In our latest “ I am a Mainframer” interview series, Steven Dickens, WW Sales Leader – LinuxONE at IBM, chats with Sujay Solomon. Sujay has been in the Mainframe industry for 8 years. With an array of experience in technical leadership roles such as z/OS system software development, web development and product management roles, he is now leading CA’s initiative to modernize the Mainframe for developers. Steven and Sunjay discuss the business processes and business that the Mainframe platform is supporting, Zowe and the future of the Mainframe.
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Steven Dickens: Good day. I’m Steven Dickens and it’s my pleasure to host another edition of the I’m a Mainframer conversation series, sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project. As a Linux Foundation project, the Open Mainframe Project is intended to help create a Mainframe-focused open source technical community focused around collaborative engagement on the Mainframe platform. I’m joined today by Sujay Solomon from CA. Thanks for joining us, Sujay.
Sujay Solomon: Thank you, Steven. Happy to be here.
Steven Dickens: Sujay, this is all about why you’re a Mainframer. If you can just get our listeners a little bit orientated and tell us a little bit about yourself and give us some background. And really first off try and understand what makes you a Mainframer and what makes you so passionate about the platform.
Sujay Solomon: Sure. I am, I’m actually a Product Manager now, so I haven’t been writing code for a little while. But what attracted me to the platform was I went to Penn State for computer engineering. And that degree is interesting. It’s somewhat of a marriage between computer science and electrical engineering. You do a little bit of hardware and you do a little bit of software. And it kind of meets in the middle.
Because of that background from Penn State I was interested always in doing and working on things that powered the back end of things. The engine, if you wish. And I, right out of college I actually worked for a start-up where I was designing and building code for microcontrollers. And it just happened to be that that was being done in Assembly language, believe it or not.
And then I saw an opening in Penn State’s career website that said there’s a position for a software engineer at CA Technologies in Pittsburgh. It might involve a decent bit of Assembler for that programing and I said, “You know, I like what I’m doing now.” I didn’t really know about Mainframes but I just went out and Googled Mainframe a little bit. And then I found out that there’s all these very important technologies and businesses today that run with the Mainframe as their backbone. From what I had heard about Mainframes in the past, from movies and such, was that they need to be hacked because they’re very important. Until I did some bit of research I didn’t know what they actually did.
But then again I considered it, I looked at it and I mean it was a very stable platform that had been around for a very long time. I said, “Why not? Let’s go and interview for this. I’ve had my year of fun with start-ups, let’s go and look for something that’s more long term.” That’s how I got started with the Mainframe platform.
Steven Dickens: You started out as an Assembler programmer and that’s what drew you into the platform, is that a good summary?
Sujay Solomon: Yeah, absolutely. It’s the fact that when you’re developing code at that level you need a very clear and good understanding of how the system works at an operating system level. And maybe even at the hardware level. But you still have to have your fundamentals of writing software and developing code in a good place as well. I liked that aspect of it where I wasn’t writing a whole lot of high level, abstracted code and I was doing more coding that was very close to the operating system and the hardware. That’s absolutely what attracted me.
Steven Dickens: Keen to get a view underneath that a little bit. I mean, you obviously learnt Assembler, you came out of college, got into that start-up, were writing that code close to the hardware layer. Tell me a little bit more about that transition as you went from that world to the Mainframe world. Was it an easy transition for you to make? I think a lot of our listeners would be interested to understand how you made that transition.
Sujay Solomon: Yeah. My response here is usually a little bit different from what I’ve heard from others. I actually didn’t have much of an issue. It’s, Mainframe is just another computer. And the architecture that’s followed in the Mainframe platform is well defined and actually one of the common architecture that’s followed even in other platforms. To me, learning about how a computer works at its core was very key at Penn State. And their curriculum was such that they didn’t focus much on specific languages or specific technologies. It was more so concepts that drive how computing works.
And that really helped me when I joined CA and we were doing a lot of development and operating systems level things. And it was really enjoyable for me because it was really the concept that I was learning. And then actually putting them to work from what I learned in college was way more interesting to me than what language I was writing the code in.
The transition for me was fairly easy. Especially when it comes to the language. I had no issue with picking up high level Assembler as opposed to writing in the microcontroller Assembly language I was using previously. I did do quite a bit of C-programming as well. Along with Assembler on the Mainframe. And again, both are languages that I really enjoy writing in.
The concepts in Mainframe when it comes to, say, things like cross-memory posting, managing your virtual storage, topics like that, they were challenging but it was also very, very interesting. That’s what drew me in and kept me here is the technical complexity of the platform when it comes to writing very efficient code. And you having full understanding of what you’re writing and how the machine’s gonna actually interpret that and run that for you.
Steven Dickens: I’m just, as I was prepping for this Sujay, was looking at your profile on LinkedIn and looking at the eight years or so you’ve been at CA. Pretty stellar rise through the ranks there from a software engineer through to your current role. Can you just give these listeners a view of what you’ve been involved in, some of those interesting projects. And really a whistle-stop tour through your time at CA. I think the listeners will find that really interesting.
Sujay Solomon: Sure. Just to go back to your previous question, you asked if moving to the and working in a Mainframe platform was challenging. The technology itself wasn’t really challenging but the expectations in the Mainframe world were quite challenging. I was maybe two weeks into my job and I worked on a performance management product which was quite key at CA. And they had me look into an issue that the customer had opened. And I worked it out, I came up with a fix and I wrote a PTF which you can consider a patch and another technology, right?
And I released that not as a public thing, but as a closed off fix for just one customer. And I get a call directly from one of the Directors of Mainframe in that company and he’s drilling me over intricate details of the fix that I wrote. I certainly did not expect that. But trial by fire like that really put me in a place to understand how important this platform is for people. And the fact that somebody that high up in their organization was technically proficient and looked at a fix and was concerned and then he called me up directly to ask questions about how it was implemented … That opened my eyes as far as how important this platform is.
And going forward I work on other products that even plug directly into the operating system. And if you’re, say, opening up a data set on the Mainframe and somebody else is opening it up at the same time there’s serialization issues that can occur. I actually worked on quite a bit of operating system exits that would handle serialization issues like that.
One of the times we, a large bank in Europe was having some issues with ATMs. And they didn’t really know what the issue was but they essentially said, “Hey, CA. We have your software. IBM we are using your platform. You guys work together to sort this out. We don’t care what the problem is but we need our ATMs to be back and running right away.” That involved being on bridge calls with the customer, with other vendors for many days straight. Across weekends, even nights and then we all worked together to solve this issue because this was a customer who was really dependent on the Mainframe. And as vendors who create software and hardware for the platform we all work together to solve issues like that.
That sort of experience was rewarding for me. It’s solving real world problems that touch people lives every day. It’s just working on the software that runs it.
Steven Dickens: Yeah, and I think that’s obviously a challenge we’ve got as we position the Mainframe out to different audiences. It’s, as you mentioned in one of your statements, the box at the back end. It’s not front and center for a lot of our clients. It’s the box that never falls over at the back of the data center that just runs the business. I mean, have you seen that as you’ve engaged? That critical, sorry, criticality to clients? And if you could maybe give a CA perspective on some of the business processes and business that this platform’s supporting, that’d be interesting, I think.
Sujay Solomon: Sure. Again, before I got into product management I was engineer. I was working, I was supporting products as a level 2 engineer, but also actively doing development on it. One of the things that I had to do was I was actually on call over, at night and on weekends. So if I was going hiking in the mountains I still had to make sure that I had phone signal and I usually lugged my laptop around in case I got called. And then it has happened. I’ve been at friends’ places at 3 o’clock in the morning and I’ve had to attend calls where they said, “Hey. We’re having a data center outage and we run your software. Again, we don’t know what the issue is, please look into it.”
And you just have to get on that call and get to it because as minutes go by with their Mainframes not working, they’re losing maybe thousands, hundreds of thousands or maybe even millions of dollars in business. With just a few minutes of the Mainframe not operating. That’s the level of importance that the industry has on the Mainframe platform.
And CA absolutely has so much process in place. We have rotations of folks who are gonna be on call. And multiple layers, even, or a certain person who’s maybe in Support gonna get called first. And then if they’re not able to solve it they have multiple levels of escalation and everybody’s number is on file and they can get called at any time. That’s part and parcel of working in an environment and an industry like this where you’re really key when it comes to continuing the business operations. And to me that’s actually rewarding. I don’t see that as a burden. I see that more as, hey, the key businesses in this world rely on our technology being highly available. And we are the people who help make it highly available if it ever runs into issue. That’s very rewarding.
Steven Dickens: Yeah, I think that’s just part of being in this Mainframe space. There’s a different code, if you will, around what it means to be a Mainframer and what it means to support these clients. It’s good to get that perspective and I think it’s interesting to hear you say, and I certainly feel this way, is we’re supporting these clients. That’s a good thing. You feel like you’re giving something back and there’s … The world runs on these platforms so to be involved in them is a positive thing.
Looking ahead Sujay, there’s some interesting stuff going on right now as we look at the Mainframers and overall platforms. Some fantastic announcements at SHARE recently. Can you just give me your view of where you think open source and the Mainframe platform come together? And really how you see that shaping not only the platform but just how customers are gonna interact with it going forward?
Sujay Solomon: Sure. One of the challenges that we’ve had over the past decade with the platform is since it’s closed source, folks have been able to improve the accessibility of our platform to the level that some of the other platforms have achieved. And that’s starting to become an issue because when you look at, just take for example DevOps tools. Things like, I think they use integration tools like Jenkins or build tools like Gradle, Gulp, Ant, Maven. These are now becoming synonymous with software development. Not necessarily tied to any platform.
You could build software that runs on Windows or Linux or maybe even different distributions of Linux. All of the software that runs on those different platforms can be built using the same build tools, can be managed using the same pipelines. The fact that it’s a little bit of a challenge to integrate Mainframe into those standard tools that are becoming prominent in the software industry, that is a problem.
And I believe with the initiative that we announced at SHARE called Zowe, our intent is to really, not necessarily solve that entire problem. But kickstart an openness to the platform. And start building some infrastructure that would allow the community of users and customers and individual developers to really start building integration into these open tools that are available. And are becoming very popular with developers in general.
But sometimes I say that we’re trying to make Mainframe just another platform. But obviously we’re not trying to reduce the scalability, availability, security or any of those great aspects of the platform that we have. Just add to it by making it more accessible.
Steven Dickens: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think open source brings a lot to that. I mean, what’s your view on how that community’s gonna build around something like Zowe? Sounds like a strong focus on the technology but if you give me the community perspective, what do you think that community engagement’s gonna bring to a network like Zowe?
Sujay Solomon: Sure. Up until now if you wanted to influence what happens on the platform, there were a few avenues. There is a, within the SHARE organization they have something called SHARE requirements. And then that was one way to influence what goes into the platform. But now with the power of open source, it’s a home for anybody who is interacting with a platform to really start looking at it and saying, “Hey. I’ve got this program that I wrote, this program I wrote that helps me greatly every day with maybe looking at system on the Mainframe.”
I don’t particularly see this as a business advantage for me, just keeping it to myself. And I don’t even want to maintain all of it myself. Maybe I’ll just up in the open source foundations, GitHub, and a lot of others might start using it. And they may even start enhancing this utility that you shared yourself. And you might reap the rewards of you open sourcing it because others are enhancing it and you’re now able to take advantage of what other folks are building in their tool that you shared.
That is really what we want to build and promote and nurture. Is build that community around the platform where folks feel comfortable sharing their tools, sharing their ideas so that the platform as a whole can grow. Without having to go through a lot of process and influencing say just a couple of vendors and improving it.
Steven Dickens: Yeah. And I think I certainly get the perspective that that kind of crowd-sourced community development is where the industry’s going. We’ve certainly seen that explosive growth of the model for how code is developed. And it’s really interesting for me to see that increasingly coming to the Mainframe platform. As you say, not moving away from the performance availability, security, but adding to the platform. And just making it not only able to play nice with others as part of a DevOps type framework. But also just harness the community, harness that crowd to develop on the platform.
One of the questions I’m gonna ask and get you ready mentally for this Sujay, so this one’s gonna challenge you. Where do you see things 18 months, three years, five years out for the Mainframe platforms? You look ahead and into that crystal ball, where do you see the platform going?
Sujay Solomon: Well, seems like things have come full circle. When I was in college, mid-2000s and maybe even before that, there was a lot of talk that Mainframes are going away. We’re gonna try to migrate everything to the cloud. That sort of thing. But what I’ve noticed recently is actually kind of a reinvigoration of interest and commitment to the platform from a lot of companies. Because they seem to have realized that there’s quite a few aspects to the Mainframe that are, that really cannot be replaced by anything else.
There’s also a lot of investment that has gone into the platform. There’s, I mean, think about the 30, 40 plus years of business logic that’s been written and enhanced and refined over these years. Why rewrite that? Why move that somewhere else if you can make what’s on the Mainframe highly accessible and open? So that you’re not inhibited by the platform when it comes to innovation. That’s key, is that we need to be able to drive innovation on the platform. It can’t just be a platform that is kept maintained well. It’s gotta be a place for innovation. And I believe that that’s starting to happen.
Today I think folks at larger organizations are just accepting and realizing that the platform is not going away. And they’re starting to reinvest in it. I’ve even heard that some of them are even moving non-traditional workloads. Things like Java workload or an OJS workload from other cloud platforms into the Mainframe platform. I think next year, or maybe a couple of years from now, we’re gonna see more of that. Where maybe there’s an application that’s running somewhere in the cloud that’s not meeting SOA. And the data that that application interacts with is actually on the Mainframe.
Those types of applications, if we make it simple enough for, say, a web developer to deploy a web application to the Mainframe. The same way that they can use something like a COI to deploy to another cloud platform. As long as we make it as simple and as accessible I believe Mainframe is now gonna start taking a spot when it comes to enterprise architecture where they consider different deployment platforms. Mainframe needs to be considered as one of the options there and I believe that is starting to happen.
Steven Dickens: Yeah, I think we share a lot of the same views, Sujay. I think I see an exciting future ahead. And some of the work that you guys are doing around Zowe and the open source collaborative piece is only just gonna help that.
One final question as we look to wrap up our time today. The format of this is I’m a Mainframer. What would you say to yourself back as you were leaving college, if you could do that, around the platform? How would you energize the college kids graduating this year to get into the platform and follow your path and become a Mainframer?
Sujay Solomon: That’s actually a tough one. I really liked what Penn State did for me. They did not teach me a hell of a lot about specific languages or specific platforms. I learned concepts. Just normal programming concepts, computing concepts, hardware concepts. And I was able to take those concepts and I picked a platform that I thought was viable and long standing and that had an important place in today’s businesses. And for me there’s really nothing better than Mainframe data when it comes to longevity and stability and importance in the real world.
That would be my advice, then, to keep your options open. Look at the platform and try to understand why it really is, plays such a key role in today’s economy and in various industries. And the skills you learn there are transferable to any other platform if you ever get bored and you wanna move around like I did. Options are always there for you.
Steven Dickens: That’s fantastic. I think that’s really good coaching. I think the Sujay of 22 years old would have appreciated that type of insight. Thank you for that.
Sujay, this has been fantastic today. Really good to get your perspective, really good to get a view of where you’ve grown as a Mainframer. Your initial experience at the platform. Your perspective of where we are right now with some of the things that are happening. And just that looking ahead and that view 18 months, three years out of where the platform’s gonna be. Thank you very much for your time today.
Sujay Solomon: Thank you, Steven.
Steven Dickens: This is Steven Dickens signing off. You’ve been listening to the Open Mainframe Project I’m a Mainframer podcast. Please look forward, please look for us and join us next time.