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Stepping out of my Comfort Zone: My Journey to the Mainframe Community

By | March 25, 2024

Written by Billie Jean Simmons, Software Developer at IBM and Zowe Explorer Squad Lead

My journey begins in a small community college in a small town in northeastern North Carolina. I was studying for an Associates Degree in Arts to transfer – unsure of what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Then, I took an Intro to Programming class as an elective and everything changed. The class covered concepts and general intro topics, writing programs in pseudocode code on paper. We then had to try writing a program using Assembler language and have our programs actually run and do what we wanted, it felt pretty awesome. Everyone in this class seemed really interested in the course and we would make the programming part of the course even more fun by competing with each other to see who could finish successfully first. After taking this class, I immediately went to my advisor and changed my major –  Associates degree in Computer Programming.

A lot went on over the next few years while I worked to complete the degree.  I had my daughter in 2007 and took some time off, then went back and graduated with my Associates degree in 2010.  After a couple years of working the same jobs as I did while in college and not being able to get one in the IT field, I decided to go back to school and get my Bachelors Degree in Computer Science. In 2015, I started classes at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.  The classes were small and the professors were very helpful and wanted all of their students to succeed. I had a great opportunity through the school to mentor young women in the local offering of the Girls Who Code program.

In my last semester before graduation, fall of 2017, my advisor, the wonderful Professor Antonio Rook, came to me with an opportunity to go compete at a hackathon hosted in Atlanta, GA for HBCUs called IBM Blue Hack. I was hesitant since I had a 10 year old at home, but after some persuasion from my advisor and from myself knowing I couldn’t let this opportunity slip through my fingers, I decided I was going and made arrangements. Going to the IBM Blue Hack hackathon was an experience like no other.  The IBMers that were helping the students were all so nice and knowledgable. That’s when I thought to myself, “This is what I want to be when I grow up.” Long story short, the team I was on at the hackathon placed third in the competition and we were all interviewed on the spot and before graduation in December of 2017 I had accepted an offer to start work at IBM the next spring.

When I joined IBM in Raleigh, NC in spring of 2018, I discovered I was to join a team that was being newly built to tackle modernizing mainframe development. I had no idea about mainframes or developing for them, so I took full advantage of the learning tools provided and began learning about mainframes. Then one day we were told about the Open Mainframe Project’s Zowe and that we were going to join that effort of modernization of mainframe tools.  I got to meet legends of the industry when our site hosted the meeting of the developers for the project from across three companies, IBM, Rocket Software and Broadcom.  Our team even got to sit in on the conversations. While learning to install and work with the new Zowe products we also got to experiment extending the tools too.

Over the past six years, I have contributed to multiple client side projects under Zowe as well as projects that extend the core client side products like Zowe CLI and Zowe Explorer. After contributing to Zowe Explorer for a couple of years, in the fall of 2021 I was nominated to be a squad lead with another team member on the squad, both of us decided to co-lead the team and share all of the responsibilities of a squad lead.

I really enjoy when I get the opportunity to share the knowledge I have gained over the years through education or trial and error working on and extending Zowe products.  I have been honored to participate on a couple panels and presented at live and virtual conferences, the most recent being at SHARE Orlando this month along side Joe Winchester.

I went from a young woman that didn’t know what she wanted to be when she grew up to someone that jumped feet first into the unknown to chase a dream. I am amazed every day by the people around me and the dreams that come to fruition in this field and this community. If I could leave you with some final thoughts, I would say to…

Always be curious, learn and try new things.

Always be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

Always be willing to share your knowledge and expertise.