Mar 1 ’03

Back in z/Saddle Again

by Editor in z/Journal

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:

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.”

Through the early years and until a decade or so ago, SHARE was fairly exclusive and exclusionary, addressing only IBM mainframe issues, requiring ownership or operation of a mainframe for membership, and restricting discussion of non-IBM products. Simultaneously, SHARE’s original scientific computing emphasis faded, especially after introduction of System/360 in 1964, which converged the previously quite separate scientific and commercial computing.

GUIDE, a similar organization also founded in the 1950s to support commercial computing, also evolved to general mainframe issues, though with a management slant, as opposed to SHARE’s technical orientation. GUIDE ceased operation a few years ago, with SHARE absorbing some of its people and activities.

COMMON (http://common. org) originally supported individual and organizational users of low-end and midrange IBM systems. As boundaries between computing hierarchies have blurred and all technologies’ capabilities have grown, COMMON’s interests have grown. The organization’s Website now notes, “In 1960, COMMON began in Chicago, with just a few people sitting around a kitchen table, discussing a common code problem on the IBM 1620. That informal gathering marked the first COMMON meeting. Since then, COMMON has become the world’s largest membership of IT professionals who use IBM and IBM-compatible information technology.”

COMMON now comprises 6,500 individual and corporate members representing more than 23,000 IT professionals involved with IBM iSeries (formerly AS/400, itself descended from System/38) and related applications and solutions.

WAVV (http://wavv.org), formed in 1995 as a spin-off of the former GUIDE user group, promotes the interests of users of the VSE and VM operating systems, including substantial Linux activities. WAVV is a more casual, even funky, and quite enjoyable organization. Contrasted with groups such as SHARE and COMMON, which operate with large volunteer staffs and are supported by a paid management company, WAVV (or, more formally, World Alliance of VSE & VM) is operated by just a few organizers and their spouses. Its next conference will be in Winston Salem, NC, April 25-29, 2003. Meeting in cost-effective cities with efficient logistics, WAVV is a tremendous grass-roots bargain.

Commonly called CMG, the Computer Measurement Group (http://cmg. org/) is a worldwide organization of data processing professionals committed to the measurement and management of computer systems. CMG members are primarily concerned with performance evaluation of existing systems to maximize performance (e.g., response time, throughput) and with capacity management, where planned enhancements to existing systems or new systems design are evaluated to find the necessary resources required to provide adequate performance at a reasonable cost.

User groups of many descriptions have supported technology around the world. Europe’s G.U.I.D.E. and SEAS (a SHARE affiliate) merged to become GSE (Guide/ Share/Europe). European country-specific groups formed to support geographic technology focus, while other groups coalesced to become JGS (Japan GUIDE/SHARE) and INTERACTION Australasia. The International User Group Council (http:/ /www.ugc.org/) links IBM user groups.

What 's In This for Me?

Tish Snow, a long-ago colleague and close friend, was an active SHARE volunteer, serving tirelessly in many roles from board member to VM Group Secretary; a SHARE award, recognizing people supporting the SHARE community, was named for her. To help other SHARE attendees benefit from their membership, she described benefits of SHARE participation. These benefits are provided, to varying degrees, by most user group activities:

User Groups Are Communities

Depending on their sizes and traditions, user groups offer different settings. From formal and relatively stiff presentation settings to relaxed meetings in restaurants, there’s something for everyone. Meetings often include:

While a crowd of people who are seemingly old and close friends may be daunting to a first-timer, user groups are friendly, welcoming settings. It’s easy to start a conversation; the common setting indicates common interests. Surely, the latest product release or apparent vendor outrage can serve to break the ice.

User Groups Help Vendors

User groups don’t just benefit end users and computer-using organizations. Technology entrepreneurs, overwhelmed by infinite to-do lists, can use Archimedes’ long-enough lever to move their world and achieve their goals by letting others help. The underutilized tool at hand is a user group. User groups now accommodate and support everyone from hobbyists and amateurs to experienced IT professionals; they’re an efficient way for vendors to reach customers and prospects, offering a setting for technical and product presentations, often accompanied by technology expositions.

Technology exposititions allow for installing and demonstrating products in realistic settings, and responding to questions by showing, rather than describing. Similarly, attendees get immediate answers to what-if questions that reflect their real-world requirements.

Finding User Groups

While user groups don’t operate covertly, they’re also not listed in the Yellow Pages. So it’s easy to be figuratively next door to one without knowing about it. The easiest way to start seeking a group is to ask colleagues and peers at other companies. Local newspapers often list local groups. The Washington, DC area has more than 100, ranging from Amiga and Osborne to mainframes, from Baltimore to Virginia.

Mainstream newspapers often list meeting schedules. Technology reporters may also know about local groups.

Web search engines and directories catalog everything. Searching Google for user group for industry terms yielded the results in Figure 1. Each hit isn’t a distinct user group, but refining the search with more detailed keywords such as geographic location and specialty sought will likely return resources within reach. Sites such as http://easyrsvp.com/ugotw/ and http://apcug.org/ (click user groups and then UG directory) offer structured searching.

Participation , Exploiting

Most people begin user group participation by simply attending. That usually returns value in the form of information received, but it’s just getting the barest value available.

The next step is often presenting. This provides personal and organizational exposure, and allows for polishing presentation skills. It provides a setting for sharing information and unobtrusively bragging, and — at least as important — elicits feedback from fellow attendees.

A further step is chairing sessions. This requires some pre-meeting preparation and some understanding of conference logistics. If management approval is obtained in advance for this, it can prevent last-minute denial of permission for attending. Session chairs work in close contact with speakers, often chatting before and after the conference. So judicious selection of sessions to chair can build a valuable network of experts.

Bottom Line

Groups blossom and fade as technology changes and the industry booms and busts. It’s a lot of work keeping a volunteer group running, and it’s sometimes hard for volunteers to agree on what to do. Many local groups have folded when they lost critical mass. In some cases, vendors and their sponsored meetings have replaced user groups.

Industry convergence affects more than combining technologies, it also results in broader-based organizations such as SHARE. From its single-technology focus, SHARE has evolved to address non-IBM networks, hardware, software, and services in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Similarly, other user groups are addressing mainframes, as their technology fields of interest expand to include them. Both sides win when there’s improved mutual awareness and understanding.

The user group phenomenon’s bottom line is pleasant for technical folk, their managers, and corporate bean counters. For a reasonable investment, staffers network with communities relevant to their organizations, in settings where anyone from junior to senior level is welcome, and can both contribute and benefit. While participation requires investing time and perhaps money for travel and conference costs, it’s easy to measure the value received. As is true in other contexts, the more one invests in user groups, the bigger the personal, professional, and organizational payoff. Z