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I am a Mainframer: Anne McKee

By | February 16, 2021

In today’s episode of the “I Am A Mainframer” podcast, Steven Dickens sits down with Anna Mckee, Db2 for Z/OS Systems Programmer, at IBM Z Dallas ISV Center. On this podcast, Anna discusses her journey with the mainframe,  the Master the Mainframe Program, and where she sees the Mainframe going in the future.

Listen now!

Steven Dickens: Hello and welcome to the I’m a Mainframer Podcast. My name is Steven Dickens. This podcast is brought to you by the Open Mainframe Project, and a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project focused on open-source adoption on the mainframe platform. I’m joined today by somebody I’ve spoken to before and had the pleasure of hosting a Facebook live game show with. So hopefully, today’s going to be a little bit slicker and a little bit more organized. Hello, Anna. Welcome to the show.

Anna McKee: Hi, and thank you for having me.

Steven Dickens: So Anna, if you could start, give our listeners just a view of you as a guest. Your background, why we’ve invited you onto the show, get us orientated and get us started if you don’t mind.

Anna McKee: Yeah, of course. So I graduated from the University of North Texas with a bachelor’s of science in business computer information systems and a bachelor’s of business administration and decision sciences. I have introduced to the Master the Mainframe competition in one of my mainframe courses at school, which led me to become the first woman to win Master the Mainframe and also be a back-to-back Master the Mainframe winner for the 2017 and 2018 contest. I hired on with IBM about a year ago, and I am a DB2 for Z Os Systems Programmer.

Steven Dickens: So Anna, as I said, I got the pleasure of interviewing you and a couple of your fellow contestants for the Master the Mainframe back. I think we were trying to work at pre-show, whether it was 2018 or 2017, but maybe give us a view, if you don’t mind, of what Master the Mainframe was. I think you were a first double winner or first back to back winner?

Anna McKee: Yeah, I’m not sure, but Master the mainframe is a student competition, and it consists of three different parts. The parts get increasingly more difficult as you go through them, and it is built for people who don’t have skills in the mainframe, and it’s also people built for or built for people who have skills in the mainframe. So it encapsulates a huge audience where anyone can participate in it.

Steven Dickens: So talk us through how you found Master the Mainframe, what that first exposure to the mainframe was as a platform. There are many people who listen to the show who have maybe got a career in the mainframe. But I think what I’m most interested in is you’re still relatively new to the platform, so really keen to understand what it was like first coming to the mainframe. We hear many misconceptions, so I suppose I’m keen to understand what your first initial experience was.

Anna McKee: Yeah. So I have introduced to the Master the Mainframe contest in one of my college courses, and my first impression of it was, “Wow, this is… It’s old.” Because I was thinking looking at the green screen and it’s the lime green letter it was in the black background. You’re like, “Wow, okay, let’s see what we can do with this.” And I was thinking, when you’re first entering it, it seems kind of like outdated technology, but the more that you get into it, you see how amazing it is. You see how powerful it is and secure and reliable and the zero downtime of it. And so my first impression, I was a little skeptical at first, but when I started participating in Master the Mainframe, that’s when I started to get an appreciation for the mainframe.

Anna McKee: So I first participated in Master the mainframe. I did three years, and the first year I didn’t do so hot. It took me about a month or two to complete all the challenges in part two, and I didn’t continue forward with part three. And once I was done with part two, I think there were only a few days left of the competition. So I made it a goal for the next year’s contest to do my best and get through all three parts of the contest. So, next year’s contest comes around. I spend a good portion of my time getting all of the challenges done. To me, it was really tough, but I knew I had to persevere, which ended up paying off because I was the first place winner in North America and was the first woman to be a winner. Having that introduction to the mainframe really helps me see how important it is today and how important it is to our economy and how important it is and will be in the future.

Steven Dickens: So unpack for us a little; obviously, thousands of people do Master the Mainframe every year; what did those three phases involve? What were the tasks you were set, and did they evolve over the three years you did it? So I’ve be really keen; we’ll probably have a bunch of people listening to the podcast who are maybe thinking about doing Master the Mainframe as it comes up the next cycle. So maybe tell them what to expect. What’s going to be that journey? What are those three modules?

Anna McKee: Yeah, yeah. So it’s three parts. The first part is usually just getting some basic knowledge of what a mainframe is, understanding how to navigate in ISPF. In the second part, you’ll start getting to some of the coding challenges, JCL, Java, C++. The instructions really tell you what needs to be done. So as long as you follow the instructions, you won’t have a hard time with it. But then when you get into part three, the instructions become a little looser, and that’s where you are starting to require to think outside of the box, have a little bit of creativity. Then when it comes to the final challenge, that’s where they’ll give you some skeleton program or skeleton instructions of what should be done. And that’s where you really want to harness that creativity and those skills you’ve learned in part one and part two, and utilize that and create the final challenge.

Anna McKee: And it’s really based on what you want it to be. There’s no specific way that it should be done. And it’s really cool because you can put anything that you want into this program and really start to use your skills and showcase what knowledge you’ve had, and then it gets judged.

Steven Dickens: So talk us through you go on and win in, was it 2017 and then again in 2018?

Anna McKee: Mm-hmm, yeah.

Steven Dickens: What’s that meant to you? Obviously, you’ve joined IBM, and probably that’s got part of… There’s definitely a link between those two, but I’d be keen to just pull on that thread a little and understand you go win this contest, you win it again, what has that meant so far for you? What’s been the payoff, I suppose, is my question.

Anna McKee: Yeah, so winning the 2017 and 2018 contest really got my name out into the Z Community. And so I had a lot of employers reach out to me on internships, full-time employment. So winning this competition put me in this sort of spotlight, and it allowed employers to come and reach out to me, and typically whenever you graduate college, you’re hopeful that you get one job offer. And so, by the time I was done with my senior year, I had so many phenomenal job offers. I really didn’t know what to do. And so while winning has its benefits, there are also its challenges as well because the downside was, is that I had multiple phenomenal job offers. And so it was a really tough decision to figure out where I wanted to go after I graduated from college.

Steven Dickens: I suppose with the rest of our listeners right now thought, “That’s a first-world problem to have

Anna McKee: Yes, exactly.

Steven Dickens: So I suppose I don’t have much sympathy, and I don’t think our listeners will for, “I had multiple great job offers.”

Anna McKee: Oh, no. Definitely.

Steven Dickens: I’m joking there, Anna. I think it’s fantastic to hear about that journey. So you join IBM, you’re joining us in the DB2 space. Tell our listeners what that’s been like, coming out of college. As you mentioned, you’ve got these fantastic job offers, as an IBM. I’m really glad that you took the job to come and join us and in the mainframe space, but it really gives us a view of that transition from student to early professional.

Anna McKee: Yeah. So what Master the Mainframe provided me was basic fundamental skills in the mainframe. Having those fundamental skills and then also skills that I learned from my college courses, I was able to just jump right into the work. In my third week on the job, I assisted with setting up DB2 data sharing, and I obviously wasn’t much help, but I was the driver who was setting it up. Having a little bit of previous knowledge of DB2 and being comfortable navigating in ISPF helps me retain more information even though most of the time, I had no clue what was going on. And with that information that I retained, two to three months later, I set up DB2 data sharing all on my own. And I was a bit intimidated entering the workforce at first, but with me having a strong foundation of those basic skills, I was able to flourish and start building upon those skills that I had already learned.

Steven Dickens: So what does IBM have you doing now? What does a typical… This is a really inspiring story and an inspiring journey for some of the Master the Mainframe people who are taking it today. A lot of people are looking to build a career in the mainframe. So you’re kind of… What are you? A year into IBM now, is that roughly where you are?

Anna McKee: Yeah, About a year. Yes.

Steven Dickens: So, what does a typical day look for you today? You’re in the DB2 space in our database development team. What does that look like as a day today?

Anna McKee: Yeah, so my day today, it’s different every day, but the base of it remains the same, and that’s supporting our ISVs or Independent Software Vendors. So my team works to deliver and support mainframe technology for ISVs. And so, some of my tasks include setting up DB2 data sharing, applying monthly maintenance to our vendor systems, customizing DB2 on vendor systems, and then just, in general, supporting our vendors to be successful in what they do.

Steven Dickens: So I know it’s been fantastic… And I knew parts of this story, but it’s been good to sort of pull some of that out and get our listeners to listen in. Where do you see… It sounds like you’ve been on a roller coaster over the last two or three years. Where do you see that roller coaster for you personally, and then I’ll come on to a couple of other questions, but where do you see that roller coaster for you personally for the next couple of years?

Steven Dickens: What’s next?

Anna McKee: Yeah, I really don’t know what’s next. For me, I just want… I’m in that position where I just want to learn as much as possible. I want to absorb all of the mainframe material, and I don’t know where that will take me. I mean, I would hope that I’m still somewhere in the mainframe realm, obviously, but I just I’m at this point where I just want to absorb as much as I can, and I don’t know where that next step will be, but I’m excited to see what will happen.

Steven Dickens: Okay. So that kind of leads on to one of my next questions, and you’re relatively new still to the start of your career. But one of the questions I consistently ask of our guests is, what advice would you give to your younger self? And I normally phrase that coming out of college, but I think I’d maybe move that time horizon just a little further forward and say, maybe you’re at college, you’re thinking about college. What would that advice you would give? Did you get the chance to wind the clock back five or six years? What advice would you be giving yourself back then?

Anna McKee: Yeah, so I would definitely tell myself, “Don’t back down from a challenge, and to have confidence in yourself,” and that’s something that I’m still learning today and, “Technology isn’t as scary as it seems.” When I first entered college, and I started to go down this technology path, I thought I wasn’t smart enough to do the work. And so that really deterred me from thinking that, “Oh, I belong here. I belong in this realm.” Still, I had really strong female role models in my life like my sister and my mom, who are both in technology, and they showed me that if you put in hard work you can, and you will be successful in this area. And so there are times when it does get a little scary, but it’s usually the scary things that end up having the biggest payoff.

Steven Dickens: You mentioned something there, and there’s many women in tech pieces, and we’re going to be doing more on that. I’ve volunteered to do some stuff to shape how the open mainframe project’s thinking about that space. It’s a big topic for us as we try and bring in other communities and engage and reshape what the mainframe looks like. What’s it been like as that first female winner? You touched on a couple of strong role models there. Just maybe unpack that a little for our listeners. What that specifically means as a young woman joining into the workplace and coming through that journey if you don’t mind.

Anna McKee: Yeah. So when I learned that I was the first woman to win Master the Mainframe, I was a little bit taken aback by it because I did have those strong role models in my life, and I was looking to them, and they were really successful and so when they told me like, “Oh, you’re the first female winner.” I’m like, “Well, that’s odd because why hasn’t this been done before? How am I the first one to be the first female to win?” That showed me that even though we’re getting a bunch of women into the field of technology, we still have a long way to go to retain and keep women in the technology workforce. And so, yeah, I was a little bit taken aback, but I would just tell… If I were to advise younger women that are entering, it is the same advice I’d give to my younger self, “Don’t be scared. Have confidence in yourself, and persevere, and you will be successful in this career.”

Steven Dickens: You kind of answered the question I was going to ask. And I feel almost bad in asking it this way, but specifically, as a woman, what’s been that experience? What’s been that getting into the mainframe space? Personally, I’m surprised as you were that… When we first met, I was meeting you as the first female winner of the Master the Mainframe, and that felt odd to me too, that it’s like, “Okay, this is 2017. That feels like we should have broken through that ceiling already,” but maybe give us a bit more depth on that. I think there’s a lot of women who listen to the show. There’s many women that we’re trying to speak to and get more involved and take an active role in the open mainframe project. So maybe just embellish on your answer there and give us a little bit more… How that’s been, particularly coming into IBM, might be a thread to pull on.

Anna McKee: Well, I feel extremely lucky because the Z Community is so welcoming, and it was like that from day one, and I still feel welcome to this day. And I know that many other women don’t have that sort of feeling; they don’t really have that community behind them. Being in the Z Community has just been amazing because I feel welcomed 100% of the time, and I’ve never had a bad experience. And I’m really proud to be in a community that accepts everyone and is willing to help out in any way. Everyone knows that people in the Z Community have many stories, and they love to tell their stories. And it’s awesome because you can just absorb all of their knowledge, and I feel like I’m in a position where I’m extremely lucky because there is such a strong community that is supportive and, yeah.

Steven Dickens: Well, I mean the name of the show is the I Am a Mainframer. And I think that genuinely it’s not just the name of the show. I think there genuinely is something in that that we are a community.

Anna McKee: Yes.

Steven Dickens: Obviously, we’ve got the open mainframe project as a formal gathering place if you will for that community, but I genuinely do think you are a mainframer.

Anna McKee: Oh, yeah

Steven Dickens: So, Anna, you mentioned that coming into the community, you mentioned what it means to be a mainframer. The show’s obviously called I Am a Mainframer. You talked about how well the community’s been and how they’ve welcomed you into this mainframe of community. Just unpack that a little bit for me if you don’t mind. Just tell me a little bit about what you think it means to be a mainframer and really what you’ve seen coming into that community as still a relatively new member. What’s that meant?

Anna McKee: Yeah, so mainframers, they’re very, very welcoming, and they let you…

Steven Dickens: It’s hard to put a feeling on it, isn’t it?

Steven Dickens: There is a bit of an X factor. There’s a weirdness to this community, I think. And I mean that obviously in a positive way. I see the multi-generational nature in the platform, and you see people like yourself who were just welcomed through with open arms at some of the events and some of the places when we used to gather in person back in the good old days. It’s a really interesting dynamic. You can have worked for different companies. You can be competitors. It’s not linked to a company.

Steven Dickens: It’s linked to a platform. And it’s a really weird dynamic, I think. You could be a mainframer who works for Broadcom, a mainframer who works for IBM, a mainframer who works for one of our business partners. You could be a mainframer for any of those companies working on completely different technologies. You could be on the Linux side; you could be in DB2. But they still that common layer, that mainframe layer. Would you agree? Would you say the same

Anna McKee: Oh yeah, definitely. I totally agree. It’s not a company that you belong to. It’s the platform that you belong to. And when you go to mainframe events, everyone’s talking about the platform. They’re not talking about, oh, how great their company is and what they’re doing. And I think it’s really cool to see how we all bond on this one piece of technology and not necessarily are divided by which company we belong to.

Steven Dickens: Yeah. For me, that’s an interesting piece. You could be a DB2 tools person for Broadcom and a DB2 tools person for IBM, you’re on the booth during the day selling your products, and then you’ll see those two people in the bar with a couple of other former colleagues, and they’ve been friends for 20 years, and there’s that common bond of they are a mainframer. But their day job is to compete with each other tooth and nail in a small market to compete, to win business. So it’s a really interesting dynamic that, as you said, where we’re all mainframers.

Anna McKee: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I definitely agree.

Steven Dickens: So I mean, as we come to wrap up, Anna, this has been fantastic. As I said, we met a few years back, and it’s good to hear that that was the start of the journey. This kind of feels like the next point on it. One of the questions I always ask the guests on the show is, where do you see that next three to five years out? So I give you the archetypal crystal ball, the mists clear, and you get to see where the business and were being a mainframer is three to five years out. Where do you see the platform?

Anna McKee: I think that the platform will be extremely important in the future. I believe that mission-critical data will still reside on the mainframe years into the future. I also think AI and machine learning will become more prevalent and integrated in Z. And not a lot of technologies that are used today can say that they’ve been around for 70 years. And that’s the really cool thing about IBM Z how it has morphed over the decades. And I believe that IBM Z is one of the most sophisticated and diverse technologies out there. It’s not only the security, scalability, and zero downtime that has kept it around for so many years. It is its adaptability.

Steven Dickens: I would agree. I would agree. I mean, I think that the data center of gravity and the mission-critical data is going to be central to the platform, as it has been for those last 70 years, for the next few decades, at least going forward. Anna, that’s been a fantastic conversation. I’m glad we were able to reconnect. I think listening to your journey and some of the points you mentioned has just been fantastic for me, and I hope for our listeners. So thank you very much for joining us.

Anna McKee: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Steven Dickens: So, my name is Steven Dickens. You’ve been listening to the I Am a Mainframer Podcast, brought to you by the Open Mainframe Project and a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project. If you like what you’ve heard today, please click and subscribe to the podcast, and hopefully, we’ll see you next time. Thank you very much for listening.