COMMON Should Spell F-U-N
April 26, 2004 Brian Kelly
Once upon a time, COMMON was a volunteer organization, and it was more like other user groups that sprung up in other parts of the computer industry. The conferences were a couple hundred bucks every six months. And IBM supplied most of the speakers. I was working for IBM when I made my first COMMON appearance, in the fall of 1979. It was in New Orleans.
My tech friends from Northeastern Pennsylvania and I wanted to see New Orleans. Though we all intended to be legitimate and attend COMMON sessions, the lure of New Orleans for a few 31-year-olds going on 21 was irresistible. I had to convince my manager that I should go to COMMON, since it was not for IBM systems engineers (you might have heard about “SEs” in legends about the AS/400). We had our own internal education classes, so it was technically unnecessary for us to attend. But I had a good boss, Joe LaSarge, and he thought it would be a good experience for me. So he sent me off with his best wishes.
I can remember registering by phone. After getting all the information she needed, a nice lady suggested that I not miss the reception for all members on the night of the arrival, from 6:00 p.m. until midnight, and also every night of the conference. I envisioned tea and cookies. She called it “CUDS.”
When we arrived in New Orleans, we rented an unnecessary car, which stayed parked all week. Sorry, Joe. It was sunny and beautiful. Jazz musicians were playing on the street with Mr. Bojangles-type dancers passing their happy cups. Everybody was happy.
For light fare, we discovered a place called Takee Outee. They served shrimp and other neat items on skewers at very reasonable prices. Takee Outee seemed like it was a trailer that had squeezed itself in between two buildings on Bourbon Street. It was unique, as was the whole experience. And the constant refreshments as we walked in this grand town made it all the more exciting.
That evening, before our first CUDS, we sat in the lobby lounge at the Marriott, enjoying a refreshment. I was paged to the front desk for a phone call. It was my wife. She had been trying to reach me all day. She had some news for me. She was pregnant with our first child.
New Orleans, the land of celebration–and I had just gotten the best news of my life. It was time to go back out on the town. But we decided that we would go to this CUDS thing first and then get back out to Bourbon Street. Surely, we could give the CUDS a half hour to see if anybody we knew would be there. We were the first in line. We went in. It was like no social event I had ever attended. And, by 31, I had seen a few.
The most striking thing for a connoisseur of that golden foamy beverage was that you couldn’t get a draft. The next thing I noticed was that there were no bartenders. Sure, they had all these top-shelf liquid items available, but there was no bartender. There were a number of what appeared to be stations like wagons and big groups of tables with every liquid item that ever rested on a top shelf. No bottom shelf items to be seen. There was no speed rack. Now, I am not an alcoholic by any means, but I enjoy a McDuff on a Friday after work at a happy hour or at family gatherings. And I did go to college, so I had my share of training. However, even my experience was inadequate preparation for the bounty that I was about to behold.
After being stunned by various selections, and being disappointed that the bartenders had not arrived yet, I noticed that people with badges and ribbons like mine were helping themselves to whatever they wanted. I decided to join these crafty folks before the bartenders showed up and caught us. Mix what you want. Take what you want. No limits, no police, and the bartenders, well, they never showed up.
COMMON was supposed to be a great learning experience and a great fun experience. Everybody who had been there had told me to not miss the CUDS, and they were right. The most interesting people in the world were there that night, and the spirit went on until the lights dimmed at midnight. I had reason to celebrate, and I had found the best place in the world to celebrate CUDS. It was free of charge and top shelf.
Back then, there was one COMMON volunteer in charge of putting the caps on the bottles and making sure that the organization paid only for what was consumed. I admired him. I was glad I worked for IBM, since the post-CUDS helpers were COMMON volunteers. Of course, the 11:59 pour lasted well past 12:30, making it difficult to arise for the first session the next morning.
My group had to have a nice breakfast, now that it was after midnight. As I recall, after stumbling on a pedestal display of IBM chips, my friends Al Komorek and George Mohanco took me under the arms and escorted me down what seemed to be about seven flights of steps. At the bottom of the steps, we were in the middle of a Denny’s. We dined and made the first 8:00 a.m. session.
Later, on the second day, I can recall thinking that it would be good to go back down the steps to the Denny’s I had been to the previous evening. I was pretty hungry. I was sure I was missing some vitamins and minerals. No matter how I searched, however, I could not find the steps to Denny’s from inside the Marriott. So I went outside and found the Denny’s a block away. To this day, I don’t know how my friends moved Denny’s to the bottom of those steps just for that one night. I have often thanked them.
Being an IBMer, I knew who the top guns were at Rochester. They were all on the program. John Sears always had main tent sessions. At the time, nobody knew half as much as what John Sears knew. They were excellent presentations: a hurting head, quality handouts, and a wealth of information.
The second night at CUDS was even better. The greatest speakers in our industry were there, and they were there all night and were willingly engaged in conversations with customers from around the country and even with a few stray SEs, like myself.
IBMers are basically cheap, especially if there is no identifiable expense account at the table. Moreover, IBM did not reimburse certain types of beverages. The free and magical nature of CUDS lured the biggest IBM tightwads into the CUDS chambers. With a real CUDS, there was no need to have a “meet the experts night.” The experts were always at CUDS. It was an attraction. It was free. It was f-u-n. It wasn’t anything like duty.
CUDS was such a big deal twenty years ago that it typically filled three ballrooms. Occasionally there would be cheese and crackers, but there was always a bountiful supply of chips, popcorn, and, pretzels. For some, that was dinner. Once you got to CUDS, the networking and the learning and the refreshments began. Nobody wanted to leave.
Everybody seemed to have a need or a problem that had to be solved. The System/38 was announced in 1979. The industry was evolving. It was wonderful rubbing elbows with the IBM technical captains as well as some pretty high-up marketers. IBMers, including freeloaders like myself, sure enjoyed COMMON and CUDS, because you could have a wonderful time while picking up the pulse of the industry.
I vowed to attend as many COMMON conferences as IBM would allow. Eventually, to ensure my attendance, I developed a presentation on queuing theory, since IBM always let its speakers attend the full conference. It did not matter what city the conference was in. One time, I even went to Cleveland for a COMMON conference. A carload of us drove out a day early. After a half hour in Cleveland, we couldn’t wait for CUDS. CUDS even rescued the Cleveland experience–another fun, exciting, and major learning experience.
Somewhere along the way, the COMMON potentates decided that fun cost too much. Many who enjoyed COMMON as much as a good vacation have seen the conference become expensive, stodgy, and not fun. When COMMON was still fun, the speakers played to packed houses. The attendees decided when they would meet the experts, and the experts got to enjoy the camaraderie of CUDS every night.
It’s not the city that hosts COMMON that is important, folks. It’s the conference! It’s the tone! It’s the organization. The conference used to be cheap and offered a top-shelf experience. Now it costs lots of money, and it’s somehow become cheap.
Silly little tickets and bartenders watching that you don’t get more than the one-quarter-ounce mark. Sorry, that’s not fun! One little room with a few people wondering why they are there is all that’s left from the three big rooms that were bustling with excitement from the moment the doors opened at 6:00 until people were reminded that they had to leave, after midnight.
Hey, let’s not be hypocrites. There are certain beverages that are like technical magnets when they are free in the proper setting. Whether you know it or not, IBMers are especially attracted to those magnets. Now that the magnets are gone, the white badges (IBM’s longstanding COMMON badge color) have all but disappeared from CUDS.
When I heard the winds of change chanters first complaining about how they had to subsidize the drinking habits of the COMMON imbibers, the conference cost about $395. Now that all of the expense of all that fun has been stripped out, the price has become $1,495. Less days and less fun for lots more simoleans. Wow, what a deal! Must be that new math I have heard about.
It seems to me that an astute business analyst might conclude that COMMON was successful when it was fun! That is now the missing ingredient. Some whiney curmudgeons didn’t like that, and they changed it to something that is not fun, and therefore has little prospects of becoming successful anytime soon.
Does anybody have any idea what the problem might be?
While there’s still some 31-year-old-programmers out there who could be influenced by fun, maybe it’s time for a few 55-year-old commandos to rescue our COMMON user group from the horde of gray painters who now control it. After all, it worked in Pleasantville.
Brian Kelly is an IT consultant who heads Kelly Consulting, a practice based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Brian is a well-known author and an AS/400 and iSeries expert. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org