April 7, 2014, Golden Jubilee Of The S/360 Mainframe: Gene Amdahl, ‘Father Of IBM Mainframes’, & I.
by Anura Guruge
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From my ‘guruge.com‘ Website.
As it says in the image above I have been fortunate enough to have had two significant interactions with the brilliant, and incredibly charming, Dr. Gene Amdahl — the chief architect of the IBM S/360, whose name appears on quite a few of the landmark mainframe related patents.
The first was in 1974 — shortly after I had joined IBM, a week prior to my 21st birthday (on what was a Bank Holiday Monday). Not sure why they sent me. I was not into hardware at the time. My passion in those days was Operating Systems and compilers/interpreters. IBM, in those halcyon days, used to have meaningful strategic career development plans for all of its employees — IBM never slow in recognizing that we were their most valuable asset. There were two of us that were sent to this Gene Amdahl seminar from our S.S. (System Support) Group. The other was ‘Dave Hall‘ — who had been in the group for quite a long time, really knew his stuff and was always happy to help clueless rookies like me. It was my first business trip. I drove. I was no stranger to Heathrow — having flown in and out of there, yearly, for the previous seven years.
I was excited. This was THE big league for me. I sat transfixed in the front row. Dave, always cool, sat at the back. I don’t blame him. Gene chain smoked throughout the two days, lighting one cigarette from the other, and hacked a bit off and on. (Yes, he would go onto have complications from his smoking). People in the audience smoked too. Those were the days of smoked filled meeting rooms.
I had no idea that within 9 years doing exactly this type of stand-up multi-day seminars would become my life for the next 25 years. Often during that time, given that I did a ton of presentations at Heathrow Hotels, I would think back to the 1974 Gene Amdahl seminar.
Over the years I had some dealings with Amdahl Corporation (now a part of Fujitsu) — albeit never with Gene. I don’t think I ever did any paid work for Amdahl, though I do remember some grand meals, in some fancy country hotels in the UK, with Amdahl employees who just wanted to chat with me about the state of networking. To be fair Amdahl Corp. was not in the networking game. They just built ‘plug-compatible’ mainframes — with channels (in those days). Networking was done with other boxes that attached to the channels. [I did, however, end up doing a fair amount of work, mostly seminars, for ‘plug-compatible’ maker ‘Hitachi Data Systems‘ (HDS), in Europe.]
The Summer 1995 meeting with Gene was at an annual multi-day “mainframe update” training conference done by a Texas consulting firm called ‘ACTS’. It was the second time I had been invited to do the half-day networking portion. I knew that Gene was speaking the day before. I was getting to Hilton Head late in the evening and never expected that I would get to meet Gene. [Around that time I used to be ‘triple-booked’ or at least that is what my billing would indicate. I had so many writing, seminar, training and consulting commitments that every hour was carefully allocated. So there was no possibility that I could have go there early to see Gene.] When I checked in at the hotel there was a message telling me that Dr. Gene Amdahl would like to meet with ME for breakfast, at 8 am, in the hotel restaurant, the next day — prior to my session! I was stunned. Gene Amdahl wanted to meet with ME! I walked on air for the rest of the day and made quite a phone calls to … yes, brag.
I was there nice and early to meet with my hero. He had two assistants with him. He was gracious as could be. Wow. He said that he had not had the time to keep up with IBM networking and wanted me to tell him what was new. I understood. I could relate. His focus was on CPUs. Networking was way, way outside what he had to worry about. So why waste his valuable brain cycles following something that he was not involved in. I was like that too. Totally focused on what I was supposed to be on top of. But, before we got down to doing any serious talking, he asked me, with his hand gently on my arm: ‘Bob Metcalfe, that thing he invented … how is it doing?’ Took me a second, actually maybe five, to work out what he was asking me. Bob Metcalfe = Robert Metcalfe, the voluble, often provocative, but always insightful founder of 3Com. He and I wrote for the same publications. I couldn’t say I knew him per se but I had seen him at various networking shows. Robert Metcalfe, like Gene, was LEGEND. ‘That thing he invented’. My brain used to quite quick in those by gone days. It came to me. Ethernet! Gene was basically asking me how Ethernet was doing. This is no way as incongruous as it may sound today. This was 1995. The IBM world was all ‘Token Ring’ — and I would spend at least another four years raking in money consulting on ‘Token-Ring’ — another of my specialties. I told Gene that Bob had done QUITE WELL with Ethernet. Then I realized. Gene invented mainframes, Bob Metcalfe Ethernet. WOW.
I was then in for a even bigger surprise and honor. Gene told me he was going to attend my session! I was floored. By then already I was used to doing presentations in from of CEOs and industry VIPs. But this was Dr. Gene Amdahl. It was quite a kick. I used to do all those presentations and seminars on autopilot. I was lucky in that from day one. I could stand up and talk about networking, using my (self-prompting) slides, without any notes, for 5 days without missing a beat. I knew my networking inside out and up against the wall. So having Gene in the audience didn’t rattle me. We had one. It was such a trip to see Dr. Amdahl, very calm, collected and serene, seated there listening to me. After the session he thanked me and said he enjoyed it. Then he invited me to join his party for dinner that night.
His wife was there and a number of his entourage of assistants as well as some others from conference — including, of course, the folks from ACTS. It was a lovely evening. Dr. and Mrs. Amdahl were so gracious and charming.
So that is my Gene Amdahl story.
He is 91 years old now.
[‘ACTS‘ was named after the ‘Acts of the Apostles’. The first year I was invited to speak, the founder of ACTS asked me if I knew what is company was named after. I didn’t. In those days I had no clue about the Bible. I was like Gene. Totally focused on what I was doing. The founder of ACTS looked at me like I had three heads. He was shocked — and I don’t blame him. Then, as now, I have huge gaps in my knowledge base.]