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Theresa Hans on IBM Champions and New to Z

Reg Harbeck: Hi, this is Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with Theresa Hans who is the key person for a whole bunch of different mainframe and new mainframer and IBM Champion things. Well rather than introducing her myself, Theresa tell us what's your role at IBM and how did you end up in such a role?
Theresa Hans: Yeah, sure. So I'm the Z Advocate Program lead.
Reg: Okay.
Theresa: So my main focuses are being the program manager for the IBM Champions for Z and the New to Z programs, and then a few things here or there where we're really growing our external advocacy and trying to support those who support the platform.
Reg: Okay now I understand that working with the mainframe is not something that necessarily would have been what you were thinking of when you went to university but working with IBM probably was. How did those two kind of weave together?
Theresa: Yeah so I went to school for design and marketing actually.
Reg: Okay.
Theresa: And at the time, so you know in 2013-2014, IBM was starting up, revitalizing really their IBM design program and they put a pledge forward that they wanted to hire like 2,000 designers in the span of a just a few years and really grow that so I was always really interested in IBM and I had a few you know top jobs that I wanted and I really was interested in getting involved in their design program so when I got an interview, I didn't really care what platform it was on. Somebody told me, hey this is z/TPF. It has something to do with airlines. I was like well that's awesome so am I designing things for airlines? Cool, let's go. Then I quickly realized that's not what I was doing but I still stumbled upon a really cool platform that I really had no idea existed I guess, you know just at a high level you know what the mainframe is.
Reg: Yeah.
Theresa: But I had no experience in mainframe before joining.
Reg: Well quite obviously a lot of mainframers have no idea what z/TPF is as well so you're really fortunate to have that opportunity because it's sort of the hidden mainframe operating system in so many ways and yet so important.
Theresa: Yeah, definitely.
Reg: So have you had a chance to kind of get to know all four of the big legacy mainframe operating systems at this point?
Theresa: A little bit. I'd say I can talk at a high level about all of them and I think I can talk more to the clients who work on them and what their needs are.
Reg: Okay. Now how about Linux, you know the new kid on the mainframe block? Have you had time working directly with that or experience with that?
Theresa: Not so much yet but I'm really excited about it especially with the Red Hat synergy. I know we're really looking at—it's Red Hat Enterprise Linux so RHEL, just another acronym to start learning.
Reg: And of course you've got somebody in the very top job now who's got the Red Hat legacy or background I should say but cool. Now we hinted at the fact that even though you were going into design and not technology that somehow IBM was a very comfortable choice for you. Maybe you can give a sense of why was IBM such a comfortable thing for you to move into?
Theresa: Yeah so I actually spent my first few years living in Poughkeepsie, New York. My dad worked for IBM. He started off originally on the ID team, so he was writing technical documentation. He also went to school for a non-technical background. He was an English major and thought he was going to be a high-school teacher or a principal and really just took a turn and he got into IT so I remember when I was little always being able to play on the computer.
Reg: Cool.
Theresa: And mess around with Paint and some you know design programs; when I was really little they used to have the "Take Your Daughter to Work Day" and I think I told this story in my IBM interview but I got to make my own Claymation video.
Reg: Oh fun.
Theresa: And I thought it was so cool that you could combine you know doodling and playing with art and computers and that it was an actual real career so from early on I knew I was interested in design and in marketing because that's something that really brought together technology and my creative side.
Reg: Cool. Now you know it's so funny. The zTalk I recorded just before yourself was with the mainframe Mike Myers and he has this wonderful background that included aesthetics as well as math, you know two things that people don't often think of in the same thought and that was a key part of how he contributed to helping build the whole mainframe. Now of course as you may know I'm also working on my thesis, my Master's thesis about the humanity of the mainframe and so this aesthetics is so closely aligned with humanity. I'd be really interested in your thoughts of how you see the aesthetic aspects of the mainframe that a lot of people who are—you know have it right in front of their face all day working on it as a technology might not appreciate?
Theresa: Okay so the aesthetics of the mainframe I think it's almost a step further when we talk about design and the mainframe. It's all about the user experience so that's what I was really focused on when I was a design researcher. In z/TPF we were more looking at how people were working on the mainframe, you know what were their stumbling points or their pain points and how could we bring that back to the technical team to make sure that we're really giving those users a better experience and it's not just the same thing that they've always been doing. Teams across the mainframe are doing that, not just you know on the industrial side of how it looks and feels but the programs and making sure that we're always trying to make a better user experience for mainframers.
Reg: Now one thing I've often found when people talk about aesthetics is they just automatically gravitate to a GUI and figure,  “a graphical user interface: now we've got aesthetics.” I'm going to guess that you sort of look a bit deeper than that.
Theresa: Yeah, definitely. It's not just slapping a GUI on it and making it work especially something as complex as the mainframe. That's not going to always work but it could be just something as minor as you know maybe they need to be able to see four windows open at once and they just didn't have that capability before or you know we had a story. This was actually not mainframe-related but we had a story about an airline customer who they'd given these iPads to a stewardess to use when they were checking people in but the batteries were always dying so they wouldn't use it. One time somebody was there just you know doing some research and studying and realized that where the plugs were to charge it in, you couldn't bend in a typical flight attendant's uniform so they would just say, we're not going to charge the iPads. We'll just do this instead so something as simple as seeing your users and seeing what they're doing and seeing if there's maybe a simpler fix that's not always just a GUI.
Reg: Well I'm seeing the connection right away then if you're somebody who needs to be right there with the people who are affected that you're working with the new mainframers and with IBM Champions and sort of creating that connection. I'm going to guess you probably have a bit of vision of what you're trying to achieve in these roles.
Theresa: Yeah, exactly. So I started off as a user researcher and my favorite part about it was really getting to know our users and you know what worked for them, what didn't and really understanding how does that affect the business of IBM and how do we progress the mainframe while still progressing our relationships with users and what they're doing, what they want to see us doing so it was pretty much a natural progression for me to come into this role where I'm working with IBM Champions and New to Z people and really seeing you know how we build these communities and how we can enhance these communities even more. So we definitely have a vision of you know growing all of these programs which we have which is awesome and making sure that we're giving everybody chances to connect not only face to face at things like this at SHARE but online as well, digitally, and really creating a lot of opportunities for those in the community to get to know each other and do a lot of work together.
Reg: Now you sort of hinted at the fact that there's more than just SHARE that you're doing. Obviously SHARE is incredibly important and yet there's a bunch of other venues both online and in person that you're working with and I know that must make it especially interesting with the New to Z because of course zNextGen is a SHARE specific thing but New to Z is mainframe anywhere. What are some of the other venues or contexts in which you're working and how do they all kind of fit together?
Theresa: Yeah sure so when it comes to SHARE, zNextGen and New to z, then we have Gen Z and mainframers’ meetups and there's so many user groups. I think it's really fantastic for the community that there are so many and so the New to Z idea is really just very similar to SHARE zNextGen of let's get anybody who is new to the mainframe together and get them working together and collaborating and everybody has a space to come together so when it comes to New to Z, you know we try to collaborate with the other communities as much as we can so we do it at SHARE, at TechU, at schools and universities really you know bringing New to Z people back to their alma maters and talking to students. We try to do meetups maybe at user councils but what we're really focusing on this year is trying to bring that digital presence so build up the New to Z online community and making sure that people know if I can't get to this face to face meeting, at least I can go online and see how that meeting went or ask a question in the forum or write a blog and share my own thoughts so we're really trying to encourage that New to Z online hub too.
Reg: Of course one of the reasons online is so important is because I have become aware that you have 49 mainframe Champions around the world, literally around the world! I don't know if you've had a chance to travel outside of North America to meet them yet but I'd be really interested in your thoughts about the importance, role, and connectedness of the non-North America IBM mainframe Champions.
Theresa: Oh, definitely. I think it's so cool that the program is global and just like you said there are other problems and opportunities in other parts of the world so I think it's a really great way to learn from each other because what's happening in North America might not be happening in Berlin or in the Netherlands. They deal with different issues and maybe they think differently as well so we do have Champions across the world and that's awesome. We just want to encourage more of that. That was a big push from last year to this year that we wanted more geographical diversity in our program and we will continue to do so. So that's the importance of you know we have our calls and we have our Slack channel and we really want to externalize that because right now that's internal to the program. We want to make sure that we're spotlighting our Champions across the world. I know SHARE here is North America. I have had the chance to get to a TechU Berlin and I'm hoping to get out to Guide SHARE Europe because it's so great to meet people face to face and see what they're doing. Then kind of the next step is that digital footprint I guess.
Reg: Okay cool. Now just thinking of your talking about expanding, I gather there's not sort of a ceiling on how many IBM mainframe Champions you have so much as just a very careful vetting process of choosing you know which people and their applications all that are contributing in a way to the ecosystem that is really particularly relevant to the program. If somebody were trying to let's say increase the number of Champions in their geography like I don't know a certain Canadian Champion wanting to have more than one Canadian Champion.
Theresa: Yeah.
Reg: What advice would you give in order to really help other people get you know into a position where they would also be active, valid contributors as members of the Champion program?
Theresa: Yeah, for sure. So there's a lot of potential Champions I'll say out in the community who maybe don't even know about the Champion program or people they work with don't know about the Champion program so we have a lot of potential Champions out there who are wonderful advocates for the platform. I guess my advice would just be if you see that, compliment somebody, recognize them, encourage them to you know nominate themselves as a Champion. We do have a really selective process and I think that's the best and worst part is going through the nominations and having to whittle it down but you see all these fantastic people so I try to stay in touch with anybody who has been nominated even if they weren't selected to encourage that advocacy of hey, we really appreciate what you're doing. The whole community appreciates what you're doing so I think it's just kind of that recognition before being recognized as a Champion so if you know of people maybe in Canada that are really great advocates or you always see them at user councils or maybe they did a really great mentoring program that you admire, reach out to them and thank them, encourage them to keep doing that.
Reg: Now one thing you touched on there that is probably a surprise to a lot of mainframers because we mainframers are a very introverted lot and it never occurs to us to blow our horn is that you actually encourage people to apply to be Champions as much as you can also nominate somebody else to be a Champion. I gather a lot of your Champions are people who basically see this as way to up their level of contribution to the mainframe so it's not just that it's a recognition. It's also an opportunity. What are your thoughts about people actually applying to be Champions rather than waiting for somebody to nominate them?
Theresa: Oh my gosh, do it. Apply to be a Champion. Toot your own horn. Tell us all the great things you did. The Champion program is one of my favorites. You know yes it's a recognition program but then we also get to work hand in hand and you're put under NDA so you're kind of more in the fold of IBM. I think it's so fantastic so if you're out doing this work, toot your own horn. Let us know and then we can help kind of expand your influence. I don't think mainframers should feel shy at all especially when we come to a conference like this and everybody comes out of their shell. You know it's like coming to a family reunion so just do that online as well. Everybody is contributing. Feel free to nominate yourself or if it makes you nervous, ask a friend to nominate you or someone you work with or a client and get it out there.
Reg: Okay, great. Well Theresa this has been excellent. Any final thoughts you really wanted to make sure people had in mind?
Theresa: To know that we appreciate advocates on the platform and anything we can do to be building up this community both in person like this and digital on our New to Z community or our Champion community. Everywhere that you can go, just get out there and get involved. You know I think it makes the mainframe better. It makes our community better. Mainframers are fantastic people. That's why I am in this role so get out there and get involved.
Reg: Great, well thank you so much Theresa.
Theresa: Thank you.