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Jeanette Nutsford
(with husband Ken)
Advocate & App Supplier
Systems Ltd


August 2001

Keeping Up Connections to Learn

Jeanette Nutsford teaches the power of staying connected in a community. The application supplier, COBOL advocate and programmer counts nearly 25 years in the 3000 community, every one of them spent working alongside her partner in life and her husband of 33 years, Ken. Together the Nutsfords remain redoubtable leaders at HP 3000 conferences, while running a business headquartered in New Zealand but serving customers around the world. Jeanette perhaps stands as the woman with one of the longest tenures in the 3000 community, offering over those years a rich legacy of volunteer leadership to better the computer and language that lies at the heart of her professional career.

She began in teaching at the high school level, and has gracefully translated skills from a mathematics classroom to the world of IT. She entered the world of computing in 1967, learning to program at assembler-level on ICL mainframes. It was a time so different that she had to leave ICL to marry Ken; company policy didn’t permit husbands and wives to work in the same firm. So they formed Computometric Systems together, and not long after her husband introduced the couple to HP 3000s and purchased a Series II. They had to convince HP they’d be able to support themselves on the MPE software, since they were the first HP 3000 customers in New Zealand. Brownouts in Melbourne, Australia sold them on Hewlett-Packard systems, watching the HP 3000’s HP 2000 predecessor stay online while other computers failed.

COBOL was the common element through Jeanette’s experience, developing a timesharing service as well as applications for manufacturing companies. WorldVision, an international aid organization, was an early client they moved from a mainframe to the HP 3000. The Nutsfords now use the Internet as a connection to their own host HP 3000 in the US, but it’s their connections through personal appearances that distinguish them in the community. While Ken leads Special Interest Groups in Client Server and Omnidex, Jeanette is at the SIG chair for a language that’s as traditional as the 3000 itself, COBOL. She’s been a member of the COBOL 2002 Standards committee for several years, more in-person work that keeps the 3000 community’s needs in the forefront of COBOL’s evolution. She also serves on the Executive Committee of SIG-IMAGE/SQL and the advisory board for 3kworld.com.

With the Chicago HP World conference taking place this month, we considered Jeanette and Ken to be great examples of how the contact of face-to-face meetings enriches both a professional career and the community. We spoke with her while the couple were in their New Zealand offices, readying for the long trip and a retreat from the July winter weather of their homeland.

Your work in the 3000 community is most often associated with COBOL. What’s made you stick with the language while so many others haven been on the rise through the years?

It’s the language itself, the self-documenting features of COBOL. After ICL I learned COBOL and then taught the next course. I’ve taught and used BASIC, and Fortran and Pascal, all of the main pre-PC languages. COBOL is by far and away the most appropriate language for business applications. It has standards, portability and maintainability. And I was inspired when I first heard Grace Hopper [creator of the first compiler, and major contributor to the first COBOL standard] speak in 1978.

What makes COBOL most appropriate for business?

It’s a record-oriented language, whose data structures are oriented around defining records of data. That’s what business data is all about. The way to define and mirror the real life data for a computer language was very straightforward and natural. Then to be able to use those data structures with English-type commands made it very easy to take your business rules and translate them into a language and see that you had your translation correct. Even a systems analyst could read the source file and see it was designed correctly, even if they couldn’t sit down and write a COBOL program.

Do you think there’s a natural symbiosis between the HP 3000’s design and COBOL?

Ken says it’s the stack architecture, which made COBOL very easy to implement on the 3000 and makes it a very fast compiler. Of all the COBOL compilers we use, HP COBOL is the most efficient, because of the stack architecture and the separation of code from data.

One of the key things for me is that both the 3000 operating systems and COBOL are non-complex systems. I don’t mean they’re simplistic, but they’re not complex.

What’s the language that you think has the most to offer 3000 COBOL programmers — a natural fit?

I don’t think there’s a natural fit with COBOL, especially now that I’ve seen how COBOL can develop further with the new standard. It’s getting all the features we may have felt were missing, where COBOL programmers had to use another language to code with. We’re getting all of that into COBOL, so I don’t see a need to use any other language. You won’t have to go to an object-oriented language to work with objects, because COBOL will have that. Some COBOL compilers have that already.

The only language that’s gotten me excited over the past couple of years has been LegacyJ coming out with PERCobol, where we can develop in COBOL and deploy in Java. I’m not too sure it’s absolutely necessary in the future. I don’t think you need to go with Java; I think you can stay with COBOL. But there’s an interesting shared interface there in PERCobol.

What about Web development needs? Are there things in the forthcoming COBOL standard which can do things Perl and Java can do?

You’re just a few months ahead of me for me to be able to say categorically you can stay with COBOL. I’m currently taking an online e-commerce course, and I’m learning Javascript at the moment. Ken calls me his Script Kiddie. The middle part of the course is all COBOL, using Microfocus COBOL on the PC. With PERCobol and AcuCOBOL on the 3000, I strongly believe I’ll be able to do everything I’m learning, creating an e-commerce site, on the 3000 and in COBOL.

People like to toss stones at COBOL because of its age. What makes it a tool that can withstand the trendy derision?

It’s survived up to this point because of its loyal supporters. People who use COBOL to develop applications look around at other things to do, because we get caught up and persuaded by employers that we should use another language. But as soon as you start looking at any of the other languages, most COBOL programmers want to come back to COBOL.

The loyalty of the COBOL programmer — doesn’t that sound a little familiar, like the loyalty of the 3000 community? I think the new standards and features will take us forward. It still dominates the business world, and even if people stopped using it now, it could be still 20 more years before the programs stopped running.

One of the biggest problems is that the COBOL programmers are getting older, and a lot of the colleges and universities in the States have stopped teaching it. They’re starting up again, the business colleges. COBOL is becoming more of a part of the business courses. That will bring in the young programmer, especially if they want to do Web design and Web applications.

Do you think there’s more hope of getting newer COBOL features into the 3000’s compiler through a committed third party, or will those kinds of features arrive no matter who’s the caretaker?

I think I can be safe in saying it’s going to require a committed third party, in partnership with HP. It won’t happen on its own without HP’s support. But I think that’s where HP would prefer to put their resources.

I think we’ve got two good, strong possibilities [for partners] in LegacyJ and Acucorp. LegacyJ has been there quite a while and HP has done a lot to assist them with their PERCobol. Acucorp are doing some major changes to their AcuCOBOL on the 3000, and they are adding many of the HP extensions to it.

What do think of the Open Source movement in relation to the 3000’s compiler futures? Does the community have what customers need to assume the most complex of engineering, things like compilers that are so important to Itanium — or is that sort of thing best left to the HP engineers?

It’s going to be HP or a dedicated third party like LegacyJ or Acucorp. I don’t believe the Open Source movement is the solution, but I think the standards movement is. That’s what’s gotten COBOL where it is. The functionality is there for everybody, and the implementation for the hardware is done by people who have the engineering expertise close to the source of the hardware and operating system.

I think we’ve gained a lot from Open Source with tools. That’s been very helpful to the future of the 3000, things like Samba, Apache and Java. For their continued use on HP, though, most people prefer HP to support them. Open Source gets things into our sphere of interest much more quickly than HP could themselves. But it seems to need HP’s involvement for us to feel comfortable with those things.

I’ve tried thinking about Open Source in the applications area, and I just can’t see a business model for it.

Do you think Open Source has anything to offer the 3000 customer on databases?

I don’t know. I’m still a very strong believer in IMAGE and its strengths, because I use Omnidex. I believe I get the best of all worlds with IMAGE and Omnidex. Our databases are almost totally indexed. We basically have relational databases and beyond, because we’ve got the strength of the networked database with IMAGE. I wouldn’t like to see anybody tamper with IMAGE outside of HP. HP could be more proactive in giving us more features.

What’s the most immediate improvement that IMAGE requires to help HP 3000 owners?

It’s multithreading. The Web applications are the future. I don’t know much about the technical side of it, but I understand the lack of multithreading could be a major drawback for applications moving to the Web. It got strong support on the Systems Improvement Ballot.

Your work on the SIB, and all of your time volunteering at COBOL standards and Interex functions — how do you make that time pay off for you personally and professionally?

Well, it doesn’t pay financially, that’s for sure. There’s major costs involved. We’ve gained so much from other people in the 3000 community that this is just one way of my giving back. I’ve learned so much from other people, right from the first HP conference we ever went to in 1980, I’ve made so many great friends and technical supporters, that any problems I’ve had in developing my applications I’ve always had someone to go to.

My clients have gained from it, because of the information and knowledge I’ve attained from sharing with people so closely. I don’t think anybody can expose themselves to like-minded people and not learn something. Sometimes it’s just clarification that the knowledge you have is correct. I think that’s just as important as learning something new.

How have you seen things change for women in the IT world since you began your career?

My original experience was being treated like a second-rate citizen, always second to my husband. I don’t think women were really treated as individuals. That’s changed dramatically. Women are now allowed to take whatever role they wish to put their energies into — not just in IT, but all careers worldwide. I think in some instances you still have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. I don’t think that’s changed terribly much. But people are more willing to let women take opportunities now than when I started.

But women, in some ways, are our own worst enemy. We’re often juggling families and homes, and we don’t want to take on the stress of management, and the extra-long hours that go along with the most responsible positions in IT. So they don’t allow themselves to move forward. But then you’ll find there’s a lot of men, if you really dig deep, in management who come from programming — and the thing they miss most is the ability to sit down and focus on detail, like in programming. Women allow themselves to just stay there, and program.

Power means less to women than it does to men, in a very general way. Doing things for a power fix is not generally a woman’s way. I think that’s why you don’t see as many women involved in the newer languages and the newer PC technology. A lot of the young men are going into these, and it’s a real ego trip, and it’s very macho. A lot of women get turned off by that. Women like to sit down and solve a problem. It’s the end result that’s the key. I think to a man it’s how you get there that’s the key. The best programmers don’t have an ego. That’s why women make better programmers.

Is there anything special about the 3000 community that’s made it easier to advance as a professional woman?

The 3000 community isn’t a macho community. It’s a very caring and supportive community, and that’s helped me.

The 3000 has survived a long time, and you’ve been working with it for nearly all of it. What do you think was its lowest point, and how do you believe it got through that darkest time?

The lowest point was in the mid-1990s, when HP management outside CSY gave very strong vibes the 3000 was not in their future. A tremendous number of third-party vendors left, because it wasn’t something they thought they could tie their future to.

But the customers wouldn’t let it go. I think it’s the 3000 community that kept HP honest through all that period, and insisted we weren’t going to follow HP into the Unix world. So HP had to bring Posix to us.

My current theory is that the community isn’t one which adopts rapidly, and that helped it survive. What do you think?

Yes. That goes back to Open Source. That’s why the 3000 community doesn’t take openly to Open Source products. We want something that will work, and will work ongoing, in the future, and not threaten the stability we have. Most of us are in the business of providing solutions for our customers. You can’t provide solutions on operating systems and hardware that are continuously failing. Not quality solutions.

You’re an application provider in addition to being an advocate. How does one pursuit enhance the other for you?

I think I have a very practical view of what’s needed. I need it for the solutions for my customers. And I see things from a user’s perspective because I’m involved in training for my customers. And from a developer’s perspective, because I need the tools and the environments for that. That’s what’s helped me be rounded as an advocate, and not single-minded into one area only. Although some people would say I’m single-minded about COBOL.

What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve seen happen to the 3000 community in the past two years?

More than a couple of years ago, it was the decision to take MPE to Itanium. I think that allowed the perception that MPE had a future to become generally accepted. In the last couple of years, I think the 3000 on the Internet has become the most important thing. That’s what turned our business around. In the last two years we’ve consolidated all of our development on one system in the US. Prior to that I had a system in New Zealand, and one in the US and one in England. Wherever I was I would take a tape and load, and unload, and move on. Now I do all my development on one machine in the US, and it’s a 3000.

Our clients’ HP 3000s are on the Internet, so I can support them from anywhere, including an airport lounge if I had to. The interesting thing was that HP didn’t have to do anything to make that happen. It was all external. If we’d had the Internet 10 years ago, MPE would have been on it. We’ve had Telnet on MPE a long time. We don’t even need Apache to access a 3000.

Are you satisfied with the level of security you have for the 3000 over the Internet?

Once you get through to MPE, you have all the security you need there. The bigger issues are outside of MPE: the need for encryption, passwords and router security, firewalls. Those are the things that Ken provides for me, and I just get in there and use it. We’ve just put up firewalls on all our PCs and laptops, and it’s incredible how many external hits we’re getting that the firewall is rejecting.

You’ve spent a lot of your professional life working alongside Ken. What are the rewards that led you to take on the risks of working so closely?

Working together was a natural extension of what got us together in the first place. A sharing. We’re friends, first and foremost, and that takes us through our marriage relationship and our business relationship. The rewards for us are being able to spend 24 hours a day together.

We actually decided fairly early on in our marriage two major things: We were not going to have children; and if we started up any new activity, it would be a shared one. And we’d drop activities that weren’t shared. We did drop things. Ken isn’t allowed to learn how to fly, and I don’t go on the stage anymore. We developed our life together. The business is just one of those aspects.

It’s had its ups and downs, but some of our success has come from the fact that we’re non-competitors. We cover different skills. We’ve seen so many marriages in the computer industry fail because both partners are competing as programmers, or in marketing. We don’t compete at all.

Ken sees the big picture, but can assist a lot in the detail. I see the detail, and assist in the big picture. We can support and assist each other, but our skill sets are quite different. Ken is the deep thinker and the silent partner, and I’m a very verbal person. That partnership has worked out extremely well, too.

When we formed an American company called Nutsford Inc., Ken came up with a symbol for it: N squared, because we are so much more creative together than as two individuals.

Your commitment to personal meetings remains strong. What do 3000 community members need to remember about the value of face-to-face meetings?

There’s more to communication than one format, like voice over the phone, or written e-mails. There’s body language, all sorts of aspects for complete communication. You don’t get those until you’re face to face. It allows you to build a more complete form of communication.

Now e-mail has improved the communication in between face-to-face meetings. It’s become extremely important, especially for us as we travel so much. But the group dynamics you get in face-to-face — I’ve seen this happen in a conference call. Some people are remote, and some are in a face-to-face meeting. Those in the face-to-face were sharing all sort of things: pieces of paper, facial expressions across the table, that people on the phone had no way of communicating with. We got far more by being present.

You also don’t get the feedback in a phone conference as a leader about what people are thinking. In face-to-face, you can bring in the people who aren’t able to express themselves quickly, when you can see they are struggling with wanting to say something. It’s a thorough form of communication, but of course, it’s expensive. E-mails have helped to fill the gap, but I’d never do without face to face. It’s worth every penny that we spend.

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