On this episode of the “I Am a Mainframer” podcast, host Steven Dickens is joined by Benjamin Daniels, Cloud Solutions Engineer at Oracle. While an undergrad at North Carolina A&T State University, Ben’s professor for Java and mainframe classes was Dr. Cameron Seay. Dr. Seay because Ben’s formal mentor and opened the door to many opportunities for Ben, and they continue to stay in close touch.
After doing well in Dr. Seay’s Java class, Ben noticed that the other excelling students also participated in the Master the Mainframe Competition. Ben’s competitive nature — and his goal to be as attractive as possible to employers — inspired him to participate in the competition. Ben credits his competitive drive and curiosity to his continued growth.
During their conversation, Steven and Ben discuss how Ben’s career hasn’t followed the path of a traditional mainframer. However, the foundational mainframe education he got paved the way for an internship at Cisco, and a career rich with exciting opportunities now and in the future.
Connect with Ben on LinkedIn.
Announcer: This is the I Am a Mainframer podcast, brought to you by the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project. Episodes explore the careers of mainframe professionals, and offer insights into the industry and technology. Now, your host, Senior Analyst and Vice President of Sales and Business Development at Futurum Research, Steven Dickens.
Steven Dickens: Hello, welcome. My name is Steven Dickens and you are with us here today for the I Am a Mainframer podcast. I’m joined today by Ben Daniels. Ben, welcome to the show.
Ben Daniels: Thank you, thank you.
Steven Dickens: So I’ve heard a lot of good things about you from a good friend of mine, Cameron Seay. Tell the listeners a little bit about yourself, let’s just get started here, sort of position what you do today, and then we’ll use that as a jumping off point for the rest of the conversation.
Ben Daniels: Yeah, for sure. My name is Ben Daniels, like I said, originally from Syracuse, New York, graduated undergrad at North Carolina A&T State University, and that’s where I met Dr. Seay, or Cam. He was actually my professor for Java and a few mainframe classes, and wound up being my actual formal mentor, still is to this day, so we keep in pretty good touch.
Steven Dickens: So that’s how you’ve kind of come to the show here. Let’s go back, tell us a little bit about what you did at the college with Cam. If you don’t know Cameron Seay, as a listener, go Google this guy. Go find him, follow him on all of the social channels, literally one of the best professors out there in the mainframe space worldwide, I would say. But Ben, talk us through… You drop into his classes, just walk us through, because I know there’s a lot of students who listen to the show who are maybe thinking, “How do I get into the mainframe space?” What’s that first experience, if you will?
Ben Daniels: For sure. So back at A&T, the first class I had with Dr. Seay was a Java class. And funny story there is, I got 30s on the first two quizzes. So 30 and 30. I think he gave us 20 points for writing our name. He knew it was going to be a tough jump for us. But after that class, I actually wound up passing that class with a 93, I believe. So I’m like, “Okay, I was able to get over that hurdle, I like this professor, let’s see where this is going as well.” But I saw that all the other students that were doing well in my department were studying mainframe, or they were doing the Master the Mainframe competition at the time. And so I reached out and said, “Hey, I want to be a part of that too,” because I wanted to be as competitive as possible when it came to graduating and ultimately being prepared to get a job upon graduation.
Steven Dickens: It’s crazy that there’s a reaction there of get a job after you graduate, but that’s why you go, I suppose.
Ben Daniels: And it’s not guaranteed either. There’s a lot of people who graduate and they don’t have jobs. They wind up having to go back or trying to figure out, “Okay, look back, what did I miss?” And I wanted to make sure that I put myself in the best position possible upon graduation.
Steven Dickens: So we’ve had a few people on the show who’ve been on Master the Mainframe. We’ve had a past winner of the competition on the show a couple of years ago now. Describe that first experience, kind of logging onto a mainframe, having to do something just kind of… Because I think there’s… And the reason why I ask the question, there’s a bit of a perception that this platform’s kind of old hard to use, kind of there’s barriers to entry. You’ve got to kind of be super experienced. Was that your experience? Because I tend to hear it’s not, but I’m interested.
Ben Daniels: So no, that wasn’t my experience. The old piece, yes, it does seem old. It’s got that, it’s got a old feel because it’s the terminal, so there’s no gooey, you’re not seeing anything. So you log in, it’s the black screen, the boop, boop, boop, boop, boop, it’s just bouncing there and it’s like type in whatever you want to type in. But the Master the Mainframe competition for me was really educational because there’s directions up until there’s not. So there’s directions. They tell you what to do and then they’re like, “All right, now with what we taught, you do this.” And you’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” So you have to go figure it out. But it’s very educational from in that regard. But I was able… I completed part one and then I completed part two to get the T-shirt. I did not do part three. I wanted the T-shirt so I could walk around the department and say, “Hey, I’m one of you guys.”
Steven Dickens: Fantastic. So how did you find that sort of experience getting on the platform, understanding what it was? Was it kind of simple to figure it out once you’ve got some basic instructions, or was it harder?
Ben Daniels: It was a healthy challenge. I wouldn’t say it was easy or simple, but it was challenging as it should be, right? Master the Mainframe competition. So it is a competition, but it was doable. It’s not anything that I wouldn’t… It’s not daunting. I don’t think it’s elitist or anything like that, it’s out of reach, you have to have this coming in, but you don’t have to be willing to work, for sure.
Steven Dickens: So talk us through, you’ve obviously spent some time on the mainframe, Cameron, the team have sort of got you orientated. What did that mean for you as you were coming out and starting to think about graduating? I suppose, what opportunities did it give you and how did it set you up for future success?
Ben Daniels: Yeah, okay. So I wound up getting an internship at Cisco. I got that from the career fair at school. So Cisco wasn’t the mainframe, but since I stayed so lock and step with Dr. Seay in undergrad as my mentor, he wound up being able to take me to some conferences. So for instance, I wound up at Marist College, I went to North Carolina A&T. I wound up in Marist College because I’m originally from Syracuse. Marist College isn’t that far. So I wound up in Marist College during a break on my way home for the holidays and got to network and meet people there. Another time, another conference he took me to was the New York Institute of Technology, and I met… You know Len Santalucia?
Steven Dickens: I know Len very well.
Ben Daniels: There you go.
Steven Dickens: Great guy. Been on this show and I’d consider Len a friend of mine. Really great guy.
Ben Daniels: There you go. I mean exactly. I agree with all of that. We met at the New York Institute of Technology. There was a conference there and Dr. Seay didn’t have any blind budget or funds, but because I was on holiday and I’m from Syracuse, I said, I’ll stop in New York City on the way up. So I stopped in New York City on the way up, Len and his wife, took us to dinner. And so now I’m at dinner with the great Len Santalucia, because I took mainframe classes. And so just from a networking standpoint in meeting people’s standpoint, and I even spoke to Len recently, I was actually entertaining the idea of getting into mainframe. This was over the past year. I ultimately didn’t do it. I wound up in my current role now, which is a cloud engineer at Oracle, but just I met Len 10 years ago. So we’re talking about from 10 years ago, just from doing the mainframe, I still have people that I know today that I remember fondly, and hopefully they remember me fondly as well.
Steven Dickens: Well, I think you’re on the show, so Cam put you forward. So I think you can say that with some confidence. So I mean, you’ve ultimately not ended up on the mainframe technology platform, but I think what I’m picking up, and I want to just check I’m picking it up, is that as you were starting to make those early career moves, access to the mainframe, access to the mainframe community kind of helped you get started. Would that be a kind of fair summary, do you think?
Ben Daniels: So I actually did get offered a job, verbal offer at one of these conferences. The only reason I didn’t jump on it and really entertain it is because I had already accepted a job offer at GE, which is when I graduated. So there was tremendous opportunity there. It’s almost like it just never lined up, but the opportunity was there, the interest is there. I think mainframe is… It’s an amazing technology and I think it’s once… It’s just so vast. It’s one of those things I know that I’m only scratched the surface of it, even though I’ve taken two classes, even though I’ve been to these conferences, met people and all this stuff, I’ve only scratched the surface as far as the power of it and what it can do. And I always see it in the news. I follow Cam on LinkedIn. So it’s always growing. There’s more, there’s more, there’s more. But for me that there was opportunity there, it just didn’t line up. At different points in my life and in my short career so far I’ve had other opportunities that I felt were a better fit at the time.
Steven Dickens: So tell us what you’re doing now. You mentioned you’re at Oracle, what’s the role now? I think listeners and viewers will be interested to understand how you kind of came out of college, you’ve done the classic sort of jobs, you’ve had some mainframe in there. You mentioned maybe 10 years, what that ultimately led to? Where are you today?
Ben Daniels: A lot. So I started at GE in their IT leadership program. I worked there for about a year and a half. After, I decided to leave GE just because it wasn’t shaping up to what I thought it would be. You graduate college, they say something as a college grad, you don’t understand. Because you can’t translate… School isn’t the same as real life. And so I decided to leave there and I ultimately came to Washington DC area and started as a government contractor. So I became assistant engineer. That was a web-based application and I was on the sustainment team. So anytime anything went wrong with it, I’m digging in, splunk, checking the logs, what is going on, why isn’t this up right now? And doing those maybe every four hours doing a system check, making sure top to bottom, everything works. And that was for an electronic health records web-based application, and that’s supporting the government.
So I was supporting actually DOD and VA, so our veterans and the military there. But after that, I went and became an app dynamics engineer because I got a little bit of an introduction to AppDynamics while I was in the first role. Leveraged that to become an app dynamics engineer, supporting department of state. After that, I wound up supporting the Intel community as a senior data engineer. I was actually a data analyst as well, so I got familiar with MongoDB, NoSQL and all of that. But all of my foundation from just my IT degree, it plugged right in. I was able to pick stuff up and everything like that. And I believe it would be the same if and when I was to get into a mainframe role. But most recently, to answer your question, I’m a cloud solutions engineer now.
Steven Dickens: And working for Oracle, helping. Is that internally within Oracle or is that working with Oracle’s clients?
Ben Daniels: It’s in working with clients. So it’s actually a sales role. So it’s client facing, but it’s very exciting. I just started over there, hasn’t even been a year yet, so I’m learning a ton. But I also have the AWS solution architect associate certification from my data engineer role. So that plays a role in the here. So I already have a cloud foundation, so now I’m learning Oracle’s cloud. But I mean in technology there’s just… It’s endless.
Steven Dickens: There’s so much to learn, right?
Ben Daniels: Yes.
Steven Dickens: There’s so much to learn. But I mean, the way I listen to that, Ben is made some early moves, got out of college with a strong foundation and know Cam and the team there run a great program. But I think you’ve been able, what I’m listening to is that you’ve moved around, changed technologies, that there’s not been those barriers, like I’m a mainframe guy, I’m a MongoDB guy, I’m an AppDynamics guy. You’ve been able to kind of pivot and move to different technologies. Why do you think that is? Is that just curiosity, to learn some of the fundamentals that Cam and the team gave you? Where would you pin that down to?
Ben Daniels: I’m competitive. That’s it. I’m competitive and I don’t know what I don’t know. And I know that there is a lot out there that I don’t know. So I’m very curious, very competitive. And so if an opportunity presents itself, I try to look at it honestly and say, “Hey, is this a good opportunity? Should I seize this?” And just try to say yes to as many things in life that makes sense because ultimately that’ll make me more well-rounded and more competitive.
Steven Dickens: Well, I think that curiosity… I’ve had people at the ends of their careers who’ve maybe retired out of the mainframe after sort of 40, 45 years on this show. I’ve had younger professionals. I think the consistent theme that kind of comes through from the people who are successfully building their careers is that curiosity point that you mentioned. You have willingness to… “Hey, I’m maybe out of my comfort zone here, but I see something that’s interesting.” Well, I mean maybe if there’s some examples of things that you can talk about there.
Ben Daniels: Yeah, I think that brings me back to those mainframe classes. There was the curiosity there. What does that T-shirt mean? Why these guys are just wearing T-shirts around the department and they’re whispers and all that. “Oh, we’re doing this. We’re doing that.” I’m like, I had that curiosity, not the arrogance of, “Oh, I got it all figured out. I’m good. I have a good GPA.” Whatever. It’s like, “What’s that?” So jumping in led to everything that I said earlier and then even the curiosity and the challenging myself to try to become an AppDynamics engineer after only dealing with it in a limited capacity at the previous role, opportunity presented itself, said, “All right, let’s try that. Let’s challenge myself for that and to do that.”
And it’s just my current role. It’s my first role in sales. It’s a challenge. I’ve got a lot of friends though from school who are in sales now, and it’s, “Can you introduce me to someone?” That’s that curiosity. I want to understand the sales process. And so I probably went through 30 interviews, no offers. All within Cisco for sales. Got to keep going. Ultimately, I applied at the Oracle job and got right in. But I credit those 30 interviews for getting me comfortable enough and competent enough to ultimately pass that Oracle interview.
Steven Dickens: And I think we are… As I say, we have a lot of younger listeners, people who are starting to think about that career in technology. I think there’s a couple of key themes. I mean, continuing to go through the process, continuing to put in the work, continuing to go through 13 interviews, be unsuccessful in all of them. Sorry to mention it again.
Ben Daniels: No, no, no. The story is real.
Steven Dickens: The process. You’ve got to put in the work. And then I think that curiosity’s a good sort of foundation. I’ve heard it said on this podcast, but it’s always worth repeating. I think putting that curiosity out there. And I can say that from my own career as well, being able to go, “Okay, I’m way past the end of my skis here. I’m just going to double down on the research, double down on the knowledge, double down on the reading.” Find some mounting guides as I call them who’ve walked this path before and go and get them to sort of sit down and… I had a pleasure of sitting opposite an IBM distinguished engineer when I worked for IBM. He was deep, deep, deep in the core technology and I was in sort of product management and customer facing roles.
And I used to often bounce into his office and go, “Okay, you’re just going to have to help me here. What is this piece of technology? Just like I’m a five-year-old, explain it to me.” And you would think I’ve… And I probably spent six or seven years sitting opposite this guy and you would think he wouldn’t be willing to continue to put up with me, but he’s like, “You’re curious. You’re asking the right questions. You’re trying to learn.” A great mentor for me and somebody who was prepared to spend the time. So I think you had Cameron and sounds like continues to use Cameron for that role.
Ben Daniels: Yeah. To add to that, I would say, especially for those younger listeners, you got to take ownership right of that because that IBM distinguished engineer, he’s not going to go out and pull you into his office and say, “Hey, I’m working on some really interesting stuff here.” You had to go in and pop in on your own. And that’s what sparks that growth. And it’s the same for me and Dr. Seay. I said, “Hey, I want to come meet in your office.” And I just asked him, I said, “Hey, I’d like you to be my mentor.” And he said, “What?” He said, “I’m your professor.” This is literally how the conversation went.
And he said, “I’m humbled for you to make that request or think of me that, but I don’t…” Basically, “What do you want?” And I said, “I don’t know. You got connections to the industry, you know what’s going on.” I said, “Let’s meet every two weeks. I’ll update you on what I’m doing and you can update me. Let me know if there’s anything you think I should be involved in or whatever.” He said, “Okay, that’ll work.” And as a result, every two weeks we would meet for 30 minutes, an hour. And then he say, “Hey, I got a conference coming up, you can come if you want to.” That’s how those conferences happened. But I had to sit down with him and say, “Hey, I’m hungry. I want to do more.”
Steven Dickens: And I think that’s the key thing. Those opportunities are out there. Those distinguished engineers sit just fortuitously are there, those professors are there. Those people are in these positions. We’re always willing to help in my experience and it sounds like the same from yours. But they’re not a formal program. There’s not a kind of, “Hey, on a Wednesday afternoon, my office is open, please come in. There’s a sign posted.” There’s not that stuff there. And I think people look for that. And oftentimes, and I think our discussion here proves it. You’ve got to go find it. It’s on you to own the opportunity. Some of the people who’ve worked with me and my crew is like, “Hey, I need help. Can you help me?” And like, say yes, I think.
Ben Daniels: Yeah. And if they can’t, that’s also good information because now you can to move on to somebody else.
Steven Dickens: Well, and oftentimes they’ll go, “It’s not me who can help you with that, but I know somebody. Let me introduce you.” And that’s how the networking works. So I mean, great discussion, Ben. I mean, I always ask on these shows, and I’m really interested to understand your perspective with what your current job role is. You’ve had exposure to the mainframe. Where do you see that platform sort of 5, 6, 7 years out from that?
Ben Daniels: Just more modernized. I think it’s going to continue to grow. I think that it’s going to… I don’t know. I haven’t sneak sneaking suspicion that it’s going to wind up becoming more of a household name and more people are going to know about it. And that’s if nothing else, because of what we just saw with the airline industry. Everybody at those flights, it just went down. What happened? What was that? And my brain, because I know the mainframe is the foundation for airlines and banks and things like that, or has been for a long time. I’m thinking, “Did they try a migration? Did they try to migrate the cloud or something?” And so as those things start to happen, people are going to be more educated and more exposed to, “Hey, by the way, the mainframe is running all this stuff.” And I think that’s an opportunity that IBM will probably capitalize on. Because IBM has a cloud as well, so now they’re going to be able to play both sides of the fence. You can do the mainframe or you can do cloud.
Steven Dickens: Well, I think it’s going to be interesting for me, the way I look at that is the mainframe’s going to become part of that cloud story. I don’t see it as an either/or. I see it as a hybrid. It’s either connecting a mainframe to a cloud, but where are IBM’s going with some of its development is to have IBM in the mainframes in the cloud so that it’s less of an on premise structure. It’s actually in the cloud. Some of the things they’re doing with stuff are really in interesting for me. And one of the other questions, and we’ve spent a bit of time on it in the show, you’ve got a great perspective, I think, to answer this question. What advice would you be giving to the sort of 22 year old Ben Daniels, you sort of forging your way out into the market? We’ve got to, as I say, a lot of younger listeners and watches to the show. What would you be saying to those people maybe taking their first step into the market and their career?
Ben Daniels: It’s as I’m actually thinking it through. On one hand, I would say slow down, slow down a hundred percent. But at the same time… Yeah, it’s almost like you want to slow down with your movement and activity so that you can really understand where you’re at and get a better understanding of the opportunities that you actually have. Because sometimes you move too fast. Looking back at myself, laser focused. I want to be go, go, go, go, go. But there are tremendous opportunities to meet people, to ask questions, to ask more questions, and to really get to know people and build relationships. Sometimes you’ll move too fast when you’re younger and you miss opportunities to build relationships that can be very valuable moving forward. And you can also be valuable to others. But if you’re moving too fast, then you don’t have enough time for that relationship to build.
Steven Dickens: I think that’s great advice. And that’s the first time somebody said that. I think everybody’s like on this churn. They want to move fast, they want to… What’s the next role? What’s the next course? What’s the next certification? What’s next? What’s next? And I think that that’s really good feedback. Maybe take a breath, spend some time in the moment. Really spend some time thinking. Ben, this has been a fantastic conversation. Really great to have you on the show.
Ben Daniels: No, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you for having me.
Steven Dickens: So you’ve been listening to the I Am a Mainframer podcast. Please click and subscribe, and if you like the show, give us a great rating. We’ll see you next time. Thanks very much.
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