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Warren Harper Has a Rich Mainframe Past and Future

Warren Harper

Reg Harbeck talks with Warren Harper, SHARE zNextGen project manager, about growing up in a mainframe family, the challenge of getting new mainframers onto the platform and why he believes the mainframe will never go away. Listen to the interview via the orange play button or read the transcript below.

Reg: Hi, I'm Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with Warren Harper, who is the project manager of the zNextGen project at SHARE and comes from a mainframe family of avid mainframers. Warren, maybe if I can start by getting you to just introduce yourself in greater depth to us. Tell us about the role of the mainframe and SHARE and such things in your life and how you got to where you are right now.

Warren: Yeah, so growing up at the dinner table my parents would actually talk about the mainframe. My dad would talk about a tricky dump he had to parse through to find out a problem and my mom somehow understood. When I was a kid though, this was all just gibberish to me. So yeah, it turns out that both my parents were actually mainframers. That was how they met too was on the job working for the state of California managing their system there.

Reg: Cool and of course your mom, the late Carol Harper, your dad Tom Harper and your sister Kristine Harper who was a co-founder of zNextGen where you are the project manager now. How does it feel to be sort of part of a family of mainframers?

Warren: Oh, it's really a cool feeling. I'm not sure how it feels on other platforms. On the mainframe anyway, everyone has this kind of "we're all in it together" attitude and this “coopetition” kind of idea is pretty strong on the mainframe.

Reg: Now you could have gone into any number of careers and it's sort of interesting. Your sister Kristine did go into a mainframe career and then after your mom passed away, your sister Kristine moved into nursing to honor your mom. So she's now busy building a career as a nurse as well as a full-time mother. I guess a full-time nurse and a full-time mother. Meanwhile you have sort of moved into a mainframe career after establishing yourself as a global chess master. Maybe you could kind of give some insights into how your role in developing your abilities playing chess has led you into a mainframe career.

Warren: I think chess, as a hobby and a sport, it requires a lot of obsession, a lot of research. So there's a lot of thinking and reading before you do any doing which on the mainframe - change control, the tightness of it, the high standards - it's pretty similar in that respect. There's really a high cost for a mistake on a mainframe, much like on a chessboard, so you want to make sure that you're making a very educated decision.

Reg: Cool. Now in your current role, do you mostly write in Assembler or what is your primary responsibility at work?

Warren: I mostly write in Assembler, writing new enhancements for the new releases of the products. I've also done a lot of C in the past as well.

Reg: Okay. What other platforms have you worked on that you would compare and contrast to the mainframe?

Warren: So far my career has only been on the mainframe platform but I've also had to do lots of work on just individual PCs with Windows.

Reg: Okay. Now of course at a certain point, you also got involved with SHARE. If I recall correctly, you got involved with SHARE even before you were 21 years old. Is that about right?

Warren: Actually I'd have to go back and research when my first SHARE was, it seems so long ago now, but I believe I was 19 or 20 at my first SHARE.

Reg: Now you're of course in your mid 20s so being at SHARE, you're almost an old hand at SHARE. How did you end up being the project manager at zNextGen?

Warren: Well I was encouraged to volunteer by my sister and at the time future brother-in-law. It just kind of snowballed. You know once you get started, it's really easy to just get in the habit of taking on more and helping out more as you can-

Reg: So it sounds-

Warren: And eventually-

Reg: Go ahead. Keep going.

Warren: Eventually you know as other project leaders moved on, the spot opened up for me.

Reg: So it sounds like you strongly recommend the experience of being a volunteer at SHARE.

Warren: Oh, yeah. I mean you develop a lot personally and it's really more valuable to yourself even once you give back to SHARE, I think. I mean I think I have gotten a lot out of it.

Reg: Now how would you describe the role of-I mean zNextGen has been around for over a decade now and you have a growing, changing role at SHARE. How do you envision the role of zNextGen at SHARE over the next, let's say, decade?

Warren: Well, I think it's going to be really important for zNextGen to continue providing a lot of value at SHARE for people new to the mainframe. While there have been a lot of newcomers coming onto the mainframe, I still don't think it's enough, and so I think zNextGen is going to play an important role in providing lots of introductory content and providing a community at SHARE, too, for people who are trying to get their career started on the mainframe.

Reg: You mentioned something really important to me as well, and that is the fact that we don't have enough new mainframers getting onto the mainframe yet. The average mainframer is getting past retirement age and they haven't gotten enough new people on board getting mentored. What are some of your thoughts about what can be done to get the average mainframe shop enough new mainframers in place before the current set end up retiring?

Warren: Well I think one of the most important things actually is reaching upper management and convincing them that there is a need to make new hires to replace these people who are going to retire. I think that it is one of the key things, because from my experiences meeting with middle management and the workers themselves, you know a lot of these people who are near retirement age, they want to pass on their knowledge to someone who can carry the mantle forward, but it seems that upper management has been slow to catch on.

Reg: Now what would you say a mainframe career has to recommend it? If somebody has got the smarts to be a mainframer and they're trying to decide what to do with their career, why would they choose to be a mainframer vs. something else?

Warren: For me, it's the community that sets it apart. When you want to find out how to do something, there's all kinds of people from different and even competing companies that will help you solve your problem and help you get moving forward. I imagine a lot of other industries with the sense of competition [and] going against each other, you might not feel that level of community.

Reg: Okay. Now given that, how would you recommend-let's say that somebody is listening to this podcast and they've decided they'd really like to become a mainframer. They're inspired but they don't know how to become a mainframer, what they have to learn, what connections they have to make, who they have to get to know, how they can find or even develop a mainframe job they could do. What steps would you recommend somebody take in order to go from let's say being intelligent enough, being hardworking enough, having the character but not having the connections and the experience and the education. What steps would you recommend they take to become a mainframer?

Warren: Well if you want to become the mainframer, then one of the best things you could do is get some basic knowledge on your resume. IBM has a program called the Academic Initiative and they have all kinds of educational resources that can help you get started. They have a course where you can get a certification. I forget what the name is called, but it will give you something important that you can put on the resume that is qualified. That is a good place to get started. IBM also has a nice job postings page where companies-not just IBM-can post on there looking for a mainframer.

Reg: Okay. Now I'm going to guess that probably when somebody asks you what you do and you tell them you're a mainframer, you feel pretty proud of that and you're very happy to let them know about it. What are your thoughts on how important it is to be proud to be a mainframer and to let people know about it?

Warren: I think it's really important. There is definitely a general perception out there you tell someone you work on the mainframe-I've even had someone word for word tell me "you're actually working on that dinosaur?" So yeah, it's really common people have this perception that because it's old, it must be obsolete. So I try really hard to correct that misconception and be proud of it because it is important. As Bob Rogers will tell you, western civilization runs on MVS.

Reg: Right. OK. Warren I've really enjoyed this. It's been interesting, enjoyable and informative. And I really appreciate you taking the time. Maybe if I can close up with any additional thoughts you have or things you would like to share with the mainframe community or people who are thinking of becoming a mainframer—just to kind of encourage people about the life of being a new mainframer and being active at SHARE.

Warren: Well throughout my life I've had a lot of people offer a lot of conflicting opinions about the future of the mainframe. Most people who work on the mainframe are proud to be working on the mainframe, and they really believe in the future of it. Those who haven't had an interaction with the mainframe are always very pessimistic about it. I've come to have very little doubt in the future of the mainframe. I think that although we haven't solved the skill issue on the mainframe with workers who can replace their competent, older, more experienced colleagues, I think it will be solved. Because of the underlying technology, the architecture is still sound. I can't see it ever going away.

Reg: Well thank you very much Warren for taking the time for this. I really appreciate it.

Warren: Thanks, Reg.

Reg: Take care.

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