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Akeem Brooks: I am a Mainframer

By | September 27, 2017

In our eighth “ I AM A Mainframer” interview series, Jeffrey Frey, Retired IBM Fellow, chats with Akeem Brooks, Akeem is a Junior Information Technology Student at North Carolina A&T State University and also a mainframe engineer. Jeff and Akeem discuss innovation and how it applies to the mainframe Industry. Akeem also CLASSIC MODEshares a few in-depth stories and offers some advice on how got involved in the IBM’s Master the Mainframe Contest.

You can listen the full recording and read the transcript of the interview below.

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Jeffrey Frey:  Hello. I’m Jeffrey Frey. I’m a retired IBM Fellow and previously the CTO of IBM’s mainframe platform and a long time mainframe enthusiast. Today I’m very pleased to host the I Am A Mainframer conversation series, sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project. By The Linux Foundation Collaborative Project, the Open Mainframe Project is intended to help create a mainframe-focused, open-source technical community. It’s also intended to serve as a focal point for the development and use of Enterprise Linux in a mainframe computing environment. The goal of the project is to excite the Linux community around the use of a mainframe and to foster collaboration across the mainframe community, to help and exploit shared Linux toolsets, resources, and services in the mainframe environment.

In addition, the project seeks to involve participation of academic institutions to help assist in creating educational programs and of developing mainframe Linux engineers and the developers of tomorrow. For today’s conversation, we have the privilege of speaking with Akeem Brooks. Akeem is a Junior Information Technology Student at North Carolina A&T State University and also a mainframe engineer. Akeem, welcome to the broadcast. It’s a real pleasure to talk with you today.

Akeem Brooks: Thank you for having me.

Jeffrey Frey: Maybe to get started, we can talk a little bit about Linux on the mainframe and Linux in the Enterprise. Give us some background on what you do, your career, and how you got into the mainframe ecosystem and what it means to be a mainframe engineer.

Akeem Brooks:  Okay. It all started when I was little. I grew up loving technology and I also loved the medical field. When I got to high school, had to make that decision, whether I was going towards the medical field or towards technology. My oldest brother, Rashad, he actually went through that. He was actually in the IT program at A&T State University as well and he know that I had a passion for technology. He told me to join IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest that they have every year. He said, “Just do part one. If you like that, you should definitely go towards the technology career.” My junior year in high school, I signed up, I did part one, and I really enjoyed it. Before then, I had no idea what a mainframe was at all and that just sparked something in my brain. I was like, “Yes, technology is where I’m going,” and specifically mainframe.

I kept doing the Master the Mainframe contests and the last year, my sophomore year, I did part two. I did it twice because in my mainframe class I had to do it as well. I did it twice and I completed it successfully, and I got the IBM badge. I just finished up my first internship with Fidelity Investments and I was a mainframe engineer, I was working on a mainframe for three months. It was just great. To be a mainframe engineer, it’s like I have an important play in society because the whole entire world depends on the mainframe. If the mainframe were to go down, which it won’t because of 99.999% availability, the whole economy would shut down. People don’t realize how important the mainframe is in the world and that they use it every single day in any way, shape, or form, you’re using the mainframe somehow if you’re using technology. That’s how I got where I am today.

Jeffrey Frey:  That’s really cool. We’ve got kind of a long history. When I was at IBM, I spent 32 years there, and the mainframe contest was always really a successful program for IBM. I met a lot of very interesting, cool students who have a similar story to yours, which is once they get exposed to the platform and once they get exposed to its relevance in the world and literally how modern that platform is, which I think surprises a lot of people when they first get into it, they have a very similar experience to the one you had. I’m really happy to hear that. The mainframe does continue to be an important piece of IT infrastructure that runs the world’s economy, even today.

Akeem Brooks: Yes.

Jeffrey Frey: That’s really cool. Now as a mainframe engineer, in the internship that you’re doing, are you programming or are you in an operations role? What exactly are you doing?

Akeem Brooks: I’m a programmer. I created some COBOL programs. I created a batch program. I created one program that had input files, so it was input-file driven. I created some COBOL programs that were DB2 driven. I even created an input-output module program, which is online. I created another COBOL program to compare two files and try to catch the missing values on each file, when they didn’t match up. I used a lot of JCL and a lot of DB2. I’m definitely a programmer.

Jeffrey Frey: Good, good. I’m showing my age here, but back in 1980, I had a co-op when I was in school. I went to RIT, the Rochester Institute of Technology. I co-oped at DuPont. I had a similar experience. I was working on projects with CICS, with a [kick 00:06:27] system. Once you get your hands on a system like that and you see what it can do, like you, I became hooked immediately. I knew that this was the thing that was going to sustain me and give me so much pleasure in terms of my career. I’m really happy to hear how enthusiastic you are and how it’s working out. That’s great.

Akeem Brooks: Yes, like you said, once you get on that platform, it’s just amazing. You really are doing something very important in the world. I love what I do. Some people take jobs and they don’t really love what they’re doing, they just do it for the money or whatever. No, I’m really enthusiastic about the mainframe. I really love it.

Jeffrey Frey: Let me ask you, Akeem, you mentioned the mainframe as kind of a reputation for its reliability. When I was doing architecture for IBM on the [System B 00:07:46] platform, I know that we take a lot of pride in those kinds of, what we refer to as the quality of service of a platform, the security, the performance and the scalability of the platform, the economies of scale, and certainly the availability of a platform. I assume you see value in those characteristics of the mainframe, as opposed to other platforms. Talk about that. As time goes on, it seems like those qualities of mainframe are almost taken for granted in some ways. In other ways, I think people who think about the mainframe, who haven’t really been exposed to it, don’t actually realize how secure it is and how available it is, and how reliable this platform is.

Akeem Brooks: Yes. All the characteristics of the mainframe, reliability, availability, and scalability, like you said, and people really don’t understand or they take it for granted, the reliability of the mainframe. I hear a lot of companies trying to move towards distributive servers and distributive server is not reliable. It’s not going to be available 99.9999% of the time. If you’re having a whole bunch of workloads on a server, it’s going to overload. It’s definitely going to go down at some point. With the mainframe, it’s rare. It has to be like a blue moon or something out there for that to happen. That’s really important because the mainframe has a lot of data in the world, important data, too. It has to be up all the time and running securely. It’s definitely secure, which is also one of the great features of the mainframe.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah. I assume you’re aware of the recent announcement and availability of IBM’s newest model of mainframe. One of the things I think they really focused on with this new machine was security. In particular, advancing the already superior encryption and crypto capabilities of the machine. In today’s environment, security is just becoming more and more important, as time goes on. It’s one of the key characteristics of the mainframe and its software. Hardware and software is to make sure that client data and client’s assets are secure and can be managed in such a way that they’re not compromised by threats.

Akeem Brooks: Yes, definitely. It’s the Z14, yes, this is nice. At the SHARE conference, I was actually able to take a picture with it. It was amazing. Kind of want to hang it up in my room.

Jeffrey Frey: I’m going to have to give you my … You have my email. I want to see that. I want to see that picture. I’ve got a few of those on my own. We’ll trade pictures, back and forth.

Akeem Brooks: All right, sounds great.

Jeffrey Frey:  We share a perspective on the advantages and characteristics of this platform, but I think you probably share my observation that there are still professionals in the world and students even that are either not aware of the mainframe or have a perception of the mainframe that isn’t accurate in my opinion, in terms of its abilities, the technology that’s been integrated into this platform. I think in some circles it’s viewed as not modern or not equipped to handle the stress of today’s workloads, or it’s not capable of supporting the development environments or programming environments, or even operational environments that are emerging in today’s IT shops. How do we get the word out? How do we inform people and help people to better understand the value of this platform? How do we get IT professionals, who can benefit from the use of the mainframe, how do we best inform them and educate them, and get them interested in this platform?

Akeem Brooks: I would strongly advise people to take a look into IBM’s Master Mainframe Contest. It just opened up a few days ago and I’m going to be doing it, I’m going to be working on it all weekend. That will really get your foot in the door and you’ll really be able to see the mainframe, you’ll be able to learn about it, as you’re working on those challenges. It explains to you the reports of the mainframe, the different capabilities and everything about the mainframe. A lot of universities, they don’t even offer a mainframe course; they just do JAVA, JAVA data structure, and everything like that, but there’s no mainframe courses. That’s why I really appreciate [Say-d 00:13:51] bringing the mainframe course to North Carolina A&T State University. There is only a few other universities out there, maybe five or six other universities, that have a mainframe course. Having a mainframe course, you’ll really learn about the mainframe, how important it is in the world. It will really intrigue you and then you’ll want to go toward the mainframe.

I think professionals, you should definitely take a look at the SHARE conference. If you go to the SHARE conference, you will learn about the mainframe and the future of the mainframe and the different cool things that they’re doing on the mainframe that you wouldn’t even know about.

Jeffrey Frey: I think one way, certainly, that’s very helpful in getting people acquainted with the mainframe and to break out of the stereotypical perception that some people may have is to have people like you do what we’re doing today, which is to talk about this and talk about its value, and talk about its modern capabilities, and to make people aware that this is a platform that’s ready to do work and it’s cost effective. In particular, we didn’t talk about this at all really, but the mainframe is … I think one of the things that people need to understand is just how well suited the mainframe is for today and today’s emerging workloads, whether it be service orientation and cloud computing or the kinds of analytics that are being introduced into business systems today. Of course, as a part of the Linux Foundation and the Open Mainframe Project, a major focus is on the advancements and the use of Linux on the platform. I’ve met people who are even, I would consider well informed about the mainframe, who don’t necessarily even appreciate the fact that Linux runs so well on the platform and it’s literally a completely standard Linux environment, with all of the Linux personalities, development environments, operational environments that people would expect out of a Linux type of environment on any platform. We’ve got to spread the word. I think you’re doing your share to make that happen and it’s very much appreciated.

Akeem Brooks: Thank you. I really would like to get the word out as well, because people have a lot of misconceptions about the mainframe, as you were saying, like, “Oh, I don’t think the mainframe’s going to be able to handle all these workloads,” and, “The mainframe is dying.” The mainframe is not going anywhere, anytime soon, and people need to realize that. Also, it can definitely handle a lot of workloads. As we were speaking, the mainframe already handled millions of transactions, during this conversation right now. Securely, too. That’s very important.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah. Akeem, I think we might have exhausted our time here. I just want to thank you very much for participating in the call. It’s always very cool to hear people who are being introduced to the mainframe platform and as enthusiastic as you. I wish you all the best of luck. Make sure you send me that picture. I’d like to have it.

Akeem Brooks: Yes, sir. Thank you for having me, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Frey: Yeah, no problem. Maybe some day our paths will cross again. Thank you very much. I guess that does it for today’s call. We’ll see you next time on the next conversation series call. Thank you very much.

Akeem Brooks: Thanks.