The AS/400: 16 Years of Bending, Not Breaking
June 21, 2004 Timothy Prickett Morgan
If I could rewrite history, I’d tell you I was there on Day One. And that I did all the snooping in advance of “Silverlake,” IBM‘s project that was born as the AS/400 on that day in June 1988. I wish I had been there, so I could say my career spanned the entire history of the OS/400 server line. But jumping from aerospace engineering to English in my junior year of college cost me time, and I didn’t enter the computer business until July 1989.
Many of you have been with the AS/400 from the beginning, and some of you predate the AS/400 with the System/38. Nearly all of you have technical credentials that put mine to shame, though I daresay you probably haven’t spoken as loudly or as often about the OS/400 platform as I have (with the exception of Frank Soltis and about five dozen other AS/400 advocates inside IBM, of course). You may have better OS/400 credentials than I do, but I share your admiration of the platform and the people who make it work and have adapted it to new conditions every few years. This has never been easy.
I am not as old as I must sound, and that may be a shock to you. In July 1989, I answered a help wanted ad in The New York Times and interviewed with a small newsletter publishing company called Technology News of America, and as all stories with a narrative arc say, my life completely changed.
The first Bush recession was in full swing at that time, and editing jobs were scarce. Combined with the fact that I had no idea what to do with my life, the idea of becoming the editor of a newsletter called The Four Hundred was a lot more appealing than standing in the unemployment line in Harlem, where I lived at the time. I had a very brief job as a flack at Columbia University’s engineering school after getting out of college (Penn State–roar, lions, roar); the job vanished in budget cuts, and I was terribly bored anyway, so it was all for the best, I told myself. After standing in that unemployment line precisely once (an embarrassing situation I have worked very hard never to repeat, even as I have buried more than my share of publishers in 15 years), I promised myself I would have a job within the week. I walked out into the center of the George Washington Bridge and just stood there, looking southward at my new city, looking for answers. “Computers,” I thought. “That is where the action is.”
Within the week, I met Hesh Wiener, president of TNA, who made me clean the fish tank in his office as I interviewed in my Brooks Brothers gray flannel suit. He asked me stupid questions to see how my mind worked, while I was scrubbing the algae off the glass. He asked, “If a chicken and a half can lay an egg and a half in a day and a half, how many pancakes does it take to shingle the roof of a doghouse?,” to which I answered, “All of them.” I was pretty flexible mentally (although I was nowhere near as smart, in the raw MIPS sense, as the other people at TNA), and having already seen a lot of strange stuff in my 23 years (or so I thought), I took all of this strangeness in stride.
There was so much energy in the TNA office: phones ringing off the hook, mouthy reporters joking and laughing with IT execs, periodicals and magazines scattered everywhere, burning coffee in the pot. When Hesh offered me the job, I took it, and held on for dear life as he put me through writers’ boot camp and threatened to fire me on an almost weekly basis for a few years. (Newsletter publishing is a thin-margin business, and everyone has to pull his weight.) To help pay the bills as we ramped up The Four Hundred, I became a stringer for Tim Palmer, editor of a British IT daily called Computergram. Hesh and Tim were equally smart and crazy, but in completely different ways. They imbued me with their tough-minded journalistic tradition. Hesh is an MIT graduate who was one of the first employees of a Unix server maker known as Data General (the company was eaten by disk maker EMC and made famous in the book The Soul of a New Machine). Tim was an engineer at British electronics maker GEC. Both of these guys got bored and jumped into computer journalism back in the late 1970s, when the business was being invented. They gave me one hell of a core dump, and they made me who I am today.
I am, of course, still the editor of The Four Hundred, and maybe I always will be. I find it a very comforting and mostly comfortable job (most days). Maybe it is the familiarity of the job that I like, which means I get up in the morning and know what I am supposed to do. But I think there is more to it than that. I like the OS/400 market, and I like its people. I feel a kinship with them. I like to talk to you, and about you, to other people. You’re different. Trust me, I know, because I have been dealing with other markets for almost as long.
Over the years, I have seen a lot of change in the OS/400 platform, some of which I like to think I coerced into action on your behalf through various incarnations of this newsletter (including Monday Morning AS/400 Update, which I wrote after shutting down The Four Hundred in 1998, when it became very tough to do a printed newsletter based on subscriptions and I could not get critical mass to do electronic pubs and support them with advertising). But call it what you will, it has always been The Four Hundred to me, just like the iSeries and eServer i5 will always be the ‘400 to most of us.
In the first edition of this newsletter, I interviewed the IT department for the Trump organization, which used AS/400s in its construction and gambling casino businesses, and that kind of thing was always a kick. And I learned a lot from the hundreds of IT executives who took time out of their busy schedules to tell me about their business and how the AS/400 fit into it. But the fun bit for me, as corny as it sounds, is to learn new things, to analyze what’s going on, and try to think of how to improve some aspect of information technology buy putting it all together.
If the truth were told, many of the best ideas for the OS/400 platform have been or are in the process of being stolen for other platforms. This is the sincerest form of flattery in this often nasty IT business. Like many of you, I have cut my teeth in the OS/400 market, and I am thankful every day that IBM has not killed off this product and that you keep investing in it. Enlightened self-interest (a mix of greed and pride) has made Big Blue keep the OS/400 platform going. Those profits sure do come in handy.
Nearly a decade and a half after entering the OS/400 market, the lens through which I look at the IT world and then outward into the larger business world has been shaped by this OS/400 business. The lead essay in the first edition of this newsletter was entitled “A Community of Common Interest,” and Hesh always looked at this as a community, long before that word was popularized by open source advocates. He taught me to see it that way, too. (The AS/400 application business, which I learned on my own, always had a tradition of open source, unlike any other application business in the world.) As that parenthetical shows, OS/400 is my frame of reference, just like it is probably yours.
Let’s face it, though. In the computer business, 16 years is akin to a century in any other business. We have all had to learn a lot in all that time. And as IBM changes the OS/400 platform in the coming years, and the IT world changes around you, the most important thing you can remember is to be flexible. Sometimes, if you want to do something rewarding, you have to put up with a lot of nonsense questioning and clean the fish tank. Sometimes you have to start a company to preserve the tradition and give good people jobs.
If I have learned anything from the OS/400 platform, it is that being flexible is why there is still something called the OS/400 platform and why we can make a living in this OS/400 ecosystem. Only by bending do things not break.