Monday, July 19, 2010

What the mainframe world used to be like -- tedious! (Is the "New World" different?)

One Sunday afternoon in late September of 1987, I ran into my high rise office in Dallas (it was very hot) and noticed a red sports car in the parking lot. The office building didn’t have air conditioning on weekends, and it was a pain to work overtime there.

The car belonged to a woman who was having some difficulty with getting all of her assigned work exactly right as we ran full month parallels before an implementation of a new daily and WOM billing system at a credit reporting company. We had been running all the statements and details every day, printing them, and comparing them by hand, and keeping them in a conference room for the QA team to inspect. So a phrase flashed through my mind as I saw the car, “The Problem.”

That’s what mainframe work was like in those days. The boss, who had turned tough compared to his kinder and gentler reputation in the past, was picky with some people about getting everything exactly right. The company was being chased by corporate raiders in a leveraged buyout environment common in the late 1980s. The Boss would say, “in this economy, people who don’t do their jobs don’t have jobs.”

True. And we had a less desirable technical mix, to go out and sell: Datacom DB and DC (compared to IMS and CICS, the desired background in the job market at the time, particularly in Dallas).

That’s what work was like then. You became a guru in your own little area. One of my expertise areas was the packed unsigned coding of bureau and satellite numbers, particularly as you read the record layouts and debugged. Another was the coding out of addressability (off of R15) in many of the ALC programs.

The 14 or so years of my mainframe career that remained would often be like that. File-to-file compares (although not always printed – we learned to use FileAID), meticulous attention to the correctness of elevations (following vendor procedures for properly staging and locking code is essential). You lived this world where everything had to be perfect, and developed best practices so you could go on vacation and not deep-six your career. You got good at it. But it wasn’t a maturity that translated easily into the new job markets that the Internet would evolved, first in the dot-com boom and later with the empire of social networking and search companies that dominate the world today (we know who they are).

In life insurance shops, after all, Vantage still Rules the World!

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