Dr. Herbert Daly on IBM Z in the Classroom
Reg Harbeck talks with Dr. Herbert Daly about including the mainframe in university courses, his role in student groups, and how he identifies people who might like to work on the mainframe.
By Reg Harbeck09/01/2020
Dr. Herbert Daly: Hello, Reg. My background on the mainframe begins about 10 years ago when I had my first academic post at the University of Bedfordshire, and I was involved with a group called the UK CMG, so performance and capacity people. Performance and capacity is one of the places where distributed and mainframe meet. You’d be at one of their events and there'd be mainframe tracks. You'd meet those guys and one day I was helping out running the mainframe track, even though I wasn't a mainframe guy myself. I heard a lot of interesting discussions about how you deal with large systems and the technology that they were using, a lot of it going over my head, but there was also some discussion of the Academic Initiative and the fact that it was a platform seeking a new generation of people. Being a new academic and having a background in systems modeling, I thought OK, no, this is something that I could work with. I’d also, in a previous life, worked on telecom switches. Now I didn't know this until relatively recently, but mainframes and telecom switches have common ancestors. My first role on graduation was working with Nortel DMS switches, and those switches, you IPL them right so they're that related. Looking at the tech and hearing this need for a new generation of people, I thought to myself, well that's definitely something I could be involved in, and it seems like some interesting technology as well. That was basically how I got started. As to becoming a Champion, so Zed has only been part of the Champion program since 2018. I'd done quite a bit of work at Bedfordshire just before I moved to Wolverhampton to do with student groups and events and running streams at our local mainframe meet up GUIDE SHARE EUROPE (GSE). Some of the guys I was working with at IBM said that we’d really like to put you forward because we appreciate the work that you've done, so I said thank you very much. That was how I became the first academic Zed Champion in the UK.
Reg: Cool. Now, as you and I were chatting before we started this interview, you were telling that—I mean, this Champion thing has gone some pretty useful routes for you. You've been championing the mainframe in some really interesting ways, including trying to get mainframe content into the university courses very much like my friend Dr. Cameron Seay, where you’re looking for ways to help the students learn about the mainframe in order to really enhance their careers and have real careers. Tell me about some of the challenges that are involved in making mainframe education available to your students.
Herbert: Yeah, so academic mainframe is sometimes kind of seen as an oxymoron, right? It's a very, very practical area. A lot of the academic establishment either doesn't really understand it because they've often not worked on the platform or doesn't see the relevance to the leading-edge stuff. In academia, you always have this tension between you're trying to present; you're trying to create the leading edge of knowledge, so there's always this question about, well so why would mainframes be part of that. Any academic on the platform will tell you unless they have a local business sponsor for what you're trying to do, integrating mainframe skills with the courses is going to take some ingenuity and effort. Let's put it that way and when we all meet up at some of the events—so there's ECC Marist that I've been to a couple of times. There are a few events in Europe where we all get together. We have very similar stories about the challenges of trying to interest the students in the platform and trying to interest the institution in supporting you with classes, so my path was, first, I just started including bits and pieces into the curriculum, but not necessarily officially. So there's a 20-credit module on mainframe. We'd have a database module and say, we'd do you know, 80% of it was about Oracle. I'd also say, OK, so we have this other database called Db2® that we'd like to have a look at so we could do some comparison, or you'd look at, say, using Python, and you'd say, okay well there's this other language called Rexx—
Reg: Oh, yeah.
Herbert: Which does a different kind of thing for a different platform and –
Reg: Well, of course, the author of Rexx lives not that far from you.
Herbert: Yeah, indeed. It has a local pedigree. It was really about interesting students in what was going on on the platform and a lot of that was around what these systems do and who they do them for. For certain types of student, the mainframe is a wondrous machine. Sometimes I say, look, there's people who like a mouth organ, there's people who like a church organ, and if you're a church organ kind of person, then mainframes are really, really cool. On the back of that interaction with the students, I help support a student society, which meant the students could take their mainframe learning in the directions that suited them. It didn't have to be something that they got necessarily a certificate for, but it was a way that they could create their own path to professional development. We'd often get local knowledgeable mainframe people who were always willing to come in and talk about their experiences. Some of them, we'd get them in remotely; some of them would come in and do some hands on. The students found this really interesting, really stimulating. It's built from there. 2019 was the second year of Champions and a good friend of mine based in the Netherlands, Henri Kuiper, became a Champion that year. We decided we'd do a little Champions tour, a Champions event, so we'd meet up in different places. He'd come over to Wolverhampton and we'd run a few events and we just found that was really, really fun, really interesting, really productive. The classic thing was the very first time he ran a two-day workshop. Off the back of that, we organized the students to have a little trip down to Hursley and one of them even got himself a job as a consultant with a local mainframe shop, so that was –
Herbert: That was really a big result for us in our first year, and we thought all right, okay, we'd like to do some more of that.
Reg: Now, when you went to Hursley, did you go to the actual CICS® development lab?
Herbert: Yeah, yeah. We had the full tour.
Reg: Oh, so nice. I'm jealous.
Herbert: Yeah, yeah. Well, come over sometime. We'll hopefully—
Reg: I should.
Herbert: All go together.
Herbert: Yeah. We saw the museum. We had a game where they'd all get together where they have some of the technologies. We saw the server room. Yeah, it was a really great time and for the students, I mean it really opens their eyes to the size and importance of the platform. You almost wish you could kind of take some of the other academics down there and you'd go look, see, I told you. Yes, this is a big deal. This has a real impact globally, and you'll probably hear the same from a lot of academics that one of the most rewarding things about the platform is that you can genuinely feel you're having an impact firstly on industry, and secondly on the career opportunities of the students that you're trying to bring into it.
Reg: Now, my sense is that that's one of the things you're planning to really benefit from now in your third year of being an IBM Champion for Zed that this is what you were telling me that it really opens up a lot of doors, and you have a lot more pathways open to you. Tell me about some of the ways that you're using your IBM Zed Champion status to really achieve new things.
Herbert: Well, part of it is—this is how we got in touch, Reg.
Herbert: I see you're a Zed Champion in Canada and I said, oh, well done. I hope it's all going well and there's a number of people kind of around the world who we've had contact and had some good chats about our experiences. It also gives you a bit of a voice. It gives you an opportunity to spread what you know, and the Champions team are really good about this. Whenever I do a talk, not necessarily for of Champions, it's for GSE, maybe it's for the university, maybe it's for some of the other people I work with. They will echo and amplify my voice and that's really helpful. Particularly as an academic, you're always having to justify how you spend your time and so if you can say, well, yeah I was doing this work and it reached this many people, or created this connection with industry and might create these opportunities for our students. In my world, that's actually something tangible. That's something I can bring to the table. We've been doing lots of talks lately, particularly around the recent crisis around the coronavirus and what might happen next. There's a long-standing project I've been working on on how you identify people who would probably enjoy a career on the platform. This is called Project WILMA, its first iteration, short for Will I Like Mainframe.
Herbert: It was really just a set of questions that would help you tease out whether the person in front of you would probably enjoy being on the platform, because one of the things I noticed early on is that who you think might obviously enjoy mainframe may not and who you’d guess probably wouldn't may well enjoy it a lot. Based on my experiences placing students on the platform and talking to kind of hiring managers late at night at some of these events and hearing their stories, their tales of joy and their tales of woe, we came up with this approach to get people talking about what they're interested in and that would maybe give you some insight into whether they'd like a career on the mainframe.
Reg: That's so cool. Is that something you could see becoming available outside of the UK?
Herbert: Yeah, I mean, at the moment it's quite informal and there's some ongoing work to try and formalize that, so based on some of the kind of standard indicators for people specifications and stuff like that. I mean, yeah at some point, I guess when we've got some results, we'll probably talk about that in quite a bit of detail. I'd even just say it's worth your while just thinking about it, just thinking about—
Herbert: What is it about the people that enjoy what they do that links them together. There's a very bright young mainframe star I know, and in her spare time, she likes to climb mountains. There’s this mountaineering spirit in mainframe where you have to be extremely risk averse, so you're very, very focused on the equipment and everything has got to be clean. Everything has got to be kind of clipped on properly.
Herbert: It's all about the teamwork, but at the same time you're doing these really ambitious things, so you're very brave and you're very daring but at the same time, you’re very risk-averse. It's interesting, the kind of features that you see in successful mainframers so it's really trying to have those conversations with people so that they can figure out early on, is this something that I'd enjoy?
Reg: Very cool. Well, this has been absolutely fascinating, and I know this is not even the tip of the iceberg. Although I have to say, I've got make this pun. It's like you're identifying “Bedrock” people. I meant to say bedrock-quality people who are mountain conquerors that fit with big iron.
Herbert: Yeah, that says it.
Reg: Yeah, literally, and being willing to go out into the elements. So then, any closing thoughts you had to share, anything that you especially want people to keep in mind?
Herbert: I did talk a little while ago, a couple of weeks back, about what's going to happen with the next generation of hiring. So, we're in 2020. We are slowly coming out of this very interesting crisis and what we do in the next couple of years around hiring on the platform is really going to define the decade. I'd encourage people to think about that, to think about what the mainframe brings to their organization in terms of resilience and security and think about how to win new people to the platform and how to win new work to the platform. Just have a think about it; see what we can do. I'm sure the conversation will develop over the next 18 months or so, but I think it's really, really important that we start to think about that right now.
Reg: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Herbert. This has been excellent.
Herbert: Thank you.
Reg Harbeck is a mainframe enthusiast who has worked IT and mainframes for over three decades. He's the chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics ltd.
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