Mad Dog 21/21: Frequent Deniers Club
September 5, 2006 Hesh Wiener
Lots of people join clubs. They join social clubs whose members work together for their individual and collective benefit. They join professional clubs that make it easy for members to exchange information or address mutual concerns associated with a particular metier. They join special interest clubs for camaraderie and to further their avocations. Clubs and other affiliate groups are particularly important to computer folk, who can benefit from sharing and comparing experiences. But just as a person can grab the wrong end of a club, a club can grab the wrong end of people.
Groucho Marx had it all figured out. He said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
In computing, the most prominent and valuable clubs are users’ groups. Every vendor’s customer base seems to have spawned at least one in every major country and region. In the United States, IBM customers, for instance, has SHARE, which in theory has something for everyone, but in practice is oriented around large shops–many of them mainframe users. IBMer also have COMMON, which is the club midrange users, particularly OS/400 and i5/OS shops, are inclined to join. Sun Microsystems‘ customers have SUG, which stands for Sun User Group. Hewlett-Packard customers now have Encompass (originally the DEC user group DECUS) and also the HP User Group. The user group list, like the list of prominent vendors, goes on and on. In addition, computing has its professional societies, like the distinguished Association for Computing Machinery.
Similar groups exist in every nation with a significant base of computer users, and people in places that don’t have suitable native computer clubs may find that organizations in other countries are happy to have them as members, even if that makes it hard for the distant party to get to meetings.
In addition to national clubs, there are local clubs, too, plus regional chapters of national clubs. Many of these groups are very active and lively, and possibly a lot more fun for members than large national gatherings. Local clubs are particularly prominent in the PC universe. Here’s just one example: New York City has NYPC, a group so worthwhile that Bill Gates has (in the past but not lately) shown up to talk to and meet its members. There are so many of these groups that there is even a club of user groups called APCUG.
Whether their bond is mainframes or marbles, billiards or bird watching, clubs of all sorts make their members feel special and comfortable with their uniqueness. Membership helps people relax and enjoy clog dancing or JCL tricks. Unfortunately, with that sense of distinction inevitably comes the potential for a dark side: pride, vanity, even snobbery.
Now, you don’t have to be a club member to be vain about the silliest things, but it sure seems to help. Clubs may start out as simple affiliate groups, places for people with like interests to meet, exchange views, and share experience. Initially, a club may be a sanctuary from a world that seems to have little appreciation for the activity that serves as a basis of the club. In some cases, outsiders may even regard the club’s theme with disdain or ridicule. So it’s natural enough for a club member to assume a balancing posture, to lean the other way.
When this reaction is small, when it is insignificant compared to the positive forces that bind club members together, it’s just another characteristic of the club. But if this attitude metastasizes into a conceit, and from that into arrogance, the organization and often its members are heading for trouble.
The same might be said for informal clubs, cliques that develop in various settings ranging from schools to corporations.
In the case of professional clubs, the perversion of the interests and attitudes that led to the formation of the organization may well be mirrored in the industries most closely connected to the club, companies that have a symbiotic relationship with the professionals from which the club draws its membership.
There was a time when the mainframe business might have served as an example of this, when associations of mainframe specialists and the vendors’ personnel who thrived on their spending became prideful. This wasn’t an abstract development. IBM built a network of country clubs for its favored personnel. From time to time, IBMers would invite customers to the clubs, although chances were the top executives as user companies that IBM courted belonged to country clubs of their own, and snazzier ones at that.
In the 1970s and, perhaps, even into the 1980s, the echelons of the mainframe world even went beyond pride, to hubris. It was common in the computer industry to hear people saying that nobody was ever fired for buying IBM, and by that they meant IBM mainframes for big companies and IBM midrange boxes for small ones.
Well, it’s pretty clear where things went from that point. The formerly narcissistic mainframe hotshots, on both the user side and the vendor side, have been severely punished. Lots of them are reaching retirement age now, but they all remember colleagues who fell off the career train and were crushed in the traffic speeding by, traffic that included the Internet companies, the personal computer makers, the new software houses, and the young, smart computer professionals whom the members of the mainframe club and their counterparts in the computer industry thought were irrelevant. To a certain extent, this fate has also fallen upon the vast IBM midrange base.
It’s not that the mainframe business or the OS/400 server business are dead, for surely they surely are not. They’re just not going anywhere. IBM, which shook off its handful of competitors in the mainframe space and has remained a powerful, excellent supplier of mainframe servers and systems software, is no longer much of an innovator in the big iron computing culture. These days, IBM’s mainframe inventions are the machines and systems it needs to keep the old business alive while its customers slowly but surely figure out how to move their computing either off the mainframe or, with the help of virtualization, off their dependency on the mainframe. IBM used to make the stuff in the glass houses. Now it’s more of a services company, supplying the maintenance and janitorial services for jobs that users no longer want to do.
For most mainframe shops, it is no longer very important whether anyone in the user company has the skills required to really run the big iron. Knowing all about mainframes won’t make any difference to the user company’s immediate concerns–its bottom line–or to its future–its corporate strategy–any more than knowing how the electric grid works would make a difference. It’s not even clear how much IBM’s top executives know about computers, or how high up in the company people who know about computers can be found.
We’re not talking about Google, which invented all its key technology and still pays a lot of attention to each of the zillion small services in its operations centers. We’re not talking about Microsoft, which is struggling to adapt to maturity so it won’t have to accept its other choice, which is decline. We are not talking about the open software crowd, which is as full of vim and vigor as it ever was. We are talking about IBM, about which the main question is whether or not it is a corporate dead man walking, at least as far as the mainframe world goes. There is more hope in IBM’s other market segments–in the System i, the System p, and maybe even in the System x servers.
In those segments, there are professional clubs and these clubs are reflected inside IBM, in departments, and, because IBM is so big, in cliques, too. The club members have common interests, and they know they are different from the rest of the world, but they don’t suffer from the arrogance that fatally afflicted the mainframe business. They knew all along they were never going to be in the elevated world of the mainframe, and their humility has saved them. Whatever happens to IBM, whatever happens in the world of computing, these just plain folk haven’t become alienated. They’ll survive. More than that, they’ll probably prevail.