Here’s something to think about: Despite the fact that IBM stopped manufacturing personal computers in 2005, deciding instead to focus on higher margin business services, the company continues to produce mainframes and by all estimates will continue manufacturing them well into the future. The question is, why? The answer: Because there is still significant demand for this type of hardware.
The fact is that a mainframe is a monster when it comes to computation and processing transactions. One mainframe can process 2.5 billion transactions daily. That’s the equivalent of 100 Cyber Mondays in a single day. To give you a clearer idea of the immensity of scale, keep in mind that Cyber Monday sales in 2018 were $7.9 billion. This translates into a mainframe being able to handle a bit more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars in transactions each day, which is almost twice the yearly GDP of Austria!
As I said, the mainframe is a workhorse. Yet, its power and potential are hidden from most people who work in the modern cloud. This is surprising because there’s a good argument to be made that, given its power and scalability, coupled with its support for a large number of concurrent users, the mainframe was the cloud before there ever was a cloud. However, the technology is practically unknown among younger developers, mostly due to cultural reasons and a lack of historical awareness. That more people are not taking advantage of the tremendous opportunities at hand is a misfortune. When it comes to mainframe computing, there’s a lot of interesting tech to be learned and a good amount of money to be made. It’s just a matter of increasing awareness to do this. A good place to start is to redefine the narrative.
Allow me to elaborate.
A Special Club
When mainframes appeared on the commercial landscape, few people interacted with computers and even fewer worked with them directly as programmers or system administrators. Just as in a modern data center, the machines were isolated in climate-controlled rooms to which few had access. Access to the actual physical machine was restricted to a special few. But unlike today, when restricted access is due more to security concerns because there are a lot more people around who are potential black hats, back then access was also restricted due to the exclusivity of the profession.
In the 1950s, 1960s and well into the 1970s, not just anybody could program or be a systems administrator. You could go to a technical school to learn to become a computer operator, which meant you could work at a terminal as a bank teller or travel agent. Or you could learn to become a data processing clerk and work in a back office at a brokerage firm. But to learn to program, you had to go to college. Then after college, you had to go to work for a company or organization that actually used computers in day-to-day operations. These were banks, insurance companies, major manufacturers such as General Motors and General Electric, airlines, very large retailers and government. Computing was a club and you had to be well-educated to get in and be well-liked by the organization to keep your membership. Yes, there were the outliers—Gates, Allen, Joy, Wozniak and Jobs—but for most people, the career path to being a programmer was college and then into big business or government.
As a result, computing had an air of mystery and magic to it. Remember, until the mid-1980s, most people had never touched a computer. It was the stuff of moon landings and election night predictions on network TV. Then the PC came along and changed everything. Within 10 years computers became commonplace. Even elementary schools had them—at least, those that had the budget and foresight. The power that business applications such as the spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3 brought to small business motivated even the dry cleaner on Main Street to plunk down the thousands of dollars it cost to buy a PC. The productivity boost was worth it. Also, since the dry cleaner actually owned the machine, the dry cleaner’s kid could learn to program on the box unencumbered, when it wasn’t being used during business hours. Remember, the Microsoft DOS operating system that shipped on every IBM-compatible PC came bundled with the programming language BASIC. You didn’t need to go to college to learn to program; all you needed was a book.
So, PC programming took off. Instead of having to go through the effort required to get into the special club the mainframe programmers belonged to, PC programmers started their own clubs and anybody could get in. All you had to do was show up. PC programming became a meritocracy. Also, it became extremely lucrative work. There were a lot of PCs being shipped and the appetite for applications to run on them was enormous. The unlikeliest of people, such as Lotus Software founder Mitch Kapor and his sidekick, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, became wealthy, thanks to the PC.
The PC became cool and programming for it became cooler. But there was a fact that got obscured as the popularity of the personal computer grew: Compared to the mainframe, the PC was a toy—a productive toy, a liberating toy, but a toy nonetheless, very much in the same way that a go-kart is a toy compared to a Formula One race car.