Dr. Goodnight and several other people created this software that could do that. At the time, the only computers that were really available were mainframe computers, and they realized that the software was actually far more powerful and had far more applications than just studying some bovines. In doing so, they branched out and they started becoming an analytics platform that was able to be used by all the major banks and governments in the short term area, in the local area, and then eventually they got to the point where they just started globalizing, and expanding and becoming bigger and bigger and bigger.

Reg: Cool. Now, you have become very actively involved in zNextGen at SHARE and we are all happier for that. You are actively involved in a lot of other interesting things as well, including judo as I understand. Oh, I'm sorry—martial arts.

Holden: Jiujitsu.

Reg: Jitsu. I apologize. jiujitsu. So it looks like I have an opportunity for a learning experience here. Maybe if you can, on the one hand, just help me understand the difference between those, but then see how that filters into your own journey of personal improvement that’s also brought you into zNextGen.

Holden: Yeah, jiujitsu actually played a very big role in my ability to complete college and in my ability to do so successfully. I used my desire to train as a motivational structure to get me to do my homework. I simply said, if I can't get my homework done before class starts, then I don't get to go to class. Jiujitsu and judo are actually very much like sister martial arts, similar to Karate and taekwondo, or if you could compare Greco-Roman wrestling to freestyle wrestling. They fall into the same categories. They’re very throw-dominant, or they have a lot of throws, and they also have ground game. However, judo is very much focused on the throw, and if you watch the Olympics, you get a little confused because they throw the person, but if it's not in the right form or the right technique, then they don't get the point for it and the match continues. Judo also doesn't focus on the ground game, where they usually only allow you to have about 20 seconds on the ground, and if the person doesn't either submit or get pinned, similar to a wresting pin, then the referee will stand you back up because they want the focus to be on the throw.

Whereas in jiujitsu, the entire match could take place on the ground with very little acrobat movement or throwing at all, and the focus is more on the submission causing the other person to yield via applying a chokehold or applying a joint manipulation where it could break the joint. There’s also a lot more points. In judo, the ippon is one point and the point is to get that single point in the throw, whereas in jiujitsu you can accumulate as many points as possible through a series of positional advancements so you get a certain amount of points for getting them to the ground. You get two points for that. If you pass what is called the guard, you can get three points for that, and so the point structure is significantly different, and the styles are complimentary in a lot of ways but the rule bases are really what differentiate them.

Reg: Cool. Now I understand you’ve just been in your first major competition for jiujitsu and came in third.

Holden: Yes. I’ve been competing in a lot of competitions since I started and I love the competition because it gives me a way to test the sword. I spend a lot of time in the gym training, drilling and practicing. I also spend time outside of martial arts in trying to cross train in things like muay thai kickboxing, a little bit of judo and I had a wrestling background in high school. My most recent competition was a submission-only tournament where there were no points and no time limits. Each match only went to the point of submission. I had a couple matches—I had one match that was about 22 minutes and another match that was 15 minutes. In the competitions where there are time limits, my matches are generally limited to six minutes, so it’s an extreme stretch of your technique and your ability to hold out. But this competition was my first one at my newest rank of purple belt. In jiujitsu, there are five belt ranks: White, blue, purple, brown and black. It usually takes you about 10 years—the average person takes about 10 years to achieve a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu.

Reg: Very cool. Brazilian jiujitsu?

Holden: Yes, Brazilian jiujitsu.

Reg: Now that brings us back to zNextGen because I'm going to guess a lot of these same traits and habits and attitudes are things that have played into your journey of becoming more and more involved in this platform that is so powerful and responsible and requires so much planning. How would you relate them together?

Holden: I think that the power of your mind is very much correlated to the power of your body. If you don't take care of your body, then your mind will surely suffer, and so because of that I really think that some form of healthy activity and being healthy in whatever way I can has been a very big benefit to me in pursuing my career and dealing with very stressful situations. One of the things that I think jiujitsu is different than others is you very much have to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. I compete against people that are twice my size. In jiujitsu there’s a weight class that is an open weight class that doesn't actually have a weight limitation, so a 125-pound man can go against a 285-pound man.

Reg: You could find yourself up against a sumo wrestler.

Holden: Yes, you can. You can get into a situation where your technique and your ability to play the chess game really is the only way that you can win. In doing so, you have to get to the point where you’re mentally confident in your ability to win and know that although there may be physical attributes that are against you, you can figure out how to win. I use this kind of approach in just about everything I do.

I approach it as calmly as I can with a clear mind. I try not to allow emotion, anger, frustration or stress to cloud my vision because just in jiujitsu and in life, going into a situation with those emotions at the front of your consciousness will cause you to make mistakes. You'll go too fast or you'll miss an opportunity to submit the other person or make an advancement in your position, and the very same thing applies in life. If you approach every single day fully stressed out, angry, how well are you going to see the opportunities that you have or be grateful for the opportunities that you have? I think all of that plays a very big role in the success I've had so far.

Reg: That makes a lot of sense to me because that fits so well with my perception of how in the mainframe, it can be very stressful, but we can't lose our focus on how critically important it is to keep it running smoothly. I think also, over the next little while as a new generation including yourself inherits the mainframe, there are going to be a lot of times where you’re going to have to learn lessons that were learned by the old generation decades ago and they forgot to pass on, or there’s going to be new lessons that nobody else has had to learn before, and you’ve got to do it while keeping the mainframe running. Given that, I would like to close up with any additional thoughts you have about the current and future state of the mainframe and how you see yourself playing in it.

Holden: I think that especially people that are in the zNextGen project now have a very interesting opportunity to be a merging of the modern technologies and the mainframe technologies that are definitely modern in my opinion. IBM is doing a fantastic job in doing so, but this misconception that it’s an old technology and that it can't work together with the newer technologies is completely false in my opinion.

Reg: Right.

Holden: I see initiatives like the Linux on z and Open Mainframe projects as great ways for people of my generation to apply skills that they’ve learned in high school or college on Linux machines and take those into the mainframe ecosystem and allow that newer age thinking to be applied to some of these older methodologies in order to bring them up to speed. You know, things like waterfall methodologies are no longer the best practices. I'm not saying that agile methodologies are best across the board either, but I think understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both is actually going to be of benefit for everybody in the long run. So being able to learn everything that was done in the past 50 to 60 years on the platform, but also have this fresh mindset about everything going on with mobile, web development and modern technologies that are not necessarily mainframe centric, is going to be a great benefit for myself and other people in my age group.

Reg: Outstanding. Well, thank you very much, Holden. This has been most interesting. Great to get to know you better.

Holden: Thank you, Reg. I appreciate it.