In this month’s episode of the “I Am A Mainframer” podcast, hosted by Steven Dickens of The Futurum Group, guest Domenico D’Alterio shares insights into his career and the evolving mainframe industry. Currently working on the Zowe open source project at IBM, Domenico discusses how he joined IBM in 1999 as a developer, later transitioning into managerial and product manager roles, and reflects on the challenges he faced in adapting to mainframe technology and the skills required for it.
Domenico goes on to recount his career progression at IBM, highlighting the importance of understanding customer needs and how that influenced his move to product management. He stresses the significance of predicting future customer needs and translating them into product features. His journey from a developer to a product manager showcases the value of diverse experiences within the mainframe industry.
Steven and Domenico also delve into the broader mainframe community’s enthusiasm for modernizing the platform to appeal to newer generations of developers. Looking ahead, Domenico sees the mainframe continuing to evolve, with a focus on improving user interfaces and leveraging artificial intelligence for predictive problem-solving. He expects this approach will address skill gaps and add more value to users.
Finally, Domenico advises newcomers to the mainframe industry not to be intimidated by its complexities and encourages embracing the modern tools available today. He concludes by reflecting on the importance of adapting to changing technologies and customer needs to drive innovation in the mainframe space.
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The “I Am A Mainframer” podcast explores the careers of those in the mainframe ecosystem. Hosted by Steven Dickens, Senior Analyst at The Futurum Group, each episode is a conversation that highlights the modern mainframe, insight into the mainframe industry, and advice for those looking to learn more about the technology.
The podcast is sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project, a Linux Foundation project that aims to build community and adoption of Open Source on the mainframe by eliminating barriers to Open Source adoption on the mainframe, demonstrating the value of the mainframe.
Announcer: This is the I Am A Mainframer podcast, brought to you by the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project. Episodes explore the careers of mainframe professionals and offer insights into the industry and technology. Now, your host, Senior Analyst and Vice President of Sales and Business Development at Futurum Research, Steven Dickens.
Steven Dickens: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the I am a Mainframer podcast. I’m your host, Steven Dickens, and we’re joined here by Domenico. Hey Domenico, welcome to the show.
Domenico D’Alterio: Thank you.
Steven Dickens: Let’s dive straight in. Tell us a little bit about you, what you do, who you’re working for. Let’s just start there.
Domenico D’Alterio: Okay, so I’m Domenico D’Alterio. I’m working for IBM, but currently, I’m working mainly on Zowe, the open source project. I get paid from IBM to work from something that is free of charge, which is great.
Steven Dickens: That’s a fantastic dynamic, right?
Domenico D’Alterio: Yes. I joined the Zowe team one year and a half ago, and I’m product manager in IBM, so I work on the strategy for our products and now I work as product manager even on Zowe.
Steven Dickens: So I know Zowe, I was there at the meeting when it started five years ago, pretty much this week. For some of our listeners who aren’t aware of Zowe, tell us what Zowe is as far as you see it.
Domenico D’Alterio: Okay. Zowe, yeah, I was there as well when Zowe was introduced five years ago, and I was so excited about Zowe. Zowe is the first open source project on Mainframe, and the mission of Zowe is to make Mainframe open, simple and familiar. So it provides a framework of services to allow to interact with the ZOS resources in an easy way, in a more modern way, and enable even an easier integration with the rest of the IT world, let’s say with the hybrid cloud. This is in few words.
Steven Dickens: So I think for me, going back, I was involved in the original foundation of the Open Mainframe project, so it’s been something I’ve been involved in since the get go. I think for me, and you just touched on it there, Zowe’s that first open source project on ZOS.
We’ve obviously had Linux on the mainframe for 20 plus years now, but from a ZOS perspective, there’s a natural tension between open source and ZOS though Z OSS is very controlled, very structured, very organized, very locked down, and then we’ve got open source.
Maybe just expand on that a little bit.
Domenico D’Alterio: Yeah, well there is a lot of fear about open source. A couple of weeks ago I was talking with a friend and regardless what I was doing, she said, “Well, you know what? Open source is always something that is not secure.” And so as you said, you can put open source on Mainframe, that is the extremely secure platform.
Steven Dickens: Yeah.
Domenico D’Alterio: Well, even open source can be very secure. It depends on the practice and the processes that you put in place to develop open source code and it is the case of Zowe. So we follow all the best practice and all the processes to make it secure in terms of code and we do the penetration testing and all the stuff that you usually do with every commercial product on Zowe on the ZOS.
Steven Dickens: Well, I think the interesting thing for me as well is the Zowe community is a mainframe community of open source. So it’s not like people who are developing for Raspberry Pi and gamers developing it’s Mainframe open source people, which is a slightly different dynamic.
Domenico D’Alterio: Yeah, it’s different dynamic. But as I said, I was excited the first time that I saw Zowe five years ago I was at Share St. Louis and I was excited because yeah, it’s really a real modernization of the platform.
I joined IBM in 1999, and my first job was to develop code, develop a component of ZOS.
At the university, I’d never seen the ISPF panels or dataset or whatever. And so it was really a challenge at the beginning to get used to all of the terminology, and the tools and the missing tools, that we were having at that time to coding and so on.
So when I saw Zowe, I said, Wow, finally they found a way to solve the skill problems that every mainframe, let’s say enterprise has.”
So yeah, there is a community of mainframe because all of them are passionate to make the platform feel modern, feel usable, even from the next generation, or the new generations of developers.
Steven Dickens: Exactly.
Domenico D’Alterio: And this is the reason why. Yeah, you see so many mainframers joining these open source project, excited and really, yeah.
Steven Dickens: So, the show’s called I am a Mainframer. You talked about your first job working for IBM. I’m going to take you back to 1999. Let’s maybe build out the story arc for the listeners here. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done to get to this point today.
Domenico D’Alterio: Well, I joined IBM in 1999 as a developer. And yes, I was developing this component of ZOS, a new component of ZOS and it was written in C++ at that time. And frankly we were using development tools on Unix, and then moved the code once it was good enough on ZOS because there were no real good development tools on ZOS at that time. And I stayed on as a developer for something like five, six years on ZOS. Then I moved to a managerial role, but I was the development manager and then even customer support manager for the ZOS products in IBM.
And that gave me a different point of view, the point of view of the customer. When you are a developer, you understand the feature that you have to develop, you develop it, but you are not really exposed to the customer needs.
Steven Dickens: You don’t see it consumed by a customer and used, your job’s onto the next feature. Onto the next feature.
Domenico D’Alterio: As customer support manager I was facing with customer say to me, “You know what? We cannot fail. We cannot have a bug in a ZOS product because every delay of seconds cost us million dollars.”
So it is the perspective of the user of the mainframe. They obviously expect to have something that never fails, simply never fails, simply it’s really always performance, always secure and so on. So I remained in this manager role for a few years and then seven years ago I moved to the product manager role, still on ZOS products.
Steven Dickens: And do you think it was that exposure to the customer, that exposure to the requirements that helped you make that transition to product management?
Domenico D’Alterio: Absolutely, absolutely. I wanted that. But yeah, the customer-facing experience was crucial to move to the product manager, because for more than 10 years as customer support manager, I was hearing from them what are their use cases, what are they paying, what are their needs?
And so then moving to the product manager role where I have to translate their requirements in something that development can digest was crucial to have this kind of customer experience.
Steven Dickens: I was a product manager myself, that being the voice of the customer back into the organization, ultimately back into the development and product development teams, for me, is that most crucial component.
Domenico D’Alterio: Yes.
Steven Dickens: And maybe just give us some examples of where you’ve seen, because I think unless you’ve been in that product management role, and I know a lot of our listeners and viewers are maybe thinking about their own career journeys, we have a lot of younger people on the show, maybe map out a little why that listening to customers, hearing those requirements, and how you do the translation. I think you’ve obviously understood that with your career. Maybe expand…
Domenico D’Alterio: And sometimes it’s even challenging, because the entirety of the organization or the development looks even at something that is really great from a technical point of view. But then when you look at that, you say, “Okay, so what?” So you are improving the UI because you’re using a new technology, but what is the benefit? What is the value add for the customer? Why the customer should pay for that?
Steven Dickens: Why do they care?
Domenico D’Alterio: Yeah, why should they pay for that? On the other hand, talking with multiple customer, you can get the sense that there is something that they need that they even don’t know that they need.
When you translate it to the development, they obviously start asking questions like, “Okay, how many customers are looking for that? Why they’re looking for that?”
And so you have to explain in detail what is the use case, what is the value add, what are the customer you interacted with that are looking for that? So it’s time-consuming, and it’s a tough job, but I really enjoyed it.
Steven Dickens: That’s the value, I think. That’s the value of being able to synthesize what customers want and be able to translate that into a set of features that’s going to get that experience you want from the product.
Domenico D’Alterio: And the other point is that you have to predict what the customer will need in three years, for example. Because it is the time that development needs to deliver the new feature, or the new product.
Steven Dickens: So you’ve got to be ahead of the market.
Domenico D’Alterio: Exactly, exactly. And sometime, yeah… I was successful. I remember I launched on the field, the product that I will not name, and after two years through a business partner, they were able to recover the initial expense, the initial investment on this product and it was really a great experience for me as you can imagine.
Steven Dickens: You saw the loop.
Domenico D’Alterio: Yes.
Steven Dickens: You saw the loop.
Domenico D’Alterio: I saw the loop from customer having the needs. We were having some technology that we can adjust and build the product to fill the needs. And then I saw customer purchasing and using it, and very excited and happy about it because they were missing that product for linking some stuff and it was great.
Steven Dickens: So we’ve talked a little bit about the career arc there from ’99 to what you’re doing today in the Zowe space. You have the opportunity to go back to your younger self and go back to… It’s only a couple of years for you, but for me it would be a few more years. But you go back to you coming out of college in 1999, what would you say to your younger self?
Domenico D’Alterio: What I would say to the young people that faced with the ZOS the first time, “Don’t be scared,” because at the beginning it can be scary. It can be scaring because more if you faced with the traditional, let’s say interfaces now with Zowe, but not only Zowe, there are plenty of tools now that are more modern and user-friendly. You can interact with Zowe, you have to learn some terms that are different, but in a while you will get the skill on the terms, but it’s really a great platform to work on. It’s really…
Steven Dickens: So what advice would you be if people are looking to kind of build that career on the mainframe platform? You’ve had a lot of different roles, you’ve been a developer, you’ve been in support, you’ve been in product management. What would the advice be to navigate through? Any tips and hints?
Domenico D’Alterio: Well, more than tips and hints, I think that to become a good product manager, if it is the ultimate role, at least you have to be, yes, some time in development then it could be developers, designers, or even manager of a team of developers, but sometime in the developer to understand the internals, let’s say, of the products and the platform and then having a customer-facing role before moving to…
Steven Dickens: I think the customer piece that we talked about is crucial.
Domenico D’Alterio: Absolutely, yes. Because you learn it’s a completely different world, the customer of Mainframe versus, because in my career I have been even customer support manager for distribute product at the same time, and it was a completely different set of customer expectations.
So, they can accept that the product failed from time to time. They possibly want to have more frequent updates rather than stability on the mainframe side. They don’t look for new major release earlier than every 18 months, but it has to be stable, it has to be perfect performance.
Steven Dickens: Well, it’s interesting as we start to think about wrapping here, you’ve obviously had the developer experience, you’ve had this support role, you’ve managed a support organization, you’ve done this product management. I think you’ve got an interesting perspective, and I always ask this question of all the guests, where do you see the mainframe five years from now?
So we’re on Z16, maybe go beyond Z17 maybe into what the world’s going to look like at the back end of the Z18 cycle. Where do you see the mainframe?
Domenico D’Alterio: What I’ve seen in the last few years, Zowe is an example, is that the ZOS and the IBM Z hardware is really, modernizing its interfaced to the users and it’ll grant longevity to the platform because for sure, from performance, security and volume of data, there is no competitor.
So the only problem was, is, still the skill because to acquire the skill to work on ZOS is not trivial. And so they’re fixing this part with the modern interfaces, I would say, and Zowe is helping so much. The other part is what they’re doing on first the machine learning for the anomaly detection, and then with the AI infusion.
I work mainly on products that are on the operations. So the anomaly detection is important in my, let’s say, product portfolio to predict problems and to avoid problems.
Steven Dickens: So, you see that improving over the next five years?
Domenico D’Alterio: Absolutely, yeah. Because up to now it’s more reactive. I got the problem, and I have the tool to solve the problem. What I’m seeing is more and more investment in the prediction with the machine learning artificial intelligence to prevent the problem, to predict that you are going to have a problem in two hours, so you can act even before the problem happens.
So this is what I see on the platform. Modernization in terms of interfaces to reduce the skill concern, let’s say complain, and even more user value, in terms of with the infusion of the artificial intelligence.
Steven Dickens: I think that’s a fantastic summary.
Domenico D’Alterio: Thank you.
Steven Dickens: Thanks for coming on the show. I think really interesting story. Great to understand your trajectory. Thank you very much for joining us.
Domenico D’Alterio: Thank you.
Steven Dickens: You’ve been listening to the I am a Mainframer podcast. Please click and subscribe and do all those things that help the algorithm, and we’ll see you on the next episode. Thank you very much for watching.
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