‘The kid with the mainframe’ rebuilt an old IBM z890 in his basement — and became a tech legend
‘The kid with the mainframe’ rebuilt an old IBM z890 in his basement — and became a tech legend
When Connor Krukosky was 14, his grandfather gave him a Radio Shack Tandy 386 laptop for Christmas. For any teenager in 1991, that would have been an unthinkably amazing gift. However, the year was 2011 and the Tandy had been left behind in the office Connor’s grandfather had just moved into. In terms of modern technology, it was worthless.
Krukosky was delighted. “I tore everything apart when I was a kid — nothing survived except Legos. So my grandfather said, ‘Here. You can have this and do whatever you want with it.’”
It was the first time I had ever owned any technology that old. It had a monochrome screen that displayed primarily text instead of a full color LCD, and it was interesting to me. So instead of tearing it apart and destroying it, I thought I’d try to get it working.
Krukosky found some online forums where fans of old technology shared success stories and helped each other rebuild old machines like his.
“There aren’t a lot of young people in our hobby, so everybody online was very supportive and very helpful,” he said. “I began learning about the machine, and how to get it up and running. Eventually I opened it up and looked inside, and found that I could sort of understand what was going on in there. Everything is very large. You could just look at the board and see what’s going on. With modern computers, you need the data sheet of the chip to be able to tell what’s going on.”
The Tandy was a great learning tool, and launched Krukosky on a quest for ever-bigger challenges. Not a big fan of traditional education, he earned his GED at 16 so he could leave high school and began taking community college courses.
“I had average grades, but my parents kind of understood that I really just felt held back by the public school system. If something really interested me, I would go after it and learn about it on my own. At one point it was an old pocket watch. I spent more on tools than I did on the watch, but I finally fixed it. It was rewarding to fix something from the 1920s.”
Then he watched a video of someone building a mainframe computer on YouTube. “He had a room full of chips and gates and boards, and I was just amazed. I wanted to learn more. I’ve always had a short attention span, so I tend to jump from one thing to another, but this, I stuck with.”
He stuck with it to the point that when he saw an ad for an old IBM z890 mainframe that a nearby business was selling, he talked his father into helping him buy it for $237 and move it into the family basement.
Standing over five feet tall and weighing nearly a ton, the z890 had to be taken apart to be transported. Despite the age of the mainframe and the less than ideal moving experience it endured, Krukosky was able to boot it up without too much trouble. “That's the thing about IBM machines — they usually just work. They’re amazingly well built.
“I recently heard about a customer who upgraded to a z13 from a machine that they’ve been running since the mid-’80s. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these things just keep working.”
Seeking information about his new toy, Krukosky joined the IBM Main Listserv group. He found a community of fellow mainframers who shared a passion for the platform and encouraged newcomers.
“I posted some things on IBM Main about it, thinking people would get a laugh out of it or maybe be able to help me with it, and this one guy said, ‘You should really do a talk about this.’” The guy was on the board of SHARE, an IT user group that began in 1955 and had a conference coming up in San Antonio, Texas, in March 2016.
Horrified at the thought of speaking in public, Krukosky said he couldn’t afford to go to the conference, sure that would get him off the hook. It didn’t. The organizers found a company willing to cover his travel expenses, his parents encouraged him, and he went.
“The room was packed, and I was sweating bullets,” said Krukosky. “But I found that it wasn’t terrifying like giving a presentation in school. This was something I was passionate about, so I just kind of rolled with it and it was okay. Everybody said I did great.”
And so the tale of “the kid with the mainframe” was born. After San Antonio, Krukosky spoke at another SHARE conference in Atlanta, then at mainframe conferences in Amsterdam and England, and in Boston at an IBM Technical University.
At 19, Krukosky was invited to speak in the cafeteria at IBM in Poughkeepsie — the birthplace of the mainframe. “He got a standing ovation,” said Dominic Odescalchi, an IBM Z project executive who was, at that time, managing the team charged with testing new mainframes.
“I invited him up to my office to see if he was interested in coming on board with us. He wasn’t enrolled in college at the time, so we couldn’t bring him on as an intern, and we really didn’t have a process in place to hire someone with no college experience. There was no precedent for it, and we had to get exceptions all the way through the process, but what we saw in him was hugely impressive. All the senior VPs were completely in favor of hiring Connor.”
“You have to understand what he accomplished. IBM is made up of subject matter experts who have tremendous depth in their area. For Connor to buy this mainframe, assemble it in his basement and actually get it running required knowledge across a huge breadth of areas, and he did it on his own.”
Odescalchi said that, as far as he knows, Krukosky was the first New Collar hire at IBM. But his hiring started a trend that has been embraced across the company.
While most new IBMers still come to the company with a two- or four-year degree, Kelli Jordan, talent leader in New Collar Initiatives, said, “You don’t need a degree to get a job at IBM — you need skills.”
“For IBMers and managers, the mindset is changing to where they’re recognizing they don’t need to hire people who look exactly like the people they hired in the past. Now, they’re thinking about the skills they need and where to find candidates with those skills.”
Krukosky said that for him, college just wasn’t the right fit. “I tried college for one semester, but it was just too slow and took too much time out of my day that I’d rather be using for my own projects, for things I’m teaching myself.
“I’ve never been officially diagnosed, but I totally have some kind of ADHD,” he said. “And I’ve been amazed, time and time again, by the people I have met — my friends, the people I work with — who have what some would consider to be a mental disability, or they’re on some spectrum, and they’ve been able to use it to their advantage. I have one friend who watches videos on YouTube at four times the normal speed, because he can hyperfocus and just stream that information. It’s amazingly fantastic how what’s termed a disability turns into a superpower for some people.”
While Krukosky can’t predict where the future will take him, for the near-term, at least, he’s thriving as part of the IBM Z “bring-up” team.
When a new mainframe is being designed, the bring-up process is where the machine is first physically tested. “Before it’s ready for the test floor to bang away on it, we need to make sure you can do the basic stuff on it — make sure it turns on, that it’s stable and in compliance with regulations for things like emissions and voltage,” he explained.
Krukosky began his work at IBM Poughkeepsie on the z14, introduced in 2017, worked on the z15, which rolled out in 2019, and is now working on the mainframe’s next iteration.
Like the mentors he found in online forums, Krukosky said the technicians and engineers he works with at IBM are generous with their knowledge, helping him to keep learning and growing. “That was one of the big reasons I joined IBM,” he said. “Every day I’m learning something new, and the environment completely encourages that. If I need to pick up a new skill on the job, somebody is always willing to take the time to teach me. It’s a great place to learn and grow.
“It’s an IBM thing. If you show initiative, and you want to work in a different area, the company is supportive. Management realizes that if you’re driven to do your job, you’ll do it better. In the few years that I’ve been here, I’ve been doing mostly one thing, but if I say I’d like to help out with this other project, I very much have the freedom to do that. I'm always looking for new challenges and new ways to broaden my horizons, and any time I've brought up these considerations, I've always had the support of my management.”
Creative strategies to fill New Collar jobs
Kelli Jordan, talent leader in New Collar Initiatives, said IBM is working hard to recruit the best candidates, both with and without college degrees. “We’ve formed partnerships with community colleges, launched a New Collar careers website, and we’re working with regional workforce boards. We’ve also started an apprenticeship program.
“If they’ve got relevant experience, even without a degree, we’re interested,” she said. “Everybody’s career path is different, so we’ve expanded the parameters of what we require to attract the best candidates, no matter what their background is.”
IBM has filled some 500 apprenticeships since the program launched in late 2017. “We’ve been so thrilled with the apprentices we’ve brought on board. One has been here four months and his team has already applied for a patent. Another solved a major client issue his team was having. They’re full of ideas, and they’re making significant contributions to their teams.”
In addition to his adventures on the IBM Z team, Krukosky stays busy with a plethora of projects in his spare time
At one point he had a pair of Smart Fortwo electric cars in his basement — using one for parts while he tried to rebuild the other. “I was in a little over my head with those,” he admitted. “I ended up selling them and buying two electron microscopes that I was able to get up and running. I’m also always playing with the old computers I have. I’ve got more projects going on than I’ll ever be able to complete — my basement looks like an IBM lab. If something interests me, I go after it.
“Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work with FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays.) It’s basically a silicon chip with a lot of logic on it that you can program to do whatever you want. Historically, you’d use FPGAs for blue logic, for simple stuff, but now they’re so massive and capable that you can put a multicore processor in one of these things. It’s really cool for learning hardware design, and you can write VHDL for it, the same as you would for silicon. You can verify your design functionality — but at a cost of maybe $100 instead of hundreds of thousands of dollars — so that’s a really cool thing.
Krukosky has been using FPGA to hack thermal cameras, which create images using infrared radiation. “You can get one out of a wrecked car on eBay for like $200, and you can use the FPGA to get the kind of capabilities you would expect from a $3,000 thermal camera. It’s been a great learning experience.”
The future may find Krukosky heading down a different technology path, but for now, his passion for mainframes continues to grow. “It’s crazy,” he said. “I’ll go online and join a chat room of tech people and start talking about mainframes, and so many people just don’t know that much about them. There was this stigma about mainframes in the ‘90s, and everybody said that PCs were going to replace them, but it’s really an issue about what works better for what task.”
With a mainframe, you have a centralized machine that can support hundreds of thousands of people. And with every generation, we’re improving our process and capabilities.