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I Am A Mainframer | Podcast

I am a Mainframer: Andre Clark

By | February 28, 2024

Step into the world of mainframe technology with the latest episode of the “I am a Mainframer” podcast! Host Steven Dickens of The Futurum Group engages in an insightful conversation with Andre Clark, a seasoned member of IBM’s advisory level two support team. In this episode, Clark offers a glimpse into his role, where he tackles customer problems related to CICS on a global scale.

Clark shares his fascinating journey into the mainframe industry, tracing back to a college class on z/OS that sparked his interest and ultimately led him to join IBM’s CICS team. He underscores the importance of seizing new opportunities and embracing challenges as catalysts for growth and development.

Looking ahead, Clark predicts an exciting evolution for the mainframe, envisioning the integration of cutting-edge technologies such as generative AI and cloud-like infrastructures. Join us as we explore the future of mainframe technology through Clark’s insightful perspective on innovation and adaptation. Don’t miss out on this insightful episode! 

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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 and welcome. My name’s Steven Dickens and I’m your host of the I’m a Mainframer podcast, brought to you by the Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project. I’m joined today by Andre Clark. Andre, welcome to the show.

Andre Clark:

Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.

Steven Dickens:

So let’s dive straight in. We’ve got a little bit of chance to connect just before the show started here, but tell listeners and viewers a little bit about your role, what you do. Let’s just get started and introduce yourself.

Andre Clark:

Alright, well thank you for that introduction. My name is Andre Clark. Currently I am an advisory level two support, technical support person at IBM. I’ve been there, I’ve been at IBM in total for, gosh, almost 18 years now. And I’ve been in the level two space for CICS or CICS. I’ve been there for 16 years now. So I’m a part of a worldwide team. We have people here in the United States, kind of across the country in the United States. And then we have a team based in Europe, in various countries in Europe, England, Germany, Bulgaria, all over there. And then we have an Asia Pacific team, team members in China and Japan and India. So we’re a worldwide level two support team. Mainly what we do on a daily basis is we debug customers’ problems, whether they’re trying to understand why their regions are running slow or why their applications aren’t functioning as they should or anything like that.

And it’s like a detective job. I very much like this role itself, me personally, because I never really know what I’m going to walk into every morning and that kind of helps me be focused. Every time I come into work, it’s not monotonous the way my mind works, if I was kind of doing the same exact thing every single day and everything was very predictable, that really wouldn’t work for me in the way my mind operates. But yeah, some days I walk in and everything is easy breezy and I can ease into my day. And other times I come in and things have been on fire for three hours before I even got there. And then you have to hop right in before you get your morning coffee, before you get your breakfast, before anything, right? Because you have to help solve these client issues that are happening.

And that’s the thing that I like about it, right? It is never boring, it’s never monotonous. And the role we play as level two, because I like programming, but it isn’t my favorite thing to do, to code. But I do look at code and I like finding problems in code and finding the bugs and trying to understand where things went wrong. And a lot of times on the occasions where the problem is really on our side and our actual software, you have to dig through the code and see what line the code was running and kind of see how they got into how the customer got into the specific scenario that they’re in. So I kind of can get my feelings about myself. I’m still involved in the coding process. I still have to review code, I still have to debug code and understand what’s going on, but I don’t have to do the actual coding because everybody has their strengths and weaknesses and things that they’re good at and what they’re bad at and things that they find enjoyable. And I enjoy coding, but I don’t love it enough for that to be sort of what I want to do on a daily basis.

Steven Dickens:

That’s a lot to unpack there. Andre, you sort of gave us a fantastic intro and then gave me a lot to go back to, which always makes it easier for me. Thank you for that. So first off, I’m glad that you called it CICS and CICS.

Andre Clark:

Yeah. I’m used to saying the shorthand for it, but I figure I need to mention that as well.

Steven Dickens:

Yeah, so that’s a sort of running joke with us, Brits and the Americans. Obviously Hursley is the center of the universe for CICS. So maybe just for some of those people who don’t understand how the support organization works, explain to me level one, level two, level three. I mean I’ve been around support organizations in IBM, I kind of get that, but maybe just explain those levels for people who are newer to the show and maybe don’t know.

Andre Clark:

Yeah, no problem. So really the biggest two areas, at least now, are level two and level three. Level one isn’t really, isn’t as large of an organization as it may have used to be in the past, but really it’s the biggest parts that I deal with on a daily basis are level two and level three. So level two is, we’re sort of the first point of contact when clients have problems, they open up cases to us or they used to call ’em problem records, but they open up cases to us. And so when somebody needs to talk on the phone with the customer or they need to send in documentation that they need to review, that kind of illustrates what the problem is, we are that first point that reviews that and tries to get an understanding of what exactly the problem is, where the problem lies.

Is it in our code, is it perhaps in the client’s application code? Is it in some other vendor’s code? Some other program or product that may be involved may be actually where the problem is happening, but we kind of have to vet that part out. So that’s kind of at a high level a lot of what we do in level two as far as analysis goes. And then when it comes to level three, either it’s a problem that we in level two really can’t figure out. We as a team, we’ve come together and it’s like we just can’t figure this out. So we go to our level three team, which as you mentioned is the team that’s over in Hursley and the Hursley team, they’re the ones who code the APARs, they code the fixes. When we find bugs in the problem, they’re the ones that actually go through the coding part to figure out, okay, well how do we best address this and test out the fixes and all that kind of stuff because Hursley is where our level three team is, that’s where our development teams are, that’s where some of our testers are.

So that whole side of the coin, a lot of that is over in Hursley and that’s a lot of what they handle. Sometimes it’s a problem that maybe we can’t figure out on our own and then we kind of tag team with them because they have sort of deeper knowledge in specific areas of the product or specific modules or programs because they go through it a little bit more. So they might be able to help you parse out something that you may not have understood or may not have been able to figure out on your own. Or on the occasions where we understand what the problem is and in this piece of code, we turn that over to them and then they’re the ones that kind of go back through our analysis and then analyze things on their end, try to recreate the issue and then try to code up a test fix and go about that whole part of the problem. So that’s the biggest difference there.

Steven Dickens:

That’s a fantastic explanation of level one, level two, level three. Maybe let’s pivot now you mentioned in that introduction you’ve been at IBM 18 years, I think you said maybe let’s go back maybe 20 years. Go back, I’ll take you back down memory lane, first time you got on the mainframe, first exposure to the platform. And then maybe give me a little bit of that transition into IBM coming into the CICS team for the first time. We’ve got a lot of younger listeners and viewers that engage with the show just on a podcast where we’ve got people who’ve spent time really maybe two, three years into their career. I find that period fascinating when people first get exposed to the mainframe. So maybe just if I can take you back all the way there and just kind of give me that view and you’re at college the first time you get on the platform and then coming into the workplace.

Andre Clark:

Yeah, no problem. So I kind of stumbled into it to be honest. So I had a professor, I’m Sure you’re familiar with Dr. Cameron Seay, right?

Steven Dickens:

I may or may not have come across the legend of Cameron Seay before.

Andre Clark:

Exactly. So this had to be the fall of 2005. I was set to graduate that next May and I was at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina. So they had this elective class that they offered every semester, but the specific topic of the elective would change. It wouldn’t always be the same every semester. So the next semester, even though I was set to graduate, Dr Seay convinced me. He said, I have this elective coming up being taught by IBM, it’s about the mainframe. I think you would do well at it. I think you should take advantage of it. But at that point, I’m six months away from graduating, I’m like, I’m ready to get out of school and enter the workforce, but he could be rather convincing. So I took his advice, I took the class and also at the same time I switched my major. Well, I was a computer and information systems major at North Carolina Central, but at that time they also offered the same degree, but you would get a Bachelor in science versus a Bachelor in business administration.

But if you get the Bachelor in science, you have to take extra classes. So what I did was I said, well, I didn’t have anything guaranteed workwise for me. I had some possibilities, but nothing was guaranteed. I was like, well maybe, I’ll just take advantage of this opportunity, extend my graduation by another six months, take this class and build up some more skills and kind of see where can see where that goes, and also take some additional classes just to make myself a better candidate when the job opportunity did come. So I took the class, it was very much just an introduction to z/OS class. I had no idea about z/OS. Only time I heard about mainframes was in movies and things like that when people talking about hacking the mainframe and all sorts of stuff. So I really had no idea about what was going on.

It was a very, like I said, very base level introductory to z/OS, what is z/OS, how it operates and things like that. So I took the class and it was an elective, but I took it very serious. I wanted to do well in the class and learn as much as I could about it. So I took the class, did well in the class and then that summer, the people who taught the class were actual IBMers. They actually had an opening for a co-op or intern in the organization for that summer. So because I did so well in the class, I was one of the people that was chosen well, was offered the opportunity to be able to take advantage of this internship and this co-op just to get my foot in the door and kind of learn some real world experience about the corporate world and everything that’s involved with that.

I had ideas about what I wanted to do just because there’s the titles that I’ve heard before. It’s like, oh yeah, I want to do that, but you really don’t know what you want to do until you get into it and then you really realize this is what I want to do versus this is what I don’t want to do. So like I said, I took the class, did well in that, got the internship, did that for, I started that in May of 2006. Like I said, when I originally would’ve been graduating, I did that for May, 2006 until January of 2007. I was with that group. But after that co-op ended, sometimes they don’t have openings for full-time positions, but I was kind of already in the IBM ecosystem because of the internship. So I was able to parlay that into a full-time position, but it wasn’t directly z/OS or mainframe related.

It was really dealing with AIX type stuff and installing fixes and things like that, which was a good opportunity, but it wasn’t really that challenging to me. But I kind of took it for what it was worth and I did the best that I could at that position. And then about a year after I started that position, they ended up getting rid of that division that I was in. So I think I had maybe three to four weeks, maybe it was six weeks, I think it was up to six weeks. They kind of let us know what was going to happen. They gave us a bit of a heads up, and at that point I was almost a free agent looking for different opportunities that were out there and there were some Java programming opportunities that were out there but again, like I said before, programming wasn’t really my biggest thing.

If it came down to it, I would’ve done that, but that wouldn’t have been my first choice. But kind of coincidentally at this same time, the person who was my manager when I was a co-op, who was also one of the people who monitored the course when it was being taught at North Carolina Central, they actually had an opening in their group. She was the manager of the CICS level two team at that point in time. So I saw a posting out there for it and I talked about it with her and she said she had me in mind for the position, but she figured that I was kind of content in the area that I was in, but I’m like, actually, this position isn’t going to be here in about six weeks or so, so this is kind of perfect timing. So she gave me a little bit of an explanation about what the job would be and what the job would entail, and then she thought it was a good fit for it. So I interview with it. I did the interview process. I did well in the interview, and then I ended up eventually becoming a member of her team. And that was, like I said, that was 2008 when that happened, and I’ve been with the level two team ever since.

Steven Dickens:

That’s a fantastic story. I mean, the takeaway for me is things change. You’ve got to be open to these changes. Maybe the perfect job’s not going to be there straight away out of college. I speak to so many people who come on the show and it’s kind of like I stumbled into the workplace. I didn’t know what my first job was. I kind of got into a great organization in IBM and then I figured it out and things changed and then I ended up in something that I really enjoy and wanted to make a career of. I think that’s a key takeaway for me. I mean, one of the questions I always ask on the show, and I’ll ask them out of order because I think it kind of naturally touches here, maybe you’ve got the chance to go back to your 21, 22 year old self. What advice would you give? You’ve had a great career, you’ve spent your time at IBM, maybe it sounds like it wasn’t the perfect start and there was a few bumps in the road. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Andre Clark:

Well, the first piece of advice that I would give to myself is to make sure that I take advantage of all the opportunities that are presented because not just dealing with mainframe type things, but there were other opportunities where for perhaps internships with different companies or just ways to get experience in different areas. And I feel that if I look back on it now, I didn’t really take advantage of all of those as I should have because I was kind of really focused just I was 20, 21 years old. I wasn’t as mature mentally as I grew to be later on. But I do know that there were definitely opportunities back then that I think I should have taken advantage of them and I could have ended up really on the same path and still ended up in the same group, and that could have been the same route, but really a lot of it is that there’s a lot of avenues out there, but you just have to be willing to take that step to put yourself out there to say, Hey, I want to do this, or Hey, I want to learn this, or Hey, I want to experience this and just to be open to it, even if it’s something that you’re unfamiliar with because that’s my mainframe path is I really had no idea about mainframes or about z/OS or anything like that, but I had people in my corner like

Dr. Seay, people who I valued their opinion and I trusted their opinions on what the future may be or just even different avenues that you can go down that might be of interest to you. And at that point in time, there’s no problem with trying something out and if you don’t like it, then you don’t like it. Then you can kind of cross that off your list of, okay, I know this is what I don’t want to do, so I don’t really have to worry about that. But you could luck into something that you may have thought, oh, I don’t really want to do this, but then you start to do it and it’s like, Hey, I really kind of like this. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be. Because a lot of these different roles and things like that, they come with certain stigmas about them or you hear about how tough these positions can be or whatever it may be, but you really don’t know until you’re in it because it’s based off of other people’s opinions and you’re really not going to know unless you do it yourself.

You try it yourself and then you do it to the best of your abilities, and you try to max it out as much as you can. And if at the end you realize, hey, this isn’t something I want to do, or this isn’t an avenue that I want to go down, then cool. It is still a valuable experience because it’s something that you can use for yourself towards the future, but if you never take that opportunity, then you really don’t know. And so that’s really the thing. A lot of the opportunities that I’ve had while I’ve been here at IBM is just being willing to volunteer for certain things even if I don’t really understand everything that it’s about. Just take it as an opportunity to learn and to gain some new experience. And sometimes you found out that it’s something that’s viable, it’s going to be long standing and you can keep it as one of your side endeavors while you’re working.

Or like I said before, you found out it’s something that you really don’t want to do, but you definitely have to be willing and be open to try different things and just see where they fall at the end of the day because everybody has this track. You want to be on this track, you have this idea about how everything is going to go, but it doesn’t always go that way. So you have to be able to pivot when it doesn’t go the way you think it’s going to go and just kind of roll with it that way.

Steven Dickens:

I think that’s great advice. I mean, I’ve been doing this podcast now, what is it for five years? Had so many people on the show, and I ask this question of everybody because I’m always fascinated to get the answer. People, their careers go in lots of different ways. There’s a real different path. The other question I always ask all the guests, and I’m really interested in your perspective from maybe a CICS frame of reference. Where do you see this platform five years from now? You get a crystal ball, you get the chance to look ahead. You’re not allowed to pick any stocks or make any bets on football results or basketball results. You’ve got to use this crystal ball just to answer this question. But you get to look ahead and see where the platform’s going to be. What’s your perspective? Where do you think we’re going to be five years from now?

Andre Clark:

It’s definitely progressing at a rapid speed because, so for instance, one of the projects that I was involved with at IBM is dealing with generative AI and chatbots and things like that. That’s one of the projects that I was a part of a team of. And we just created a sort of an IBM support chatbot for clients when they come in, if they have questions that they can direct questions to the chat bot and try to get their answers there prior to even having opened a case. I know a lot of our clients, they want to be self-sufficient as much as possible, but sometimes they may not be able to easily get to where the answers are. So that can be a way to deliver some of that value back to them. And it’s very much in the early stages. We just released, I think it was on the 20th, was when the CICS chat bot came out.

But like I said, it’s very new. It’s going to be one of those works in progress. But three years ago, I wouldn’t have really seen myself going down this Artificial Intelligence machine learning route because I wouldn’t have put that and the mainframe together. They seem like kind of two divergent paths, but everything is all intermingling at this point in time because the lines between the Z environment or the mainframe environment and the cloud environment and all that kind of stuff, it is blurred now more so now than at any point in the past. So that’s really where I see it going, not just dealing with the machine learning part but CICS itself, being able to take more advantage of the cloud-like infrastructures that have been out there that your Google clouds and your Azures and all that kind of stuff, that whole environment, some of that was kind of foreign to the old green screen, CICS, 3270 screens and all that kind of stuff that people are used to.

But that’s what people are involved in now and those are the environments that people are more comfortable with and having their business and how all that runs. So being able to have container environments and learning about Kubernetes and all that kind of stuff, because that’s what I’m doing now, right? I’m learning about containerized environments and Kubernetes and things like that. Things that I wasn’t really as familiar with in the past, but that’s going to be coming in the future. So trying to get a handle on that now is the best case for me so that it’s not foreign when we’re more all involved in that type of environment. That’s the big thing. I think there’s going to be more of a change to having products like CICS be able to operate more so in that cloud-like environment versus just everything just being green screen, 3270 screens and all that kind of stuff.

Because that’s where everything is going. That’s where a lot of the young talent that’s coming out now, that’s kind of the areas that they’re more familiar with and with there being a lot of people who are heavy mainframers, they’re heading towards retirement and you have to kind of skill up in anticipation of that. And you can’t cram 30 years of experience into six weeks of education and expect for somebody to really be able to hit the ground running and be able to take over what somebody has been doing for all these years. So being able to take advantage of things like that to make that transition easier for all our customers and clients out in the field and even for people coming into the company that have to support our clients and the problems that they’re having. Anything you can get any way, anytime, excuse me, that you can get some things that they’re more familiar with, kind of helps to ease that process. So at least they feel less discouraged, less discouraged in the beginning. Like it’s like trying to drink from a firehose sometimes. But if you can have some things that you can hold onto, I know this, or I’m at least I’m familiar with this sort of process, it kind of makes the entirety of learning everything going on with the mainframe just because of how big it is. It makes it a little bit less, a little bit less daunting.

Steven Dickens:

That’s a fantastic way to summarize up. I think that’s a really interesting vision there, Andre. Well, we could carry on talking for hours, but my job is to sort of keep us to some time here for the listeners. Andre, been fantastic having you on the show.

Andre Clark:

Thank you. Thank you. Glad to be here and glad we were able to make this work.

Steven Dickens:

So you’ve been listening to the I’m a Mainframer podcast. Please click and do all those things to subscribe and share this with your audience and we’ll see you next time. Thank you very much for watching and listening.


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