Cheryl Watson: Teaching Is Her Mainframe Compass

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Watson & Walker, Inc. CEO and co-founder Cheryl Watson has been an IBM mainframe enthusiast since she discovered her love of computers at Portland State University in 1965. Upon graduation, Watson began her career as a trainee programmer at Consolidated Freightways using 1401/7010 Autocoder, then assembler and COBOL. She was on the system programming team when their first IBM System/360 was installed, and has followed the mainframe’s evolution.

After bouncing around at several software development firms, Watson landed at EDS in 1970, where she worked around the globe as an educator, performance analyst, capacity planner, system programmer, CICS administrator, and more. It was around this time that she heard about SHARE. “I wanted to go so badly that I traded two weeks of built-up vacation time so my company would let me go,” Watson recalls. “That was in 1978, and I still keep up with the people I met at that first SHARE event. I learned so much at the first conference that I was desperate to return.” In an effort to make it happen, Watson created two binders with handouts from the conference, provided an index of handouts to all staff, and taught a class on what she learned. “My managers were so impressed with what I brought back that they kept sending me to SHARE events,” she says.

SHARE provided the knowledge missing from the manuals, Watson says. “I could show my management that implementing just one suggestion from the conference saved enough money to justify returning,” she explains. “And by volunteering, I got to make more contacts and grew to know the IBMers much better than just attending their sessions.” Watson adds, “My passion at that time (and still today) was performance and capacity. I love SMF (IBM System Management Facility) and RMF (IBM Resource Measurement Facility).”

Eventually her journey led her to Tom Walker in 1986, and Watson began offering her expertise as a consultant to customers of outsourcers. She’s taught performance and internals classes and written articles for a variety of journals. Watson and Walker soon decided to form their own company, and Watson & Walker was born. The new company began publishing Cheryl Watson’s Tuning Letter and, later, Cheryl Watson’s CPU Chart, an Excel spreadsheet with more than 1,000 processors — both of which are considered some of the most practical and impartial z/OS and MVS tuning and measurement resources available.

Watson’s passion for performance led her to increase her volunteering efforts with the SHARE performance project, which began with SRM and later became the basis of Workload Manager (WLM) in 1994. This project changed how people managed their systems, which meant SHARE and IBM needed to get the word out about those changes. Watson’s involvement in numerous sessions on WLM also led her to create the QuickStart WLM policy, which is the basis of many WLM policies in use today. She says that these kinds of joint IBM–SHARE projects ultimately led to IBM providing nondisclosure meetings to volunteers, which became one of the major benefits of being a SHARE volunteer. “IBM would disclose what they were planning, but were unprepared to announce, with the SHARE project volunteers in order to get input. This continues today, and it’s a wonderful benefit,” Watson says.

SHARE recently recognized Watson for her 40 years of service. “When I first volunteered, more volunteers were from IBM customers than today,” says Watson. “But as more companies restrict their travel budgets, fewer customers are available to volunteer, so more independent software vendors are now filling the void,” she adds. “I would love it if more customers could see the benefits of interacting as a volunteer for access to both IBMers and some extremely knowledgeable experts in their field.”

Watson says that what remains consistent at SHARE is the cooperative and helpful nature of its volunteers. “As soon as someone volunteers, they immediately become part of a group of very smart and very helpful people,” she adds. “We all have the same goal of helping people learn. I graduated from college to be a teacher, but moved into computers instead. All of my volunteering has been to help people learn, so I think I’ve actually fulfilled my original goals.”

Over the past 40 years, Watson is proudest of the John R. Ehrman Award for Sustained Excellence in Technical Education she received from SHARE in 2018. “This is especially important to me because SHARE has been my primary learning forum, and John was one of the people I learned so much from,” she says. Secondly, she’s extremely proud to have received the SHARE President’s Award from President Brian Peterson in 2013. However, her most rewarding moment was the collaborative effort she spearheaded to re-create a new SHARE requirements system, which IBM accepted and made an important part of the company’s development efforts.

The SHARE requirements system, an integral part of how SHARE influences the industry, is where suggestions are contributed, discussed, voted on, and ranked. Watson says these rankings givethe SHARE requirements greater weight among the suggestions IBM receives, because they represent the shared opinions of many different customers. IBM can then use them during development of and even planning development of projects. When IBM shifted to a request for enhancements system, the MVS Core Technologies Project (or MVSE) lost its direct access to IBM, Watson explains. But the community was able to review all of the outstanding requirements and provide answers to IBM when questions arose. Later z/OS developers worked with the MVSE requirements team to rank and provide updates to how IBM responds. Watson adds that each z/OS announcement now indicates how many of the SHARE requirements are met with each IBM release.

Watson says, “My work on requirements took lots of my time, and lots of the other volunteers’ time, and lots of votes by the members, but it was some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I’m very proud of what we’ve all accomplished, and I think the platform is better for our efforts.” She also adds that “reading a requirement and reading the response to a requirement is an extremely good way to learn new things. I always come away knowing more than I knew before.”

Throughout Watson’s career, she’s made the most of every opportunity. Volunteering with SHARE is a big part of her journey. “The contacts I’ve made as a volunteer will remain for many years, and I cherish their help, kindness, and knowledge,” she says. While much of her knowledge came from experience, Watson urges others to volunteer with SHARE because there is an immense wealth of information that is so easy to consume. “Much of that information isn’t even in the manuals. The user experience sessions provide information that isn’t available anywhere else, which is one of the reasons my company brings all of its employees to every SHARE event,” she says.

There is a large mainframe community with some of the most brilliant people in it, and by going to SHARE events, professionals can learn from one another and widen their own communities, adds Watson. “Even though I wanted to be a teacher, I’m naturally very shy. When I first came to SHARE events, I didn’t talk to anyone and ate my meals in my room rather than networking. But by volunteering, I was forced to reach out to other people, and it helped me cure some of my shyness,” she says. Although she still gets nervous before speaking, the audiences’ kindness and eagerness to learn overcomes her nervousness. “I think that SHARE helped my personal growth as much as it helped my technical knowledge. And I can’t think of a better way to succeed,” says Watson.

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