I hike, and I also work with mainframes. I’ve learned that being good at one of these also makes me better at the other. Key aspects of both hiking and managing mainframes cross over. You could call it “hiking-think” or “mainframe-think,” but in some ways, these would be the same thing.
Most hiking disasters start with the unprepared hiker. This could be a hiker without the proper clothing for a change in weather or one who underestimates how difficult the hike will be. Good hikers and mainframers think about worst-case scenarios and how do you prevent them. Or if you can’t prevent them, you know how to address problems when they arise.
We’ll take extra clothing and/or rain gear, especially in an area where the weather can change rapidly. We’ll architect our mainframes with security and redundancy in mind. A flashlight for a day hike might seem overkill, until you find yourself out past sundown. The redundant power source on a mainframe might also seem like overkill, until the first power source goes down.
While hiking, we might leverage our imagination. What if I got lost here? Or tripped and sprained my ankle? And in answering those questions, we improve our approach. Likewise, disaster planning in the mainframe world is the norm, even to the point of testing it. Which reminds us that it’s a good idea to test our hiking gear for disasters. The flashlight with dead batteries isn’t helpful.
Advance Preparation & Awareness Prevents Most Problems on the Trail
Part of preparing for potential problems involves planning. Where am I hiking? What’s the weather extremes there? The terrain? How far is the hike? What workloads are going to run on my mainframe? How critical are they? What transaction rates are expected? Peak load? Good hikers and mainframers ask a lot of questions before they begin.
That information feeds into our planning process. The hike is long, the temperatures are going to be very high, and there are no water sources on the trail. In that case, we bring extra water. Or in the mainframe world, we’re rolling out a new workload, but the peaks of that workload will be extreme. In that case, we might ensure peak workloads can be covered by setting up one of the capacity options available, such as capacity on demand offered by the IBM Z platform.
It is not enough to just plan for what might happen when hiking or running a computer system, you have to be aware of things, both at the macro and micro levels. While hiking, noticing the small things is important. You feel a warm spot on a toe in your boot? Better stop and take a look now before it becomes more serious. You notice a task consuming more resources than normal through monitoring? Take a look, it might be an early sign. You missed the telltale sound of a Timber Rattlesnake because you had your earbuds in and music up? And you weren’t checking where your foot was landing? That may not end well. You never set up message alerting and filtering on your mainframe? That could explain why an application failed.
At the same time, we don’t want to just focus on specific small things, we want to be aware of the bigger picture. Do we notice the storm clouds a mile off but heading our way? Or do we look down the trail as far as we can to see mama black bear and her cubs? Are we aware that we no longer see any trailblazers and markers and that we’re on an unmarked trail, indicating we missed a turn? Is the mainframe capacity team aware that the marketing team is sending out a promotion that is likely to double the transaction rate for Cyber Monday? Good hikers have a system of scanning their surroundings both far and near. Mainframes offer the ability to monitor and predict their processing, alerting to concerns.
And sometimes that focus and attention gives us bonus information. The small birds stopped singing, alerting the hiker to look around a little, which brought their attention to an owl nearby. Something that would have been missed without focus. The mainframe capacity planner leveraging all the information available could notice one application has increased transaction rates, but decreased resource utilization. Such awareness can validate and quantify that added performance improvements had a noticeable effect.
Understanding Your Type
There are many types of hikers, just as there are many types of computer platforms. There is the hiker who might only be interested in speed and setting a fastest time for a specific hike. Or the hiker that is only there for a selfie. Then there is the well-rounded hiker. They want a safe, efficient, enjoyable hike, potentially one where they learn more about the world in the process. The mainframe platform is more like that last hiker. The mainframe is not interested in just speed or just looking good. The mainframe wants to ensure everyone on the hike gets what they want out of it, in a safe, efficient, profitable manner.
A good hiker and the mainframe care about the world. They try to live by the rules of leave no trace (unless it’s a trace table inside the mainframe). The mainframe’s carbon footprint per unit of work has always been outstanding even before measures like that were in vogue.
A biased view perhaps, but a good hiker, like a system programmer on the mainframe, tends to be broader in knowledge. While they may have an area of expertise, they still know enough to appreciate the other areas. A good hiker knows a little about weather, animals, plants, trees, and more. Someone from the mainframe platform also tends to know a little about all the different disciplines that make up computing. Perhaps the capacity expert is not an expert in networking, but they respect and understand the fundamentals. And just as important, they don’t pretend to be experts. In the same way, I don’t want someone who is not truly a mycologist to tell me, “That mushroom is safe to eat.”
On the Trail, Experience and Enjoyment Go Hand-in-Hand
A less quantifiable aspect of the hiker and the mainframe programmer is that they both care about the experience. It is not just about getting from point A to point B. A good hike in the forest leaves me feeling relaxed and recharged. A well-run computer platform, like the mainframe, has its own zen feeling. That’s not to say there isn’t any excitement along the way. The difference is excitement for a good hiker and the competent mainframer results in a feel-good story because we are able to handle whatever comes our way. While the excitement for others may end up with sorrow and a bad ending.
On Nov. 17, National Take a Hike Day, check the weather, dress appropriately, tell someone where you’re going, and get out and hike. Smile at the people you meet on the trail knowing your data processing is secure and efficient on a mainframe. A good hiker and the mainframe community are polite. We say please and thank you. Happy trails!
Bill Bitner retired from IBM after 37 years, all of them spent in work related to the z/VM product. In 1997, he was selected to be a companion of the Order of the Knights of VM. A long-time SHARE volunteer and speaker, Bill was named a Distinguished Speaker by SHARE in 2020. Since retiring, Bill has stayed active in the VM Community through SHARE and the VM Workshop. You can also find him at his YouTube Channel, “Wander & Ponder with Bill and Friends.”