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Rahmira Rufus: I am a Mainframer

By | October 26, 2017

In our ninth “ I AM A Mainframer” interview series, Jeffrey Frey, Retired IBM Fellow, chats with Rahmira Rufus. Rahmira is a Ph.D. candidate, computer science, graduating in December from NC A&T State University. Jeff and Rahmira discuss innovation and how it applies to the mainframe Industry. Rahmira, also shares a few in-depth stories and offers some advice for women working in technology.

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

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Jeff Frey:  Welcome to another edition of the “I Am A Mainframer” conversation series, sponsored by the Open Mainframe Project. I’m Jeff Frey. I’m a retired IBM Fellow and previously CTO of IBM’s mainframe platform and a long-time mainframe enthusiast. It’s my pleasure to host the mainframe conversation series.

As a Linux Foundation collaborative project, The Open Mainframe Project is intended to help create a mainframe-focused, open source technical community. It is 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 communities and to develop and exploit shared Linux toolsets, resources, and services in the mainframe environment.

In addition, as today’s broadcast will show, the project seeks to involve the participation of academic institutions to help assist in creating educational programs aimed at developing the mainframe engineers of tomorrow.

For today’s conversation, we have the pleasure of speaking with Rahmira Rufus. Rahmira is a Ph.D. candidate, computer science, graduating, as I understand it, in December from NC A&T State University. Congratulations on that, Rahmira.

Rahmira Rufus:  Thank you.

Jeff Frey:  She’s also a Senior Cyber & Cloud Engineer for the MITRE Corporation, specializing in enterprise security architectures, next generation cyber security. She’s also an adjunct professor for the College of Science & Technology at A&T and the Director of the Academic Initiative for Linux Foundation Open Mainframe Project, which is why we’re here today.

So, Rahmira, welcome to the broadcast and it’s great to have you on today.

Rahmira Rufus:  Thank you. Great to be on.

Jeff Frey:  Great. So, Rahmira, maybe to get us started, why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself. Give us some background on you and your career and your interest in mainframe computing.

Rahmira Rufus:  Well, pretty much I am … how do I say, I’m just a nerd in the making. I consider myself pretty cool. More of a hybrid version of a typical technical person. Meaning that I have a lot of interests in other areas, music and the arts. Not saying that others don’t. It’s just typically when most people see me or interact with me, they’re not even aware that I have a very strong technical background.

I’m originally from Newark, New Jersey and, as I said, I started out as a musician when I was a little, and I grew to have an infinity towards technology and computers. And when I came to college, I started out as a music major and there were a lot of bureaucratic things going on in my department and after all of the dust settled from that situation, I found myself in a technical area, switching over to computer science as a major. The department chair at the time told me that musicians make great programmers because, you know, music theory is pretty much built off the same construct. There’s a framework that you work within, there are rules, and you learn the rules and as you build expertise in them, you are able to manipulate the rules, so to speak. And programming has the same structure. So that’s really how I began the entire process of being in the technical environment.

As far as working in the mainframe, it’s amazing. I didn’t even know that I was already working in a mainframe type of environment. I mean, we all … it seems that we’ve forgotten that all of our server platforms are built off of, you know, a mainframe. And I recently … well not recently, actually two or three years ago … started working in a physical computing environment where a lot of these low level processing systems were making a lot of server calls and, you know, basically dealing with the vulnerabilities and things of that nature. And I discovered mainframe computing, basically because if one of your servers goes down, you pretty much, you know, you could still do what you need to do. You can still get what you need done but as one of the … not even one, basically the father of Linux being on the mainframe … Lynn, he said that if the mainframe goes down, everything is gone. Nothing works. So that was really my introduction, between him and Dr. Cameron Sean at the University who brought me in on a project. That’s really where my introduction was and that was not even a year ago.

But after learning the history and how robust mainframe platforms are, especially in the virtual, the VM environment, I just kind of fell in love with it.

Jeff Frey:  Ah, that’s great. Yeah, a couple things you said were very interesting. And as you may know, Rahmira, we’ve actually had Cameron Sean on the broadcast. He and I are good friends and yeah, he’s great.

Rahmira Rufus:  Yes.

Jeff Frey:  Very interesting you talked about music because I’m actually a drummer and-

Rahmira Rufus:  Oh, wow. I am also. Okay, that’s … the world is so small.

Jeff Frey:  So, I was going to say I’m almost a musician because I’m a drummer but uh … And it’s very interesting that you make, you know, the observation that musicians make good programmers. I think I’ve heard that as well and, yeah, you know, since leaving IBM now, I’m pursuing, you know … Actually, what was tied for my first love, I got an internship at a recording studio down in New York City and, so, I’m learning the recording engineering business now.  But that’s very cool. It’s always good to have other interests and be a well-rounded person to go along with all technology stuff that we deal with.

Rahmira Rufus:  Yeah.

Jeff Frey:  What about the open mainframe project engagement. Tell us a little bit about your interest and role in the Open Mainframe Project.

Rahmira Rufus:  Well, once again, introduced from Dr. Sean, from Cam, Cameron. And, you know, he pretty much … At first, it started out just trying to, you know, to solicit … Sorry I have to say it like that but that’s what we were doing, trying to get some students to just apply for the intern, you know, the yearly, the intern the eight to ten week program for the Open Mainframe Project, and just trying to get some more students interested from the University. He asked me would I, you know, come on and I said okay. And, you know, I already had connections from Computer Science because that’s where I’m actually getting my degree, you know, my background and being an adjunct over in the College of Science & Technology under their Computer Systems Technology. So, I just asked students from both areas if they wanted to try it out and we had about seven students submit and three were picked from the University.

And so, I guess after having such a good turnout, assisting those students with getting their proposals and their applications at least to a point that would, you know, make them good, you know, good for consideration, I was asked to come on as a mentor, you know, to actually mentor some of the students and their projects to completion and I winded up having two of them … I’m sorry. Were you about to say something?

Jeff Frey:  Oh, no, no, no. I was just listening.

Rahmira Rufus:  Okay. Okay, so basically, yeah, that’s … One of the students actually didn’t work under my particular project but still worked with me just, you know, as far as kind of helping him whenever he needed some assistance and that was on the Anomaly Detection Engine for Linux Logs. And then, for the two students that were with me were for Linux monitoring tools and Linux administration tools. And this was all … for that particular … they were trying to put Linux on the VM.

Jeff Frey:  Yeah. That’s very cool as well because, you know, I actually had some involvement with the Anomaly Detection Engine, the technology we took out of IBM and made that … contributed that to the open source community. So–

Rahmira Rufus:  Oh, wow.

Jeff Frey:  Yeah. That was, you know, a couple of years ago and I know that’s being extended and people are starting to use that.

What do you … as a little side question here, can you give me your impression on how people react to or even how you did … you got a little into this earlier but how people react or what their impressions are of the mainframe, especially for those who had never been really exposed to it. You know, are they surprised about anything in the mainframe or do they have preconceptions that are either proven to be true or false. Talk about that a little bit if you can.

Rahmira Rufus:  Okay. Right, initially, it’s fear and that’s what, you know, really kind of leaves me, you know, a little curious it’s like why are you fearing this. The second thing is prehistoric.

That it’s through old technology. And I’m like, it’s not old. A server is the mainframe. Anything that is the main hub handling anything is considered a mainframe. You know, just the mainframe computing that … and I’m assuming that you’re talking about individuals that, you know, you’re trying to build proficiencies in that area. They’re very intimidated by it but mostly I think it’s because they don’t have any knowledge. They think it’s very old or they think it’s something that’s too complex, which to me … It’s like this mysticism with it and I don’t understand why that is because once you bring them in that environment and you show them actually what it is, how our infrastructure is totally dependent upon it. And-

And, you know, once they start to see that, you unravel all of these layers that … I guess it’s like this big mystery that no one knows about anymore and then it’s like some of the fear and the resistance starts to subside. But initially, it’s those two, fear and that it’s some kind of prehistoric or legacy, you know-

Yeah, like it never evolved. Like it didn’t grow as everything else enhanced. It had to enhance because everything is built upon it. Clouds, virtualization. And the crazy thing is, I think, one of the things that really, really … I’m sorry, I just can’t believe, I’m kind of at awe, is that when you talk about virtualization, you don’t talk about, you know, IBM or the mainframe or anything and it’s like, well, where did you think it came from. Where did you think, you know, this distributed capacity, this ability to, you know, expand memory in a virtual space where you’re manipulating that main operating system to think that it has another operating or, you know, has more space on it than it does. It’s just really shocking.

Jeff Frey:  Yeah. Yeah, so that’s interesting. Do you find that people are surprised to learn that it has a standard familiar Linux environment running on the platform. I’ve run into those people who, as you said, has this view that, you know, the mainframe is not only very proprietary but because its architectural roots, were from 1964. That doesn’t at all mean that it hasn’t adopted and we haven’t integrated the most modern and advanced technologies, both in hardware, software, firmware, its IOs structures, its virtualization. It really is a marvel of modern, you know, engineering and I find that people do have that perception sometimes, and especially surprised to see, or to learn that Linux is a great platform for the mainframe.

Rahmira Rufus:  Yeah, amazingly, once again everyone that I speak to outside of this very small community, they have no knowledge of it. They don’t even know you can put Linux on it. They think that for some apparent reason, you know, a Linux distribution would … it wouldn’t interface well. You know, just so many responses that, to me, I can’t really attack the individuals but it’s ignorant. You know?

There’s just no knowledge and sorry, there’s no availability to use the platform. You know? Mainframe computing is very costly but there are environments that are providing it at a very … especially for academia … In academia there are avenues to provide it to a student base but, you know-

I don’t know if it’s, you know, politics. I don’t really know but it’s definitely an avenue that needs to be addressed and needs to be opened up because there are students out there that want to build their proficiency in that area.

Jeff Frey:  Maybe the various roles at the Open Mainframe Project can play would be to focus on how to maybe better articulate the value proposition and the advanced technology and the capabilities of the mainframe to get, to keep more aware of this platform and its value proposition. You know, you mention cost, I think there’s a perception out there that the mainframe is a costly platform. And, you know, I run into a lot of people who will take various factors of cost in an IT environment and maybe not consider all of the costs in running an enterprise class IT shop, the costs of disaster recovery and the cost of maintenance and management and facilities. And the other thing is, you know, people I think need to understand the economies of scale that are offered by the mainframe platform. You know, the platform actually gets, you know, it gets, it performs better when you put more work on it. It’s an amazing platform in that way. It’s scaled so well and for large, you know, high value transaction processing and for big work loads, the transaction-

Jeff Frey:  The cost per transaction is very competitive with any of the platforms out there. So, yeah, maybe we need to do a better job at that.

I know that you also … I’ve been really kind of looking forward to asking you this question, Rahmira. What advice might you have for other women working in technology?

Rahmira Rufus:  Well, hang in there. Basically. No, I mean and it’s said, as a female you have to answer this question. You have to approach this because even though, you know, I want to kind of keep it equal and say just the guys, you know, you also stay in there, it is a problem. The frequency of female, you know, entering and flourishing in this field in the past it just hasn’t been successful, the numbers just aren’t represented well.

But I know that when women approach me or when they see me in this space, it’s just the fact that I’m there, that is encouraging to them. And then they come up to me and they’ll ask me, “Oh, wow, you’re doing this,” and “Is this hard,” or “How do you get this done?” I’ll say, yeah, it can be difficult but I also say if you just keep at it you know, the fear and the intimidation it will subside. It [inaudible 00:19:50] What I have to say is … And, there’s some, you know, sociological and gender stereotypes on both sides, you know, with women think the type of roles women should play and, you know, with some men thinking the type of roles women should play in comparison to the roles that men should play in technical areas are just STEM, STEM fields period. But I think it’s really education. We need to educate people more. We need to educate women more,let them know that, say they’re in computer science or computer programming.

Basically the birth of programming. You know a lot of people do not know this. And I have to go to a moment when I was a little, the recent movie, Figures with … why am I always forgetting her name? [inaudible 00:21:22] and … Yeah. And that particular movie now. I knew about the three women that would were the main characters. The problem is I didn’t know about the 50, 60 other women that were at Langley also.

So, you know, there’s an education that we need to have. We need to allow women or at least provide them a platform where they can see that there are women in this field because for the longest time, you know, I thought I was in a pretty much a no-women’s land while I’m fighting against this monster or like there aren’t very many women in this field so, you know, it’s going to be hard and you know, jut all the things that you tell yourself to discourage yourself because you’re such a huge minority in that environment. But to later on find out that there were all of these women, you know, paving the way and making all of these strides in these areas and there just, you know, there just wasn’t any knowledge of it. So, I’ll wrap that around and say what I’m telling women is stick to it. If this can keep you up all night, yeah, you should be doing this. I’m sorry, that’s just how I am. I’m a very passionate person. If I’m doing something and I can forget about eating and sleeping and all that stuff … not saying it’s the healthiest thing … but if you can forget this is most likely for you. And just stick with it because your logic could be the one piece that’s missing from turning this technology into, you know, the next big innovative component that we’re waiting for.

So, and secondly, I would say in that area of women in technology, we need to provide more education, we need to provide more visual representation of females in this environment so that other women can be encouraged to stick it through and so that men can see, “Oh, no, the ladies do have a place in here.”

You know, “The ladies can contribute just as much as we can.”

Jeff Frey:  That’s a great answer. You know, I got a couple observations for you. Well, first of all, you know, I have two small daughters here at home and, of course, you know, you want to set the right example and you want to bring these girls up in an environment where they don’t feel any of those constrains and they can do anything they want to do. And you know, my nine year old, when she was four, she was asking me about the speed of light and mass and black holes. So I’ve got great hopes for my little girls. You know, it’s people like you that provide good examples. Successful in their fields so, you know, I encourage you all-

Rahmira Rufus:  Thank you.

Jeff Frey:  Continue to be a role model. You’ve broken a couple of stereotypes today, I’ve learned. Not only your work in technology and programming but also there aren’t that many women drummers, either.

Rahmira Rufus:  Yes. That’s very true and I didn’t realize I was doing that, you know, until you’re in that environment.

Jeff Frey:  Well, hey, listen. This has been a real pleasure for me, Rahmira. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. All the best, say help to Dr. Sean for me. And, maybe some time, we’ll get to meet. And congratulations on your Ph.D. I’m sure it’s going well and I wish you all the best.

Rahmira Rufus:  Thank you very much, Jeff. I appreciate, you know, you taking the time and letting me, you know, have this conversation with you and I will definitely let Dr. Seah know that you said hello.

Jeff Frey:  All right. Very good. Okay, that does it for this edition of the conversation series and we’ll talk to you next time. Bye now.