Three years and 42,000 words ago, publisher Mark Fleming brought forth in this space, a column. "Perspectives on the IBM Midrange Industry," the subhead announced, and leafing through three ensuing volumes of Out of the Blue, reveals an industry that has originated and survived considerable change.
For midrange customers, the AS/400 embodies a technology that is tortoise- dependable and hare-quick. But while the hardware steadily im-proves, the industry bounds about unpredictably like the racing rabbit, alternately chasing and creating trends. Just in the last thirty-six months, midrange customers have endured: the epic decline of IBM, the elimination of on-site technical support, the introduction of remote AS/400 Technical Services, the ascendancy of business partners, ousting Akers, greeting Gerstner, downsizing, rightsizing, open systems, client/server, and four generations of AS/400s. Congratulations.
From a writer's perspective, the ever-transitioning midrange industry offers a target-rich environment. Start with the experiences of 250,000 global customers. Add the unpredictable impacts of technology, the vicissitudes of the economy, and the long-range plans, both overt and covert, of the IBM Corporation. Where these interests conflict, the best stories are found. For in the resolutions of conflict are glimpsed the clearest expressions of human nature.
For me, chronicling the midrange industry began in January 1992, with the changes that were rocking the IBM Corporation and recasting the delivery of technical support.
During those dark days, when IBM was still searching for solvency by shedding employees like a cat sheds summer hair, I wrote in my first column, ...employees are truly the wealth of a corporation; the only resource not available to competitors. And the loss of that wealth should not be mistaken for an increase in income.
But did IBM listen? Nah. The company kept shoveling dirt on the still-twitching body of the systems engineer. By December 1992, IBM was ready to announce its SE replacement: Remote AS/400 Technical Services. The best AS/400 brains have been boxed and shipped to Rochester, I reported, but not without qualms. Operating system upgrades, configuration changes and performance tuning can all be done remotely, like course adjustments beamed to a distant satellite...But the customer-as-satellite model, while efficient, hints of deep space abandonment.
Customers, however, weren't as attached to the form or delivery method of their technical support. They wanted help, and if that help was phoned in from Rochester, so be it. If technology displaced people, it could also replace them. Like it or not, I observed, technology is as primal as forces get, its encroachment as inevitable as tomorrow's sunrise.
In early 1993, I was invited to visit Rochester and find out for myself. In May, I wrote a piece about my experiences titled, "Co-opted At Last." The title was intended to be humorous, but in fact reflected a shift in my own thinking: If I could share just one golden nugget that I unearthed in Rochester, I wrote, it would be this: Everyone I spoke with-from the people on the manufacturing floor, to those in user documentation; from the technical reps in the Support Center to managers-all seemed genuinely and vitally invested in the welfare of their customers and in perfecting the products and services that comprise the AS/400 family.
I had gone to Rochester to argue for the power of human connection in customer service and discovered, not a bloodless corporation, but some very likeable folks. People. Any story about the AS/400, after all, was inescapably a story about people; IBMers, customers. Meeting, working with, learning from, and sharing the experiences of people-literally around the globe-who are bound by nothing more than the common use of an uncommon system, has been a happy privilege. Their unfailing generosity has made this column possible, and for that I am grateful.
Two interviews stand out. The first took place in Eastern Europe and was chronicled in December of 1993. I had traveled to Poland and while in Warsaw, visited the IBM office housed in an 18th-century building renovated in office chic. In a country struggling to transition to a market economy, where all but the largest businesses still calculate transactions on a piece of scratch paper, the optimism and enthusiasm of the IBM sales force was poignant. Supporting many of the nation's larger industries, the AS/400, and the business know-how provided by IBM, is in its own way serving to smooth the arduous transition.
The second interview was with Frank Gerald Soltis, father of the AS/400, and inveterate auto racer. Within the IBM midrange community he is what Michael Jordan was to the Chicago Bulls; he is The Franchise. I wrote about him in March, 1994 and recall that even with a grindingly busy schedule, he was gracious with his time, willing to offer our readers a glimpse into his private life and his passion for racing. His legacy is the enduring architecture of the AS/400. His motivation, as he explained it, has been the protection of the customer's investment and the delivery of a product with long life and adaptability to changing technological trends. More than once I have reflected that we're all employed, in part, because he succeeded.
After three years of sampling, the range of business problems solved by the AS/400 seems inexhaustible. For sheer scope and complexity, the support of the 1996 Summer Olympics places the AS/400 center stage. I wrote about the ongoing preparations in May 1994. Eighty AS/400s, 6,000 PS/2s, a mainframe and ancillary equipment, will link 40 separate event sites in a one-chance-to-get- it-right performance in front of the world.
Application variety seems likewise boundless. Artificial Intelligence supports a medical supply company ("Chip for Brains," September 1994); wireless communication facilitates the movement, tracking, and storage of goods ("Waking Up to the Leading Edge," January 1994); and the German national railroads employing nearly a half million people (one big bratwurst of a personnel system) rely on the AS/400's relational database capabilities. ("Parlez- Vous/400?" March 1993.)
A cruise ship line employs the AS/400's connectivity to put passengers aboard its floating tax shelters by linking thousands of travel agents to its reservation system ("Technology Haven," August 1994); whichever Italian government is in power this week distributes social security to 48 million people who are tracked by a network of AS/400s in 160 locations ("Parlez- Vous/400?" March 1993), and the improbable Hockey Hall of Fame where visitors enter a display area featuring Famous Goalie Masks, which goalies started wearing when they ran out of famous goalie teeth, uses the AS/400's client/server and multimedia capabilities to enhance the visitor's experience ("Toothless in Toronto," April 1994).
As if the AS/400 and the breadth of applications were somehow inadequate to attract new customers, the midrange industry periodically invents silly, elitist-sounding trends to boost business. My favorite is rightsizing. It's the sort of pretentious twaddle that has little meaning beyond devaluing the usefulness of your present system and goading you into buying a new one. In August 1993 I wrote, Rightsizing. As a masterful bit of incentive marketing, it ranks right up there with light beer and eco-tourism...Even before you know exactly what rightsizing is, you can be pretty damn sure that whatever size you are, it's the wrong size. And just when you're almost out of your mind with worry over being wrongsized, IBM offers an easy, purchasable way to ease the discomfort.
Finally, some of the strangest anecdotal material never makes it into the column because it's hard to fit into the context of an AS/400 article. On the occasion of this retrospective, I've bent the rules to share one of my favorites. It dates back to my days in computer operations management and involves a young man who worked on the graveyard shift.
He fancied himself something of a gun collector and one night invited a friend to stop by the computer room to see his newly acquired handgun. One thing led to another, and before long these two geniuses decided it would be great to see what the firearm could actually do.
So they piled up boxes of computer paper against the wall and emptied six rounds into the pile. The bullets ripped through the paper like it was-well, paper (imagine that)-then through the wall where they rattled around in the adjoining bathroom. By happy coincidence, due to the lateness of the hour, no one was in the bathroom at the time.
Both management and the police took a dim view. On the bright side, at least I didn't have to call IBM to report a slug in the CPU. All things considered, I'd rather be writing.
Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in Operations Management and Systems Engineering.
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