What I Learned from a Front Row Seat at the Birth of the AS/400

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AS/400There are a lot of celebrations going on to commemorate the 25th anniversary this month of the AS/400.  It has been an extremely successful product for IBM that has led to multiple generations including the iSeries and the IBM i among others.  

The actual launch took place in 1988.  It was exciting to work for IBM and see how they did things, to visit “the Tower” so to speak.  I learned a lot about the painstaking steps needed to build new hardware.  There are many things that need to be taken into consideration, with application compatibility a high priority.  If applications do not convert seamlessly, customers have problems.  The sheer magnitude of the project and the amount of testing, automated and otherwise, was… impressive.  I was fortunate to be a part of the development process. 

Code Name “Silver Lake”

I was 29 in 1986 when I was called in as a consultant to work as a programmer at IBM.  The project was code-named Silver Lake, named for a lake in downtown Rochester, Minnesota where development of the system took place.  My job was to convert applications to run on the AS/400 platform.

For example,

  • Internal scripting language underwent vigorous rounds of testing.
  • Every screen and every report had to be compared between the old system and the new AS/400 system.
  • There could not be a single difference between the two systems because IBM wanted to make sure when customers upgrade to the new AS/400 that their applications worked exactly as they did on the previous system.

The care and attention given to testing for the Silverlake–AS/400 project made a strong impression on me and has made its way into our own protocols for bringing new products to the market.  

  • We put a lot of emphasis on testing prior to releasing new versions of our software.We cannot do it to the extent IBM did because we do not have the budget that IBM did. But we try to find all issues before our customers do.  
  • Our software upgrade process is setup in such a way that if by chance there should be an issue created by a software upgrade the customer can be rolled back to the previous version in less than 1 minute.

The AS/400 signified an aggressive effort on the part of IBM to listen to customers who wanted an affordable midrange computer.  It has been a phenomenal worldwide success and I took that customer centric philosophy with me as I went on to work for other companies and start a few of my own. 

  • I’m glad to have ingrained the practice of listening to customers at such an early age.  It has helped me tremendously over the years and our solutions at DRV are the better for the great suggestions from clients on how to best use our software.  Many IT Managers have a strong programming background but do not have the time or resources to fully design a solution and then keep it updated with current applications and versions.  So when they talk, we listen. 
  • We had a customer that was using our MessageFlex software to monitor their system and notify someone when issues arose.  The customer asked if MessageFlex had the capability to email out an attachment along with an email notification. She wanted to email a “How-to-Fix” document along with the issue notification to explain to operations what they needed to do to fix the issue (instead of calling her in the middle of the night). After listening to her reasoning we agreed that would be a nice feature and added it in the next release.  
  • Listening carefully to customer input helps us design solutions that are practical and relevant and we schedule regular meetings to discuss what is being talked about so that we don’t miss smart ideas that enhance the user experience of our software.


The AS/400 marked a huge change in fortune for IBM.  The fact that the product continues to run core applications for companies around the world is a testament to the hard work and planning that went into development.  It was great to be part of the development process and learn some important lessons that continue to inform my work more than 25 years later.

Richard Voss

President, DRV Tech


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