Poughkeepsie NY’s Marist College wouldn’t be where it is today without the mainframe, and nobody knows that better than CTO Harry Williams, who makes sure the college is always prepared for growth and emerging IT trends. In addition to his duties at Marist, Harry Williams also serves as President of SHARE, a long running IT User Group responsible for putting on two of the biggest mainframe events every year. In this interview, we find out what draws Harry to the platform, and what he’s excited about in coming years.
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Transcript below is automated and may contain inaccuracies:
Frank: Welcome to Terminal Talk a podcast on mainframe and mainframe related topics. And today we have somebody who I’ve known since I was a very very very young person. So here is somebody finally on the show who is older than me.
Harry: Wow gee thanks.
Jeff: We have Harry…
Jeff: I wonder why we have trouble getting guests. I wonder.
Frank: …and so we have Harry Williams, CTO at Marist College and President of SHARE.
Harry Williams: Thank you I appreciate that.
Frank: So we never had a President in here before have we?
Jeff: I know we’ve got to learn respect or something we got to work on that.
Frank: Yes. I can’t even get the poor guy some water.
Jeff: Man you can’t get one bottle of water and you’re branded for life I don’t know.
Frank: Yes you had one job.
Jeff: So let’s start. I have no idea where to start. Let’s start with SHARE. What is SHARE?
Harry Williams: SHARE is a basically it’s a user group. It’s a group of companies that have come together they’re enterprise related companies interested in basically the Z platform. So it’s the go to place if you want z/VM or z/OS or zLinux training. A chance…
Harry Williams: …to interact with others that are doing the same thing. I mean I think actually the network, you know, of people in the hallways is probably, you know, more important…
Harry Williams: …than what goes on in the sessions.
Jeff: Yes I would definitely agree with that. We’ve had a couple of people on in the past and they talked a little bit about that. But it was never clear – I don’t think we clearly came out and said here’s what SHARE is and why it’s such a big deal or at least for mainframers.
Harry Williams: Right and I always thought it was kind of interesting is if you look at the SHARE Web site it doesn’t screen anywhere like this is all about mainframe it is an IT conference. It is an IT conference I mean it’s we do specialize in Z and Z related things but we do have other things that are outside of that too.
Harry Williams: So, you know, it’s a breath of knowledge and different things.
Jeff: Sure and yes and back to the hallway thing. Whenever someone does – you know what I learned at SHARE? You know, it’s always like oh what session was that (and it wasn’t a session). It was lunch. It was dinner…
Frank: At lunch I was talking to this guy.
Jeff: And it was really cool.
Jeff: They put on a great hallway session (this time).
Frank: There used to be a session and Harry will remember this called SCIDS.
Harry Williams: That’s true.
Frank: Several conversations and diverse subjects.
Harry Williams: That’s one acronym that the one you recognize yes.
Frank: But the thing about that was is it was a big room and everybody talked and everybody had a chance to talk.
Harry Williams: It was a chance to sit there and spend a couple of hours having a nice relaxing time with adult beverages and. And it was a chance to find people that was doing some of the same things you were and asked questions and really bond with others and develop that relationship and networking.
Frank: Yes and I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that the demographics at SHARE seems to be getting younger.
Harry Williams: It is it is. I mean it’s a conscious effort. You know, we have the z NextGen which is designed for people that are recent grads or changing job descriptions. And so there is a concentrated effort to try to attract and retain the younger people.
Frank: And I think that’s really important because we’re trying to get people who are new to the platform to understand what they can do and do that without feeling that they have to learn everything there is to know in order to be useful.
Harry Williams: That’s true and it’s a chance for them to actually meet some people and work with others that have the experience, you know. One of the things I find is, you know, those that have been doing it for 30 years do want to share that knowledge they want to find somebody they can pass it on to and help mold them as they grow. And so there’s a good opportunity for them there too.
Frank: I’d like to kind of switch gears and talk a little bit about the work that you do at Marist.
Harry Williams: Okay.
Frank: So you’ve been doing mainframe stuff at Marist for a considerable amount of time.
Harry Williams: Yes I have been. We’ve been doing mainframes back into when I first met Frank when he was a kid. We were – we actually started on a mainframe at Cornell University’s Medical Center down in New York City. We rented time on their machine as a time sharing system and then that transitioned up to the main campus in Cornell. And then after that Marist decided to buy their own mainframe. We bought a 370 135 with a whole half a megabyte of memory.
Frank: That was a big deal at the time.
Frank: Oh I believe it.
Harry Williams: Yes, it was and, you know, I mean I forget how much was that next half megabyte we bought but it was a significant investment. It wasn’t something you put on your credit card. And we did that and we bought some people on to actually buy some of our time and we did that for several years learn to deal with customer support and providing lots of different things on the mainframe did 1401 emulation.
Jeff: And what is 1401 emulation?
Harry Williams: 1401 emulation is emulating a IBM 1401 computer.
Harry Williams: We had actually run some things on a 1401 before we got the 370. And so this was a programming and a set of micro codes that actually emulated the instructions on a 1401.
Jeff: So the first use case for a mainframe at Marist was partially subsidized by the fact that you could bring in business (on it)?
Harry Williams: Absolutely.
Jeff: Wow. And mainframe has been at Marist for a long time and I believe at this point…
Harry Williams: Since the mid-70’s.
Jeff: …yes it’s kind of it’s engrained into the DNA of the campus, you know. It’s almost like the – if you look closely the I in Marist is actually a z14 a ZR1 it’s like the, you know, the desk lamp in Pixar.
Harry Williams: It absolutely it’s it is one of the kind of things. I mean long ago we started making sure that technology itself not just, you know, mainframes but across the board was involved in all of our courses.
Harry Williams: You know, one of the first projects that I worked on was a program for college writing where we actually on the mainframe had college students running in on z/VM in XEDIT using a program (Epistle) to do spellchecking and to do grammar checking and stuff like that well before Microsoft ever thought about Microsoft Word.
Jeff: Oh yes.
Frank: It wasn’t quite WYSIWYG was it?
Harry Williams: Well it was you get what you wrote.
Jeff: But, you know, it wasn’t when did MUSICB come in?
Harry Williams: Oh geeze that would have been we ran Music with McGill University operating system since the late 70’s we ran that for quite a long time. And then as the college grew I mean, you know, when I graduated the college was the size and we’re actually about a triple or quadruple that size now. And so we actually then split out a an administrative system in a student system for MUSICB, God you’re really taxing my memory now.
Jeff: But it just you think about like one of the better ops with mainframe is scalability. If you do the fundamentals right you’ll be able to scale it…
Harry Williams: Absolutely, you know, in fact, you know, we’re actually starting back to that model now. We’re actually hosting on our mainframe at several other universities. They’re small but we’re actually doing their administrative systems and their ERP.
Jeff: …oh wow.
Harry Williams: Right on our system so we’re back to what we started. We call it shared services now but it’s the same model of putting multiple virtual machines on z/VM when multiple yes what goes around comes around.
Jeff: (Funny that).
Harry Williams: Yes.
Jeff: So what kind of applications does a university, you know, run on their mainframe?
Harry Williams: Well I mean the – all the traditional things you would expect. We do registration we do billing. We do general ledger. We do grades and all of those fun things. So all that – everything is required to run the university is has some component of on our BC12 right now.
Jeff: And is that homegrown software?
Harry Williams: No that’s actually a commercial package from a company, they now supported environment upon the on the Z platform. But of course, you know, we did it actually prior to them supporting it. We have this little habit of, you know, that’s where we want to run we’re going to run it there. You don’t want to support it there well we’ll go ahead and do it.
Jeff: So if I wanted to start Jeff’s University, you know, I could get that software and do that…
Harry Williams: Absolutely.
Jeff: …and if someone wanted to pay for that they could do it they got to run through Jeff’s Bank?
Frank: Yes. This is going to be a theme.
Jeff: Yes obviously…
Frank: …so this is a for me it’s a big deal because I am where I am today because of you Harry.
Harry Williams: I’ve heard you blame me for that before.
Frank: Yes yes that I got my start in mainframes really because of stuff projects that you gave me and work. So over the last let’s say 30 years you’ve been…
Jeff: …I was just making a note for myself later on when I (edit). Go on.
Frank: You’ve been kind of mentoring young people into mainframe right?
Harry Williams: Absolutely.
Frank: So first of all what do you look for to get new people onto the platform?
Harry Williams: We look for a couple of things. One is somebody that’s interested and inquisitive, you know, they got to want to try to do this. You can’t force anybody to do any of these things and they got to be open to new ideas. You know, one of the things that we often work with in some of our new developers is like well they want to do certain this way. Well okay we’ll show you why that’s not going to work, you know. The concepts that you need to understand apply across different platforms it really doesn’t matter.
Harry Williams: You know, and so open to being shown some new ideas and things willingness to try things.
Frank: And I know what you were stuck with all of those years ago has it – have you noticed the change in new people coming into the mainframe environment? Man when we started it wasn’t like you had a choice right?
Harry Williams: There was – yes when – yes – when we started a long time ago that’s 30 something years ago now.
Frank: Yes if it was over 30 we’ll agree on 30 right?
Harry Williams: Yes I would say the interesting part is some students really are starting to look at and be more open to more ideas. You know, it’s amazing you can show them what – you can do this on a mainframe and show them, you know, the Linux show or the – and they’re just amazed at wow that’s the thing that I heard was all green screens and stuff like that and that’s all there is. And we said no you can do all of the same tools that you’re used to. And that’s one of the things I think is they’ve gotten used to certain tools.
And they want to use those tools in whatever environment they’re developing in. And so yes, we’re doing heavily right now and getting other things. And, you know, I am an old guy so I still like my green screen and I still play with it quite a bit. But it – having the new abilities and the new tools and showing them that they can do whatever they’re use to there and you get the power and the flexibilities that they get on the mainframe it really intrigues them and they become very excited about it.
Frank: And you’ve really kind of brought the whole Linux concept into Marist right I mean?
Harry Williams: Yes yes…
Frank: So and what was that like bringing that in?
Harry Williams: …well it was interesting it’s – I mean you alluded to it earlier, you know, we looked at trying to do things on the mainframe first. And, you know, we were looking at around the time and, you know, we knew that for our computer science program we needed to do more (Unix) like stuff and so we looked where are the options. And this was before there was a port of Linux. And it was in the early days of, you know, whatever open edition whatever name it called in those days
Frank: Open Edition and (VSOE).
Harry Williams: And so, you know, we looked at and we were playing around with Linux we did some Linux on Intel and we said well this is portable what’s it going to take to get it up on the mainframe? And so we had been working on some (unintelligible) stuff to do that. And then we had some calls from some people down here that said we have this thing you might want to look at. And so we played around with it and we put it up and made people made available for download for people and that started the ball rolling.
We knew because we had, you know, the z/VM with Linux on it. You know, we had the option of doing lots of things. And so we went over to the School of Computer Science and said here let me show you this let’s show you what’s available. And, you know, we had a professor there that was really interested in it and so we actually started where students would get up to 3 5 in the virtual machines of our own Linux. They would use it in a course usually it was the Web development one class.
And the nice thing was it became a portfolio so they went – when they went to Web development to class the professor knew they had already done this work and they could build upon that work to actually start the second semester and they started a little farther ahead. And so we did more of that and did spread it across. You know, doing some of that we were up to 600 or 700 virtual machines of student stuff doing whatever they wanted to.
They kept it for their entire career there. And as I showed people it was like I couldn’t even come close to buying the hardware to do this on another platform.
Harry Williams: You know, I mean that’s the amazing thing is given the power. You know, I was standing in a (watching a) lecture from another university about, you know, what they did for their ERP. And they were a much smaller school than us and they had this Dell hardware and they had all of these – and they add all these extra, you know, disk controllers and they added this and that. And I’m like why am I going to build all of that?
Harry Williams: When I can buy a Z that has all of that. And then they talked about their redundant architecture and then they gave me a price tag of what they built and then I go I spent less than that on my Z and I get more out of it than what you’re getting. And that’s the thing is the architecture allows that flexibility the price point is actually very reasonable. And, you know, convincing people that are have already invested heavily in that architect should change is sometimes difficult.
But the nice thing about the students are they’re not invested in that. They’re open to all these new ideas and they see the power and the intrigue of going ahead and doing these things.
Jeff: Oh I always think about and you talk about businesses and they say oh we’re on target to throw 20% this year. And it’s like an investor or anybody, you know, outside of IT you’re thinking yes hooray fantastic. Anyone who actually running the systems that are, you know, which might be at or near capacity you’re thinking oh no how am I going to (unintelligible) 20 more percent. And but if you’ve done the fundamentals right like you have on this list that Marist has kind of planned you get to, you know, if the President says we’re going to get 20% more students (unintelligible) he’s like okay well…
Harry Williams: Yes.
Jeff: …we might need to turn on another core…
Harry Williams: Absolutely. and it’s been that way for a while. We’ve been able to grow when we needed to do what the pieces we need to do so.
Jeff: You mentioned you working with another university that’s kind of similar. Are – is there – are there other universities or colleges or educational institutions that are on a similar track as Marist is in terms of mainframe?
Harry Williams: There are some not to the degree that we have. I mean it really is embedded in our DNA right now.
Harry Williams: It’s, you know, even my boss says I want it there first before you’ll try it somewhere else. So it really is (unintelligible) unique that we try things there first.
Jeff: All right I see you get along with everybody at SHARE. Is there any other industry that’s kind of closely mirrors what you do?
Harry Williams: No and higher ed is unique in a lot of ways. It’s I talk about it and people are shocked. In many ways it’s one of the more regulated industries there is in the country. You know, the whole privacy thing, you know, the governing things for student privacy is called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that dates back to the 1970s. You know, we can’t even acknowledge the student exists much less who they are and what they’re doing.
Jeff: And you have to do this on a scale of thousands?
Harry Williams: You have to do the scale on thousands. So, you know, some of those concepts that are now coming to other businesses we’ve had to live with for a while. You know, you look at, you know, in terms of the FTC, you know, financially the offices are considered a bank and we have to treat all the records about student financial aid stuff as just as seriously as they do for banking. So, you know, across the way there’s all sorts of regulations that you wouldn’t expect to (unintelligible) and do so.
Frank: So once again you’re ahead of the curve.
Harry Williams: Yes…
Jeff: So are you guys looking the pervasive encryption stuff and do you think that fits or?
Harry Williams: …I don’t have a box today on my floor that is capable of pervasive encryption but I’m actually looking at a box to do that. It’s trying to figure out where it fits into our scale. I mean I drool at some of those things. I see in pervasive encryption. I think the ability to do that encryption and the part that impresses me the whole the most really is the whole key management structure that’s built into it and that’s the part that I’m really looking at how can we start to do that.
You know, encryption is something that we’re starting to scale up now, you know, and so those are real concerns we have.
Frank: Yes and that’s, you know, you really kind of nailed it too because, you know, encryption without good key management is just ransomware right…
Harry Williams: Yes.
Frank: …so it be interesting since you kind of are at the leading edge of a lot of this stuff looking at how you put it together and maybe we can have you come back once you’ve done that and talk about it
Harry Williams: Absolutely I always want to talk about what we do.
Frank: Can you give us an idea just obviously privacy and all of that stuff. But for like the scale you’re talking about, you must have a ton of virtual images?
Harry Williams: We do and I mean some of them are not what Marist related I think the last, you know, we do all platforms, you know…
Harry Williams: …we do the X series we do the P the system P or whatever their name is this year and we do Z…
Frank: I want to keep my job.
Harry Williams: Yes, you know, I have problems (keeping track) I mean I’m getting old, you know, my memory is going.
Jeff: Just say this thing that thing and the other thing, you know.
Harry Williams: I mean we’re up into the – it’s tough for me to say how many are specifically Marist related because we do other schools and we’re starting to grow that and we just sort of mix them as necessary.
Frank: The more that you want to think about is (unintelligible)…
Harry Williams: The more they want to think about.
Frank: Yes and that works for me. So and there was a time back in my youth that you guys supported other outside organizations as well right and we’re supporting a Clinic when I was there.
Harry Williams: We did that was a long time ago. They have since left onto their own set of stuff. It’s been interesting, you know, back in the day in terms of looking at the different industries we did support. In terms of that sort of thing we are doing some more things in that area some of which I can’t talk about right now.
Frank: Right but so the kind of point is that we’ve – you’ve got an environment that not only supports the college but provides a business opportunity to other colleges even beyond (college)…
Harry Williams: Well absolutely. You know, we’re – we’ve worked with a networking provider in terms of some of their basic security appliances. We’re doing some things we’re experimenting with some stuff on Blockchain to do some security related for networking. You know, one of the things that we’ve grown is we actually have the ability to do incubator type like thing so we actually put faculty and students and staff to help support some of these things. There’s a medical provider we’re working with right now to do some stuff for cardiac stuff.
Jeff: …it’s important to you.
Harry Williams: It is it is. Unfortunately I did spend some time and I have, you know, I have my own issues. So and somebody says yet I don’t have a heart when actually the doctor says I do…
Frank: Do it may not be working right but it’s there.
Harry Williams: …so it’s interesting and, you know, we provide other things besides, you know, we do some non-profit stuff too so there’s a local residential day of school that’s in the area that we’re doing some work with, you know, like the whole list gets I don’t, you know, my mind is – my memory is (going to) remember.
Frank: So the – you’re doing a lot for the college. You’re doing a lot for a lot of other businesses. How do you keep up with doing new? How do you keep always being on the leading edge?
Harry Williams: Well well I mean I spend time reading a lot of things, you know, read some trade journals itself. I listen to Terminal Talk and I.
Frank: …which is really valuable right?
Harry Williams: Absolutely. I got to share. I mean I blame SHARE for my career at Marist it gave me the opportunity to do lots and understand a lot of different things. And as I said before it’s actually more importantly not just the content but also the networking of people and be able to pick up the phone and call someone and say or in this day in age send them an email.
Frank: Or a text.
Jeff: Or (VM Tel).
Harry Williams: Yes.
Harry Williams: Yes so I mean there’s all sorts of growth there. And I mean and we talked a little bit about the higher ed industry. I mean one of the things about it is even though there’s some competition between schools there was a much more cooperation a lot of (unintelligible). And so I mean, you know, as I but just before I came over here I was talking to somebody down at (unintelligible) University of New York about some stuff down there. So it’s not a uncommon thing to share things with other schools.
Harry Williams: Moving right along.
Frank: You guys were also the first group to really push the MOOCidea right?
Harry Williams: We did. Now we’ve had a couple of different MOOCs. We were earlier adopters in some of that. I don’t think they’re doing a (Mook) right now but they’ve done a couple of different things over the years. I mean the school computer science has a it entered a z/OS that they offered as partially as a MOOC. I believe it’s still open if people were interested in it just give people a chance to get a taste of it.
Frank: So SHARE is coming up – a quick plug – SHARE is coming up August 12 through the 17…
Harry Williams: It is absolutely in St. Louis… yes first time in St. Louis we’re excited there’s (a lot of)… …good things going on there. The Cardinals are in town and I’m a big baseball fan.
Jeff: There you go.
Harry Williams: So.
Jeff: So we all get to go to the game that’s included in the?
Harry Williams: No.
Harry Williams: It’s not but… …there is a lot of things going on and in fact our Sunday night reception will be over in what’s called Ball Park Village.
Jeff: …oh nice.
Harry Williams: So that should be an exciting time.
Frank: Yes I’m only doing three sessions this time so I may actually be able to do stuff that’ll be fun.
Jeff: I just signed up today the last day to get the discount…
Harry Williams: Yes.
Jeff: …which does nothing for the people listening to this.
Jeff: On Monday.
Frank: Thanks thanks for ruining it yes. Well that’s what you get for not getting there early.
Jeff: Right exactly hey it’s not they don’t send you enough emails. Sorry.
Harry Williams: Are you saying something?
Jeff: Not not at all not at all not at all.
Harry Williams: Yes we do not call it spam.
Harry Williams: We do not.
Jeff: But yes looking forward to that. I’m doing some talks on machine learning and deep neural networks…
Harry Williams: That should be – that should be exciting.
Jeff: …I hope so. I hope so…
Frank: Yes. Yes I had a bunch of abstracts that I didn’t get in on time I’m a little upset.
Frank: That’s why I’m only doing three.
Harry Williams: In six months they’re going to have another one in Phoenix.
Frank: Yes I know and so…
Harry Williams: And the call the (papers) will open as soon as we finish with St. Louis.
Jeff: …I know.
Frank: …I know when the call is I just missed it.
Jeff: You think he’d figure this pattern out by now.
Frank: Yes how many years has it been? I should know by now.
Harry Williams: Yes his memory is going too.
Frank: But, you know, especially those of us who are in the Northeast like February in Phoenix is a really good idea.
Harry Williams: Yes it sounds like it.
Jeff: It’s dry hot.
Frank: Yes hey listen I’ll take it over a little watery cold any day.
Harry Williams: Yes.
Frank: So. Yes so I have a bunch of sessions. And they’re going to be actually user sessions not just at IBM we’re talking which I thinkis great about SHARE…
Harry Williams: Well and that’s one of the nice things about SHARE is they we actually get real end users to do some talks on that so.
Frank: …which I think is a lot better because it’s one thing if a vendor says something it’s different when somebody who’s been using it says look I used this it works really good for this and watch out for these things right…
Harry Williams: Absolutely and sometimes that vendor is a large multi-national.
Jeff: Yes given the choice I’ll always rather hear the…
Frank: Oh yes yes and there have been some really good ones. I love when Brian Peterson does it because he’s got that Midwestern. I won’t say anything really bad but if you read between the lines I was not happy with that so.
Frank: …item 1, 2, 4 and 5 are very very bad.
Harry Williams: Brian has a nice understated way of saying things
Frank: Yes yes. Oh shout out to Brian if he actually listens to the podcast.
Harry Williams: Yes.
Frank: So. So.
Jeff: He I know he does because he referenced the podcast in an (PMR) video. It’s true.
Frank: Oh that’s cool.
Jeff: He goes I know this should work because I heard about it on a podcast.
Frank: …well that explains some of the angry emails I’ve been getting.
Jeff: Yes because development is talking about (unintelligible)…
Frank: Yes it’s amazing how quickly you can lose friends.
Frank: …if you had them in the first place. Anyway so while we’re – we’re actually at the bottom of the hour here. So I really want to thank you.
Harry Williams: Not a problem.
Frank: Not only for coming and talking.
Jeff: All the way over here.
Harry Williams: Yes.
Frank: Yes from way down the street.
Harry Williams: Yes.
Frank: But more importantly that you came here and told no what Frank – things Frank did back in Marist so I really appreciate that.
Harry Williams: I’m honored
Frank: So without further ado Old Man Charlie run us out.
Charlie Lawrence You’ve been listening to Terminal Talk with Frank and Jeff. For questions or comments or if you have a topic you would like to see covered on a future episode direct all correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org’s email@example.com. Until the next time I’m Charlie Lawrence signing off.