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Jim Stefanik on His Unique Journey to IBM

Reg Harbeck: Hi, I'm Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with Jim Stefanik, who calls himself “the other guy with a mainframe in his parent's garage in this case.” We recently talked to Connor Krukosky, who had one in his parents’ basement. Jim, who happens to know Connor, recently got a mainframe, set it up in his parent's garage, and has documented it on the internet in some really neat videos and tweets and such like that. And on the strength of that, he actually ended up moving to work for IBM in Texas. Before I tell you more about him, why don't I get him to introduce himself to you? Jim, tell us about yourself, how you ended up on the mainframe with IBM and anything else to do with you and the mainframe.

Jim Stefanik: All right. So the way I wound up with owning a mainframe…Let's start there. I think that's a good way to start. Probably about seven or eight years ago, I was just browsing through YouTube and I stumbled across a video of an ES-9000 installation. It was a model 900 so the big giant water cooled one and I watched the video and was just taken aback bythe immense amount of “coolness factor” I guess we'll call it. I'm a retro tech person. I collect vintage computers as a hobby. I have for the last 15 or 16 years now and this just stood out to me as “Wow, this is really neat.” I don't know what they do, but I really want one. So I never really thought much of it. I thought “Oh, it's a pipe dream. One day I'll do it.” Then last winter—so winter of 2016—I happened to be yet again scrolling through YouTube and stumbled across a video by a gentleman named Philip Young, who was doing a security conference talk. I don't remember, but I think it might have been Hacktivity about mainframe security.

Reg: Ahh. The Soldier of FORTRAN.

Jim: Yes. That's him. I watched that and at the end of it, it had suggested videos that you might be interested in. One of them was—I don't remember the exact title—but it was something about 18 year-old mainframe. I clicked on it not knowing what it was and watched it. As it turns out, it was actually Connor Krukosky's SHARE talk that he gave talking about his experience. I don't think I made it halfway through his talk before I paused it, tabbed over to Twitter and followed him. That was kind of the beginning of this. I'm like “All right. Now that I know someone else has done it, I’m going to do this.” So I finished watching the talk and over the next couple of weeks I think I wound up talking with Connor on Twitter publically and eventually DM'ing him and discussed the faults and follies of what could go wrong and what to look for and stuff like that. Then I started searching. I think I looked for maybe about two months, maybe even three months before I found one on eBay. It was z800 0A1 model so it's the very entry level basic one and it was not what I would call cheap. It was $2,000 US dollars and it was pick up only so I knew if I bought it, I'd have to have it shipped home. To make matters worse, it wasn't like it was relatively nearby. It was in Dallas Texas. And the joke becomes better in a little bit. So I passed the link over to Connor and said “Well, what do you think of it?” He said “Well, it’s pricy but it looks okay.” So I went and messaged the seller and I said “Hey, does this thing work?” I think 24 hours later I still hadn't gotten a reply, so I messaged him again and was like “Hey, please let me know if this machine functions. If it does, I'll buy it.” I must have messaged him late in the afternoon. I left work and I got home and noticed I had a reply on my phone. I scrolled through the reply and it was basically saying that this guy was the sysprog and he just unplugged the machine like two weeks prior to take it out of production. It was fully working and had a whole ton of like documentation and paperwork and disks and stuff with it.

Reg: Neat.

Jim: And I was like “Okay.” I didn’t think much before I ran back downstairs, woke up my computer and clicked “Buy it now.” So I now had the dilemma of owning a mainframe 1,700 miles from home and I needed to figure out how to get it home without annoying the seller too much or inconveniencing him so after striking out on basically every major shipping carrier because it wasn't in a crate or on a pallet, I finally used a website called uShip, which—basically think of it as a reverse eBay for shipping. You post an ad for something you want to have shipped. You post an ad of what it is and where it’s going from and to and your requirements and people bid on it. Then you pick whoever is best and they get the drop.

Reg: Oh, fun.

Jim: Yeah and it was actually recommended to me by a coworker who I think had a motorcycle or something shipped that way recently; it worked for him. So the first bid I received was something completely absurd. I can't remember the exact figure but it was well in excess of $4,000 US dollars.

Reg: Wow!

Jim: And I was like “Yeah, no. You're crazy. Nobody is paying that.” So I declined the offer and a few hours later the guy came back and rebid at a high but more sane price—I think it was like $2,200. I said “Well, it’s the only thing I’m getting out of this so I might as well.” So I did it and it took a couple of weeks to arrange shipping insurance and get the guy to pick it up, crate it and get it shipped and whatnot. Eventually it showed up at my house and it turns out the crate was built really good on the outside but the floor was not really meant to withstand the weight so the casters punched through the floor.

Reg: Oh boy.

Jim: Yeah, so we used—me and my parents—the three of us wound up using car jacks and 2 x 4's to lift it off the pallet enough that we could Sawzall the broken wood out of the way, slide extra wood under to make new ramps and the whole thing I think took about eight hours to finally get it off the ramp, off the pallet and into my garage.

Reg: Wow. I can imagine some funniest videos kind of footage if you got anything wrong unloading that thing. That must be awfully heavy.

Jim: Yeah, it's the better part of about 1,200 pounds.

Reg: Wow. So more than three people can easily lift.

Jim: Yes, very much so. It was not easy to get down. Once I had it down, that was by far the hardest part. Once I had the machine actually able to be plugged in, it was easy. I wound up changing the power cords out to match what I had available to me which was a 50 amp outlet for charging my electric car and when I wasn't charging the car, I figured “Well I'll just use it to power the mainframe.” Easy enough. I just swapped out the end connectors on the power cables and it was good to go. So I think the biggest challenge after that was IOCDS configuration. I didn't entirely understand going in what I was supposed to do. I had a vague idea from reading documentation but I wound up basically just copying and pasting the one that was there and deleting anything that didn’t make any sense or that I didn’t have. I think originally it wa 50 or 60 lines and I got it down to seven lines.

Reg: Wow.

Jim: That was all I needed because I only used one Ethernet card and one FICON card and the FICON card was actually configured in fiber channel protocol mode so I didn't even need to define any external DASD or anything.

Reg: Cool.

Jim: And I had plenty of fiber channel gear laying around because I already had some from a bunch of previous servers that used it so once I figured out IOCDS—which took me probably about a day or so of guessing and figuring out what I did wrong.—it turned out my biggest mistake was I hadn't realized that everything needed to be 80 characters wide. It wasn't until I actually went on Wikipedia and looked up how IOCDS came to be from system 360 that I realized “Oh, wait a minute. This was loaded off punch card.” A punch card is 80 characters wide, 80 columns wide and now 80 characters. Well, I figured, were the ones that I had originally 80 characters? Yeah, okay well I guess that's my problem. Sure enough that worked.

Reg: My goodness.

Jim: So the biggest issue after that was getting Linux to load. It took I think two or three attempts before I finally found a distro that was happy with z800 hardware. A lot of distros have moved on and require z9 or later, z10 in some cases and a lot of the distros have really poor documentation and don't state this anywhere so it wound up being like: Try this, drop into a wait state and then realizing “Okay, well that one is not going to work. Try another one.” Eventually, Suse Enterprise Linux 10 worked okay. That's what I've been running on it.

Reg: Cool. So this is all really great insight for people. Given that on the strength of this you ended up working for IBM, this is among other things a great way to get a job with IBM if you spend a few thousands dollars getting yourself a mainframe and configuring it up. Now given that, there’s so much to be said about this and you've written some really neat stuff but how would you summarize this and say how that led to ending at IBM?

Jim: I guess the best way to describe it is just being on social media, making these videos and being active on Twitter got me noticed by some IBM employees who got in touch with me and offered me a trip to Poughkeepsie to give me a tour and also meet Connor in person for the first time. While we had chatted online and we’d Skyped I think a couple of times or Google hangout session’ed a few times, we had never met in person until I actually went to Poughkeepsie last year. When I was there in Poughkeepsie, I gave a presentation on it and at the end of the presentation over lunch, they were like “Hey, we have this opportunity in Dallas and we think you’re a good fit.”? So that was pretty much how it went

Reg: Very cool.

Jim: Yeah, it just went from there.

Reg: So now with the last minute or so that we have—and this has been absolutely fascinating and I know this is barely beginning.—maybe if I could get you to put your forecasting cap on and think, both in your life in your career and just in the future of the mainframe given what you've seen so far, what do you see happening over the next few decades? The world of technology is changing really fast and yet the mainframe seems to be the one place where people are rediscovering solidity and retrenching on it. How do you see the future from your perspective over the next few decades?

Jim: I see the perspective for this platform being very positive. There's the staple corporations, like big credit card companies and financial institutions; their CFO's or their CTOs aren't going to wake up one day and just say “Ah, the heck with this expensive mainframe. Let's go to some random cloud-based solution hosted somewhere else.” That's never going to happen, so the platform will be around for decades to come. It's a wonderful platform and it's constantly being improved. You know, the pervasive encryption in z14 is a big step forward.

Reg: Oh, yeah.

Jim: For a lot of things, especially as we get into things more and more like financial regulation and things like HIPAA compliance that require absolute certainty in encryption. I think it’s going to be big for a lot of those and even as much as a lot of us mainframers tend to diss the cloud, the mainframe is just as a big a part of the cloud as any of the major providers because when you go on your favorite ecommerce site and you're subscribed to their cloud service with your credit card, that’s all processed on the mainframe. You pay for it through your paycheck, and payroll is also processed on the mainframe.

Reg: Those are really good points. Thank you so much Jim.

Jim: No problem.

Reg: Well this has been really good and I sense that we could keep talking for the next three hours and not run out of stuff to talk about. This has been fascinating and I encourage everybody to follow you on Twitter. Remind us. What is your Twitter handle?

Jim: @faultywarrior.

Reg: Okay, so follow Jim @faultywarrior on Twitter and watch this space. We're going to see a whole lot more of him on the mainframe. Any last thoughts during the last couple of seconds?

Jim: No, not really. Just I've enjoyed the trip so far and I'm excited to see what the future brings.

Reg: Well this has been a real delight. It just feels so much like an appetizer more than a full meal because you've got so more to say. We'll be keeping our ears and eyes open and watching your journey forward. Thank you, Jim.

Jim: Thank you very much, Reg.