The ‘kid with the mainframe’ is thriving at IBM

Passion // Project

It’s more than a job. These compulsively creative IBMers make innovation a way of life, creating amazing projects just for fun.

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The ‘kid with the mainframe’ is thriving at IBM

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.

Encouraged by older hands

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.”

A fascination with mainframes

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.

‘The mainframe kid’ is born

“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.

His talk “I Just Bought an IBM z890 — Now What?” was uploaded to YouTube by SHARE and has been viewed more than 2.1 million times.

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.”

Start of the ‘New Collar’ jobs wave

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.”

At home in mainframe central

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.

Krukosky’s manager, Frank Collura, explains that 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.”

Krukosky began his work at IBM Poughkeepsie on the z14, introduced last year. Collura’s team is just beginning work on the next mainframe iteration. “There’s no physical hardware for the machine yet,” said Collura. “So we’re involved in virtual testing. Connor is working with our experts to develop the initial code steps so that when the machine is built, we’ll be able to run it.”

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.”

Planning ahead, and still collecting

Collura is encouraging Krukosky to continue his college education. With Marist College right up the road, the kid with the mainframe is hoping to qualify for IBM’s Academic Learning Assistance Program (ALAP) to help foot the college bill. While many of his peers will spend decades paying off college loans, ALAP could help him put his resources instead into paying the mortgage on the home he recently purchased — and feeding his addiction to innovative technology.

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 14 apprenticeships, and the plan is to get that number up to 100 by year-end. “We’ve been so thrilled with the apprentices we’ve brought on board so far. 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.”

At the moment, he’s got two Smart Fortwo electric cars in his basement — he’s using one for parts to rebuild the other. He’s also still collecting old computers. “Recently I picked up this FM Towns. It’s a home computer built by Fujitsu in the late ’80s, early ’90s, for the Japanese market only. It’s a 386 machine, so you would think it’s a PC, but it’s not PC-compatible. Today, one computer is very similar to another, but then the differences from one to another were huge. In the FM Towns, the hardware is laid out differently, the software is written completely differently.”

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.”

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 14 apprenticeships, and the plan is to get that number up to 100 by year-end. “We’ve been so thrilled with the apprentices we’ve brought on board so far. 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.”

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