The fact that you’re reading this magazine means there’s life in mainframes. And the fact that many of you are reading this at SHARE in Dallas means there’s life in user groups, too. That’s no coincidence. User group evolution has paralleled changes in the computing industry and those in mainframe computing in particular, even before it was called that.
Organizations called “computer user groups” originated in the early days of data processing. Originally focusing on the mainframes of the day, they’ve evolved along with the industry. In fact, many people now consider user groups to be of more interest to hobbyists and amateurs than to IT professionals. But today’s diverse, professionally-oriented user groups actually represent a key resource in dealing with the complexity of modern corporate computing. User group affiliation can be a powerful antidote to feeling like you’re alone with your computer and your problem.
User groups can affiliate in various fashions with vendors whose products they address, or they can be (sometimes militantly) independent. They occasionally take advocacy positions with vendors, pressing strongly for policy changes to benefit members. On the other hand (though less often), user groups sometimes bond too closely with vendors, becoming captive organizations and apologists without customer or industry credibility.
As technology became more accessible to companies and individuals in the 1980s, user groups blossomed throughout the U.S. and around the world. People came together for various reasons:
- Mutual help with problems
- Group buying power
- Increased clout with vendors
- Influence on public-interest issues.
After awhile, and especially after the Internet blossomed, user group membership and participation declined. Some groups disbanded. But there’s a rebirth under way. Members are returning and many groups are growing again. As boundaries between enterprise and personal technologies blur, some organizations — such as HillGang (a Washington, DC area VM user group) — are resuming activities.
User Group Structure
While user groups resemble each other in many ways, they’re just as often equally different and idiosyncratic. They range from a few dozen people meeting to discuss a niche technology, to an industrial-size conference with hundreds of sessions and thousands of attendees; from a half-day gathering to a full-week assembly. Sessions (individually scheduled events within a meeting) include formal presentations, panel discussions, working sessions hashing out a common position statement, or communication with a vendor.
Free-for-all sessions offer open microphones, where any topic related to the group’s mission is fair game. These latter gatherings, often wide-ranging and fastpaced, are a good setting for airing one’s hot issues and receiving instant advice. User groups are usually non-profit organizations, though some may be privately owned profit-making businesses. Groups develop personalities that attract different people: managers, systems professionals, application developers, users, etc. Groups may serve a small local area such as a neighborhood in Los Angeles or Washington, DC. Or, they may draw from a regional area (the Midwest, for example) while some groups are national or worldwide in appeal.
Major Mainframe User Groups
SHARE (www.share.org), the first user group, was organized in 1955 by 17 users of IBM’s first computer, the 701. The goal was to eliminate effort wasted by multiple organizations solving the same problems and writing similar utility and application programs. Especially with the upcoming introduction of the new 704, it was essential to share the effort of rewriting or porting software to the new machine. Hence, SHARE’s current motto: “SHARE: It’s not an acronym, it’s what we do.”