Sep 17

From Math to Mainframes: Why Bob Rogers Built a Career with Big Iron

by Mike Siemasz 

Many know Bob Rogers as one of the great minds behind the IBM mainframe, having helped develop operating systems from OS/370 to modern-day z/OS. He retired from IBM in 2012 as a Distinguished Engineer and is still a frequent speaker at SHARE.

But ask Bob who he thinks he is, and he’ll tell you he’s a hacker—or was one, he says, when it meant “somebody who spent a lot of time on problems in the university computer center until 4 a.m. It was more along the lines of a geek today. Then I became a programmer.”

Hacker, geek, programmer, Distinguished Engineer—either way, Bob is a luminary of the mainframe community. Whether that was ever his intention is another story.

“As my wife’s grandmother would say, I fell into a tub of butter.”

After two years at Manhattan College in the Bronx, newly married and looking for work, Bob says he moved back to Dutchess County, NY, “Where Poughkeepsie is. Where the mainframe is. IBM was a huge presence there.”

He found a full-time job as a computer operator servicing the programmers of OS/360 at IBM, despite not having “a lot of respect for computers,” and matriculated at nearby Marist College, where he continued studying mathematics. “I really liked the analytical stuff of mathematics, not the numerical stuff of computers. Of course, I knew nothing about computers,” he said.

Two years later in 1971, he graduated from Marist. Despite his initial disinterest in computing, he had learned to love programming. His long career as a programmer at IBM began.

Learning to Love Mainframes

“I got this very lucky position. I was an operator in a place where they developed the operating system, and I had access to a nearly infinite amount of knowledge,” Bob said.

He took time to take advantage of this and learned everything he could, including how to program FORTRAN—from the error message manual, of all places—and PL/I. But he learned the most from several programmers who mentored him.

“I had dozens of mentors because I demonstrated interest. All of these people liked what they were doing, and when they would find a young guy who was interested, they were willing to invest some time to give me more knowledge,” he said.

His affinity for computing and the mainframe only increased as his knowledge, skills and career grew at IBM, a contrast from his early college days as an aspiring mathematician. This trajectory of transcending one’s unawareness of, or even apathy towards, the mainframe to find a deep passion for the platform is reflective of many next-gen programmers today. They see the mainframe as an outmoded black box of legacy esoterica until they begin working with it and realize its power and vitality.

Shifting Mainframe Mindsets

Today, many next-generation mainframe programmers—generally those under the age of 35—studied programming on other platforms and didn’t know what a mainframe was before starting their careers. Yet, through mentoring and real work experience, they’ve come to understand what it is—just another platform, but a unique one at that—and why it plays a huge role in our digital economy.

The inability to proliferate this message—that the mainframe is vital, and you can build a great career participating in its future—is what has always been the bane of the platform and its community. Bob remembers the low point of this conversation, as do many others in the industry.

“In 1992, people were saying the mainframe was dead. It was even on the morning TV talk shows. So, I went to Guide, at that time an organization like SHARE, and instead of going out to dinner one night, I stuck around asking people what things they knew that were important or interesting that ran on the mainframe,” Bob said.

Here’s what he found out:

“Desert Storm logistics was run on a small air-cooled 4381 mainframe that was flown to the battle theater. The assignment of all 800 numbers. Every ATM transaction, and so on. To a first order of approximation, meaningful computing on this planet is still done on the mainframe. The big banks, insurance companies, governments still run on MVS.”

But how does this community get those outside it to understand the importance of this? Bob made two points.

The Need for Prestige

Chalk it up to bad PR that the mainframe community hasn’t publicly proven the worth of the platform despite its importance. While that’s changing—thanks to a renewed outspoken passion from mainframers as well as more confident messaging from vendors like Compuware, BMC and even IBM—Bob says changing mindsets really boils down to making the field of mainframe IT look as prestigious as it truly is.

“People like to have prestige. My one message is ‘Western civilization runs on this platform.’ You want to do something fun, become a video game programmer, and in three years your game will be forgotten.

“But if you want to do something that’s really important, help run western civilization, because the people who run the mainframe, these are the people who are really responsible for holding civilization together.”

Don’t Waste Time on Peanuts

To change the public perception of the mainframe, organizations also must be re-enlightened on the vitality of the platform; they must stop disinvesting and start re-investing in this critical back-end system, Bob says.

“They seem to have forgotten: You use computers to enable your multi-billion-dollar business. Why are you taking risk in the IT area to save a couple of bucks? You should be getting premium IT even if you have to pay premium money for it. Why aren’t you thinking about your real business instead of wasting time and taking risk for peanuts?”

That’s not to say exploring other technologies that would potentially benefit the business is a waste of time. Computing has exploded. Multiple platforms can and should be leveraged strategically to make meaningful advancements.

“The idea that because all this other stuff is running someplace else means the mainframe is going to get squeezed out of what it does is a fallacy. If you’re going to bet against the mainframe, don’t bet a lot,” Bob said.

Bet on "Difference"

In Bob’s eyes, and in ours, there is no corresponding system to the mainframe. It’s different than all others, and in many important ways better.

“When you’re the same, you say, ‘Look we’re the same, we’re open, we’re standard and we’re three percent better than the competition.’ How are you going to maintain the margins that you need to drive research and development by being three percent better?” Bob said.

“On the mainframe, we can say, ‘Look, we’re kind of radically different. We have a different approach. We do things quite a bit differently.’ And those differences can make a big difference.”

It’s no wonder Bob Rogers decided to stay a mainframe programmer rather than jump off to a so-called newer technology. And it’s no wonder he’s still speaking to the power and necessity of the mainframe nearly 50 years after he first had the luck to start working on the platform.