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Madge Meyer: I am a Mainframer

By | August 1, 2017

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In our seventh “ I AM A Mainframer” interview series, Jeffrey Frey, Retired IBM Fellow, chats with Madge Meyer, public speaker, author and founder of Madge Meyer Consulting, LLC. Madge is known for her unique, yet practical approach to advancing innovation and leadership throughout entire organizations. Jeff and Madge discuss innovation and how it applies to the mainframe Industry. Magde also shares a few in-depth career stories and offers some advice for other women working in tech.

You can listen the full recording and read the transcript of the interview below.

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Jeff: Hello. This is Jeff Frey. I’m a retired IBM Fellow, and previous CTO of IBM’s mainframe platform, and very much a longtime mainframe enthusiast. Today, once again, I’m very pleased to host the “I Am A Mainframer” conversation series, sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project. As part of the Linux Foundation, the Open Mainframe Project is intended to help create a mainframe-focused open-source technical of community. It’s also intended to serve as a focal point for development and use of Enterprise Linux in a mainframe computing environment. The goal of the project is to excite the Linux community around the use of the mainframe and to foster some collaboration across the mainframe community to develop and exploit shared Linux tool sets, resources, and services in the mainframe environment. In addition, the project seeks to involve the participation of academic institutions and others to help and assist in creating educational programs aimed at development of mainframe Linux engineers and the developers of tomorrow.

For today’s conversation, we have the privilege of speaking with Madge Meyer. Madge is a public speaker, award-winning author, and the founder of Madge Meyer Consulting. She is also well-known for her unique yet practical approach in advancing innovation and leadership throughout organizations. Her book, entitled “The Innovator’s Path: How Individuals, Teams, and Organizations Can Make Innovation Business As Usual,” was published by John Wiley and Sons, and is a 2014 Axiom Business Book Award winner. Madge was the Executive Vice President, Chief Innovation Officer, and Technology Fellow at State Street Corporation. Prior to joining State Street, Madge served as First Vice President for Merrill Lynch’s Enterprise Technology Services.

In addition to that, earlier in her career, she was a scientific programmer, working for my company, IBM, on the NASA orbital space flight. Madge, it’s a real pleasure to have you on the broadcast today. Let me get started by asking you to tell us a bit more about your background and your experiences with the mainframe.


Madge: Fantastic. It’s such a pleasure to be invited to have this conversation with you, Jeff. I was very lucky to be born in Shanghai, China, went through Hong Kong, and came to this country for college. When I was in graduate school, after a year, IBM hired me as a scientific programmer. Actually, I was looking for a summer job, totally got into IBM family to work on the NASA space program.

It was so exciting. I was doing the programming for Gemini – 3, the very last three flights, 10, 11, and 12. Before I got on that project, IBM trained me as a mainframe programmer, writing assembly code. I thought it was so exciting. A machine can run so fast, processing so many records in a very short time. I have a passion for mainframe, but when I worked on the Gemini system, I always thought, “Why can’t we run the business with this tiny little computer?” It was a GE computer, very small, and if we can send somebody to the moon, why can’t we run the business? Obviously, that question was kind of ridiculous at that time because no one thought that. It literally took decades before distribution systems came on board. If somebody started thinking about that, I think the world would have changed, right? I still love mainframes because when distribution systems came to speed, the mainframe had the best discipline of all the processes.

I don’t think any other system can compete against a mainframe chip – the high speed, unit cost, and efficiency bring great business value. I always thought, why don’t people look at the unit and compare what the unit really costs them? People don’t do that, normally. They just look at services. For the mainframe, the overall cost seems to be very expensive, but if you have a lot of workloads, it would be really helpful.  

Then I became IBM’s customer in 1998 when I had an opportunity to work for Merrill Lynch. At that time, Merrill Lynch didn’t have any IBM mainframes at all. Coming from IBM, I knew the contract between Hitachi and IBM was supposed to end. I put a plan in place, started using an IBM CMOS mainframe chip, and built a development system. It was a very tiny and everyone complained. I said, “But that’s the future because other vendors might not sustain the next decade, so we better migrate to IBM.’ Luckily, we converted everything to IBM mainframe before the other vendors literally went out of business.

I then joined State Street in 2001. State Street started moving our technology work to China. The reason for this was the their relationship with the Chinese university in Hangzhou. I asked the team, “Why didn’t you have them develop a system? Labor is so much cheaper there.” He said, “We don’t have any data centers there.” and I responded with, “Oh, we can build a data center, since I manage all the global technologies.” I worked with my colleague to build a data center in 2002, even though we really didn’t have a budget. The budget was very challenging after 9/11. We worked with IBM and they really helped us. We started building, but we used a different P-series from IBM. IBM’s relationship with State Street grew a lot from utilizing mainframe open systems and the whole spectrum of services provided. Later, we did an early test of Linux on the mainframe, I remember. That was very forward thinking back then, but we made it work.


Jeff: Very good. Well, I share your enthusiasm for the mainframe environment. We talk on other broadcasts about some of the challenges and getting people to really appreciate the unit cost, and the cost of ownership of a platform that does so much work. For today, let’s get into your book. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, “The Innovator’s Path”, and give us some examples on how industry professionals can use the power of this?

Madge: Yes. I give you little bit of background info. I was offered a contract when I was giving a speech in New York City, talking about our technology innovation. State Street, the global infrastructure and technology infrastructure groups received 32 industry innovation awards when I was managing it, from 2001 into 2011. I was talking about how we did all these things. The chief editor asked me to write a book. Then I thought about it, either he really was interested in writing a book about our innovation, I say, “No, no, no, it’s not about innovation, because by the time I finish writing it will be old. It’s about the discipline people need to be successful innovators because my view is everyone is innovative, because everyone has creativity.”

However, many times, either the education or the complexity of process and culture, literally stifle people’s creativity. I thought, let me figure out how to help people to be innovative, even in a large corporation. Obviously, entrepreneurs are all innovative, but they still need certain disciplines to be successful. My background is Chinese and we always talk about discipline. I think this is the eighth discipline.

Some words: The first one is “ listen.” I’ve been using listen for many, many years. When I was at IBM, I was the CIO for IBM Boulder, and I would tell the internal business executives to say, “I’m listening. You’re my customer. Honored guest and you tell me what you need, and I’m going to provide you with the service you need to be successful.” That was the way I look at things, but a lot of people don’t listen very carefully. Each discipline has three levels. The first level is listen, (the lowest level is selective listening, which we all do that all the time), the second level is engaged listening, which is very good. You listen to every word the person is telling you. The last and best is deep listening, which is beyond the words. What else the person really subtle message they didn’t really tell you? The body language, the everything.

The second word is “vision.” A lot of people in leadership positions lack vision. They’re managers, they’re not leaders. When I look at leaders, they should have a vision. What’s happening tomorrow? Not today. IBM had done such a fantastic job with transforming constantly. It’s “what’s tomorrow? What do we need?” If you look at the mainframe, it keeps going. It never stops. That’s the key concept for any company or even in personal life.

The third word is “position”. Once you have the vision, and you know where you want to go, how do you position? There are three levels of positioning. Reactive is not good. Predictive is not good enough. Look at the market, it still crashed, even though one can predict crashes beforehand. It’s the anticipatory. You want to anticipate what might happen. This is the way one should position.

Promotion is also very important. It’s the value to the customer. A lot of vendors come in and say, “Here is my product.” We deal with 600 vendors, many people will tell you how great they are, all that. I always say, “Stop right there. It’s not about how great your product is because tomorrow somebody will beat you. It’s what value you bring to State Street. Why should I buy your product, not your competitor’s product? You must promote the differentiator. What is your differentiator?”

Another thing is name recognition. It’s the first impression. The fact IBM called it the mainframe may not be the best thing. I’ve suggested to IBM to call it something else because there’s a connotation. It’s old. It’s a dinosaur. It’s passe. People don’t even want to get involved in the mainframe because of the connotation. In China, young people love the mainframe because it doesn’t have that connotation. We hired a lot of young students to work on the mainframe, they loved it. They say, “Oh my god, it takes us hours and hours to do this work on the open system side, but on the mainframe, it’s already there.”


Jeff: I happen to agree with you on many of the points you just made. As an architect and developer, I could go on and on about the innovation in the mainframe over its long and illustrious history.

I’d be interested in having you tell us a little bit about how the book. How can it inform or help people, professionals who could benefit from the use of mainframe technology in their shops? You touched on this a couple times. How do we capture that? How do we communicate that? What’s that got to do with innovation in terms of the use of the mainframe? We have a lot of interesting challenges, and we’ll get to those in just a second, but can you help me with what advice would you give for example, to companies to fully take advantage of the mainframe, and how do we communicate that effectively so that we can overcome some of the challenges, some of the perceptions that you eluded to?

Madge: Okay, I have a great story. When cloud computing came out, everybody tried to understand it and everybody was confused. What is this cloud? They even made jokes about it. State Street is a financial services company, but most are bankers. They’re not technologists. Our Vice Chairman at that time was Joe Antonellis. He asked me one day, he said, “Madge, nobody can explain clearly about the cloud. Can you please try?” After I finished, he said, “Oh, they just tried to make the open systems look like a mainframe.” I said, “Oh my god, Joe, you really got it. Yes.” The mainframe itself, it’s a cloud.

People don’t get it. Even some of IBM executives I was dealing with that time There was one IBM executive that said: “We didn’t know that the mainframe plays a role in the cloud environment.” I was sitting there, with Sam and our CEO, Ronald. I thought to myself, “I should shut my mouth.” I was the lowest ranking person in the room, but I just couldn’t. I said, “I am so sorry. I have to disagree with you. I think you’re wrong. The mainframe is a cloud by itself. That one box is a whole cloud. It’s all virtualized inside.”

I even suggested to IBM that they should call the mainframe a “Universal Server”, or something similar. Give the mainframe a new name so people are not stuck on the old, like an antique piece of furniture kind of a feeling. Every time you talk about a mainframe, one thinks about IBM and a huge machine room, with a console as large as a piano. That’s not the new mainframe. People don’t get it. It totally needs a facelift or something, to change people’s perception. Unfortunately, perception is reality, and it’s very hard to get people out of the mud they are stuck in.

Secondly, there is a way of doing this. I have some suggestions for people trying to sell their services to companies. When people talk about it, they usually use the z/OS terminology. When people hear that term “mainframe”, they already block it.

Jeff: Yeah, so this is fascinating. You gave one definition of innovation. I expect that part of what’s necessary for innovation is to break through preconceptions about things and drive exploration and innovation along as you said, towards business value, but it takes a certain objectivity and a certain willingness to break through preconceived notions. That’s really critical for the mainframe because as you point out, there are lots of preconceptions about the mainframe. People don’t even really have an appreciation for what the platform can do now. I assume the book talks about some of that stuff. How to break through preconceived notions, and biases, because that would be really helpful to our clients who want to take a look at the mainframe and make use of this valuable platform and sell others on its value.

Madge: In my book, I have a very detailed example. All the components to walk through, like the depreciation, maintenance, cost, staffing cost, all the things that create a strong business case. You compare year to year, the old existing budget versus the new. If you tell the customer, “I’m going to bring value to your business,” then you’re going to have the listener. It only took five minutes with a CEO, when we told them the bottom line:, “We’re going to save you $30.7 million by the end of nine months,” he said, “That’s a go.” Didn’t even want to hear the detail. Number talks. It doesn’t matter: big company, small company, a private company, or public company, everybody wants their profit margin. Those are the numbers can help your profit margin.


Jeff: This is great Madge. In my experience with IBM, we’ve been looking for and searching for ways to articulate the value of the mainframe platform, and to help organizations who do understand the value of the mainframe, communicate and sell the use of the mainframe within their organizations more effectively. It sounds like your book would be a valuable tool to those folks, and I would encourage anybody who is listening to the broadcast, to go out and take a look, and see if the book is some helpful and useful recommendations for articulating the value of the platform and some techniques for doing that. Madge, let me ask you one more question. I’m sensitive to the time here. What advice would you give to other women working in the IT industry?

Madge: Oh, my God, I love this question, because I’ve been giving so many speeches lately to help women. I really struggled during my career, because I was a minority woman in a man’s world. It was very, very challenging, but I never miss a beat, because I had so many wonderful men help my career.

Now, the speed of innovation is much faster and the world is much more accepting of innovation. Before, nobody wanted to change. It was so hard. Now, change is the constant, and many companies accept it. The worst is the middle tier of management. Their fear that they have too much invested in their career, and they probably have children in college and don’t want to rock the boat. They are difficult to break through. For women, think about, how you make a change? Let’s say I’m a server administrator, how do I automate this mundane work and make it better? Even suggest an idea to do it better.

There’s always a way to do it better. Ask other women. Network. Learn how other people do things. I’ve worked for some boards that say, “Don’t even come in and tell me anything new. I don’t want to hear.” Then I went underground until I could prove the business value. Then I brought my ideas forward.

Women should think about using innovation as their opportunity to shine. Because innovation has no discrimination, as long as you can prove business value, none of the executives will discourage you and think that just because you’re a woman, you’re not good. They may ask your CFO to validate, so I always have the CFO there to figure the numbers in terms of savings. We don’t just say it. We had the CFO prove it. A lot of people save some money, they spend it on other things, but we always hand the money back to the company.

Jeff: Very good.

Madge: I always told people. If you cannot articulate what you have done, how do you get the manager to reward you? The articulation is not that easy. I watch Shark Tank a lot. I love that show because there’s a lot of learning. It’s the whole presentation. The investors not only invest in your idea, it’s your personality too. They look at you as a person and ask “Do I want to invest in you? Do you have the commitment?”

Just working hard is not good enough. I call it working smart. Being street smart is also very important.

I learned how to be street smart at Merrill Lynch. I think women have a huge door open for them, the opportunity is there. All they have to do is not be afraid to speak up. If you have a good idea, don’t just say, “Oh I have a great idea. We should do that.” I have people come in and say, “Madge, I got a great idea. I saw a product, and I want to buy it.” I say, “Okay, so what’s the benefit to the company?” Think broader. Think the business value. Then once you have a system helping people, then you can drive the innovation. They know when they come to my office to show me, that they must have a good business case. It’s a wonderful way of looking at it. I think it’s exciting. It helps them to do better, and a company can never ignore you when you bring business value to them. It doesn’t matter what company, they all look for it. Even startup companies, they all look for, how do I get more customers? How do I make more money? How do I get more investors? No investors say, “Go ahead and spend the money. I don’t really care.”

The last chapter in my book is, “Evolve. Never stop.” That is a good example of the IBM mainframe. IBM, I remember at one point in the 1980s, started turning around the mainframe. It became a hot item again, but they never changed the name. I’m still after IBM to change the name.

Jeff: Well, okay. Madge, we’re going to have to probably leave it at that. I think that’s all good advice and good insight. I like it when you said, innovation does not discriminate. That is so true. Listen, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today. Best of luck. I will, like I said, I’ve already ordered your book, and I’m looking forward to reading it, but it’s been a pleasure talking with you Madge. Hopefully, maybe sometime we can meet face to face, and discuss all of these topics in even more depth. Thank you very much.

Madge: Yeah, I can learn a lot from you. The new mainframe, and how good it is. I haven’t been keeping track of it lately, but I’m still excited about the future.