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Darren Surch on the Future of IBM Z, and His Unique Path to Becoming an IBM Champion

Reg Harbeck talks with Darren Surch about how he joined the mainframe community, ways to stay on top of changes in the industry and the future of the IBM Z platform.

Reg Harbeck: Hi, this is Reg Harbeck and today I'm here with my friend and colleague, Darren Surch, with whom I have worked as business partners for, I’m sure it’s gotta be over 20 years now. Darren works for the Interskill online training company and he has been really active in the mainframe ecosystem including SHARE and including as an IBM Champion for quite some time. Darren, rather than telling everybody everything about you myself, how did you end up in the mainframe and education and IBM champion ecosystem?
 
Darren Surch: G’day Reg. Thanks for the invite and a pleasure to talk to you today. Mine has probably been a non-typical entry and life in the mainframe ecosystem. I started off as my working life as a hydrographer in Australia, obviously, by the accent. I was in charge of water resources; artesian water and lakes and rivers and so forth in Australia. I had headed over to the UK in Europe as a lot of young Aussies do in my early 20's on a vacation and bumped into at the Oktoberfest in Munich with a couple of steins of beer under my belt I found myself sitting at a table in the Hofbräu tent with a whole bunch of mainframe programmers.
 
Reg: Ahhh.
 
Darren: It was something I hadn't even conceived of but there were mainframe programmers, COBOL programmers, CICS programmers from Germany and England and America and South Africa and probably some other besides—
 
Reg: Cool.
 
Darren: And they all convinced me how amazing the mainframe was and what a great career mainframe programming was and so forth so when I got back to Australia after my travels, I went straight to a college in Australia that was training mainframe programmers and operators and went through the college, trained up in CICS and COBOL application development programming—
 
Reg: That is so cool.
 
Darren: Yeah, and so that was the career. Then funnily enough, when I started work, the head of the college reached out to me and said we're—this in the I think 1990—you know the dean of the college, the head of the college says we're starting to develop this brand-new thing called computer-based training. I don't know if you'd be interested and so I jumped in and started that. That's sort of the company that became Interskill.
 
Reg: Oh neat. So was the fellow then the fellow who is still in charge of Interskill?
 
Darren: He's long since retired but yeah, Interskill went worldwide from 1990 and has been training the mainframe industry ever since and enough said about that, but yeah that's been my passion ever since just because I've got to interact and work with all of these amazing people in the mainframe industry.
 
Reg: Well that is so cool.
 
Darren: It's a big family.
 
Reg: Now of course when you and I first met, I was working for a certain large software company in charge of services which included education strategy and your company was a key provider of that, especially the virtual and so you and I have kind of gotten to know each other over many years and one of the interesting things that you did, you know of course zNextGen or zed NextGen as we Australian/Canadian types like to say, was founded in 2005 and not long afterwards, you got on in board by offering some free training to zNextGen people. Tell me, how did that all happen?
 
Darren: Yeah, that's been part of Interskill's spot in the industry and I suppose driven by me as well just wanting to make a difference in the industry. You know all the businesses in the IBM ecosystem, in the mainframe ecosystem do well when the industry thrives and the mainframe industry thriving depends on there being that next generation of trained mainframers coming up to fill the work force and I think IBM has done a phenomenal job with their Academic Initiative and working with universities and things like Master the Mainframe and the countless other things that they do to get college and university students and so forth interested in careers in mainframe and trained up but also organizations like SHARE doing zNextGen and providing training and really just a sense of family to new mainframers so you know always happy to be involved in those and give of my time and some of Interskill's resources as well. It helps everybody. It helps the whole industry when we've got youngsters coming through and not only training in the mainframe but getting to know that mainframe culture which I know you've spoken about numerous times. It's really important, the back story and the culture and the sense of family and everything else that goes along with this really amazing industry. I don't want to sound like I'm gushing too much but—
 
Reg: Well, then that is neat because I know as somebody who has been going to SHARE with your company for quite a while that you have had an opportunity to really develop an active participation in the mainframe ecosystem and culture. In fact, I think I think you've maybe even gone to some zNextGen events if I recall correctly.
 
Darren: Yeah.
 
Reg: So that said, how long ago did you start going to SHARE? What made you decide to start doing that?
 
Darren: Right when I came to the US to open up our offices over here in about '93 I think it was.
 
Reg: Wow.
 
Darren: We started going to SHARE because that's the main conference for mainframers, so obviously mainframe training is all Interskill does and so we had to be at SHARE and get involved in zNextGen when that came up and I actively speak at SHARE conferences and IBM TechU conferences and anything else that's related to mainframe I'll be glad to speak because those conferences are full of lots of people doing technical sessions but it's pretty rare that you'll find someone speaking about mainframe education and how corporations can better train their mainframe workforce and that's a real issue that mainframe management and mainframe personnel want to know about so it's always really well received.
 
Reg: Well, obviously it's been well received because you've managed to somehow get the designation of IBM Champion for mainframe and that's a pretty special thing. Is this your second or third year? I think your third year now with that designation, isn't it?
 
Darren: Yup, yup, third year in a row. Yeah, this is pretty amazing, and a fantastic program that IBM does recognizing people that are non-IBMers but make a significant impact in the mainframe space, in the ecosystem just giving of their time and speaking of mainframe solutions, or IBM Champion is IBM solutions in general right across all their product lines, but there's about 50 or 60 of us globally that get that IBM Z Champion award every year and it's been an absolute honor as you've said and you're an IBM Champion as well. Congratulations.
 
Reg: Thanks.
 
Darren: To just people who make an impact in the industry, people who are thought leaders in the IBM space but in particular for you and I in the IBM Z mainframe space.
 
Reg: Now you've sort of—on the one hand you’ve kind of have covered generically what you've done over the past 31 years. Wow. You don't look like you're that close to my age but I know you've had a pretty textured existence of bringing these things forward and I'm sort of curious, just in your early days where you learned COBOL and then found yourself in this training thing which—now did you start this training thing, joined them in Australia or had you already moved to EMEA at that point?
 
Darren: No this was an Australian company—
 
Reg: Okay.
 
Darren: And there were probably 50 or 60 organizations in Australia that had mainframe back then in the 90's or in 1990 and it wasn't long before most of these companies started using this and the rest of the mainframe world started finding about CBT. Now this was before the days of the internet, so computer-based training was typically loaded onto PC an IBM PS/2 or something in a training room but when the internet came along, boy the elearning really took off. We came over and opened up in the UK and then came over and opened in the US in '93 so I came over here with the company, so mainframe training is all I've done in my 25 years in the US. This has sort of been my whole life here is traveling around and going to conferences, visiting clients and helping them get their mainframe training program set up properly and as you said, sort of evangelizing to the rest of the industry about best practice, optimal ways of doing training, not just repping my company's product, but just optimal ways of doing training, talking about all of the—
 
Reg: Sure.
 
Darren: Five GTPs and their classroom training, the importance of mentoring and coaching. Now my great passion is IBM digital credentials or digital credentialing in general which is really driving the education industry. That's a fantastic—
 
Reg: Maybe if you could drill down into that a little bit because I think this is such a new thing in the you know IT space generally but especially in the mainframe space. You see all the credentials popping up but you know there's a number of different credentialing organizations out there. IBM is obviously doing it, a few other mainframe vendors are doing it and you folks have them and I notice when somebody posts one of your credentials on LinkedIn, for example, that all their friends give them the claps and the thumbs up and everything. It's obviously a really big deal. What was your journey like into discovering that this is something worth doingand maybe if you could give some insights: How does it all work and why does it matter so much?
 
D: Digital credentialing is very much the way of the future and universities are adopting it now, all of education is adopting it. IBM uses the Credly platform. There are various other platforms out there, Badger and some other ones and industry standards and so forth but the key to digital credentialing is all of the meta data that sits in behind these credentials so rather than it just being a printed off certificate on the wall which you can't really see much, every single badge enables you to click on that badge and see exactly what that person learned or exactly what that person achieved and when they did it, and what was involved and so forth so badges are awarded by IBM for obviously completing courses and things like that but also earning patents, speaking at conferences, finishing projects, being leaders, any number of other things. There are thousands of badges that IBM offers but in the training space for completing courses, the badges will let you click and see a full synopsis of the course, what was included and so it allows employers, organization to see exactly what a person has learnt, to what degree of granularity and the rigor that's gone into it, what tests they've done, what they've scored and so forth so it really give an enormous amount of information. One of the real pluses of digital credentialing is just the way it interacts with human nature. I mean, this is Pokémon Go for us mainframers. You feel driven to earn these things. I've had numerous conversations with people that have earned a number of badges, done 15-20-30 hours worth of training in a year and earned three or four badges, five badges. When you ask them whether they would have done that much training without the badges, they usually laugh and say they probably wouldn't have done hardly any training without the badges. You know it drives people to train and that's what the mainframe industry needs, that's what mainframe organizations need. It's not just about making training available to mainframers. It's about finding a way of getting them to do the training and improve their skills and improve their knowledge because that lifts up the whole industry, so it really is driving exponential increases in the amount of training that gets done around the industry which is fantastic. I mean we all know we should do more training but human nature being human nature, you can often get through a year and think oh boy I wish I had done more training this year but I didn't find the time. The badging gives that a priority and makes people especially like you said when they see their colleagues are earning a bunch of badges on LinkedIn, it gives them a little added incentive to maybe get some of those badges themselves. Another thing as well and I know I'm rambling on, but it takes it out of the realm of just junior people earning—junior mainframers, new mainframers earning these things as they pick up their skills. So many senior mainframers that have skills in the industry are picking some more prestigious badges and earning those, doing advanced training, really building up their skills or expanding their skills and/or as I said before, patents and various leadership things and so forth. That's enticing pushing the senior mainframers to really take on more of a role and learn more skills and be more active in the industry which again all cumulatively really lifts the industry as a whole.
 
R: That's really cool stuff. Now for somebody who's just either considering getting a degree or maybe taking a different path that just involves training or somebody who has just got a degree and they want to sort of up their value to a mainframe job and maybe would like to get some badges, what would you recommend as the best approach for somebody doesn't have an employer to sort of pay the way for them to get some initial badges that would make an employer take them seriously as a mainframe candidate?
 
D: IBM's got quite a bit of base level free training. I think the Master the Mainframe competition which you can Google Master the Mainframe is now phenomenal.  This last year, it was rewritten by Misty Decker and Jeff Bisti and their team and it's fantastic using VS code and Zowe to access the mainframe and there are exercises and all sorts of things in there so they’ll get badges that go along with that and they'll get not only comprehensive training, you know ground level training on the mainframe but also hands on experience. They get to play on a live mainframe which is fantastic. That can sort of build the passion for the career and let employers know that you actually had some time on a mainframe. There's other free stuff from IBM that they can earn. There's low-cost stuff obviously like my company. I won't keep belaboring that point but there's a lot training out there. There are various ways and I suppose I'm not sure how many millions of people listen to your podcast but please find me on LinkedIn or reach out to me if you want some help. I suppose part of why I'm an IBM Champion: I'm always glad to point you in directions, send you some links to various training resources. Meredith Stowell at IBM is the head of such things and her extensive team really does make a lot of fantastic mainframe training available to the industry at either very low cost or no cost to get you started. Then obviously when you're employed, your employer will provide further training and ongoing stuff for you.
 
Reg: That's true. A lot of employers have all you can eat deals with organizations such as Interskill so their employees can just go nuts and train themselves as much as they want right?
 
Darren: Yeah, through their internal program exactly, yeah.
 
Reg: Well, I certainly want to just affirm what you're saying because I know of a number of instances where you've gotten personally involved in helping somebody move their mainframe career forward and so Darren really means it. Take a look at the spelling of his name; it's unique and look him up on LinkedIn or other places. So Darren just before I let you go, I'm curious if you could perhaps give us your thoughts about where the mainframe ecosystem is going from your perspective either if it's just allowed to go naturally or if we sort of take the reins and make some important changes that need to happen?
 
D: Yeah, the mainframe is the core of everything, isn't it? What is it? Nearly 90% of business transactions go through a mainframe and around 90% of the world's business data sits on mainframes so it's—I'm trying to think of the word. Ubiquitous, I think is the word I'm trying to find. I mean, it's everywhere and you may not know it, but it's the reason that countries run as well as they do. It's the reason that big international corporations run as well as they do, the financial industry, the insurance industry, healthcare and so on and so forth. I mean it all revolves around mainframe, so the mainframe is not going anywhere. It's going from strength to strength but the industry is really changing. There's a lot of new technologies. There's a lot of new ways that new programmers can come in and program with the languages they're familiar with and that will all work with the mainframe now so it's really starting to open up, a lot more open-source stuff as well so a career in the mainframe is sort of a fantastic future for you. I'm always really interested in what IBM is doing with quantum and various other things that all starting to tie into the mainframe space so the sky's the limit really once you get involved in the industry, you can really start to branch out and pick any number of careers or specialties, whatever your passion is.
 
Reg: Hmmm. Cool. Well, Darren I really appreciate this. Any last thoughts you wanted to give us?
 
Darren: No. I mean as you said at the start, Reg, it's been fantastic knowing you over this last 20 years and again I'm a big admirer of the impact you've had on the industry.
 
Reg: Thank you.
 
Darren: And I think we both look at the industry the same way. Maybe it's my growing up in the country in Australia or so forth but it really is a big family whether you go to conferences, whether you're working with people. It's amazing how in the mainframe industry so many people know so many other people and we all help each other out. We're all interested in building each other up and helping people whenever we can. I know that it sounds sort of rather out there but that's absolutely what I've found in 30 years. It's just like a big family.
 
Reg: Well, this is so important because it's true in the mainframe. It's not just lip service. It's real.
 
Darren: Yeah.
 
Reg: That’s why I think it's so important that you identify that.
 
Darren: Yeah, yeah so that's been one of my you know one of the best parts of the mainframe industry for me and I suppose that's why I'm always happy to give back as well is because I see other people doing it around me. It's the example that I've had set for me over 30 years is other people helping you know from IBM executives that talk to people at conferences just the run of the mill programmers and operators and people—it never seems to be anyone put out no matter how high they are in the ecosystem or not. They're always willing to spend a minute, have a chat and hear people's point of view and so forth but obviously not totally but it's been remarkable compared to other industries and other groups of people that I've come across. I'm always amazed by the mainframe industry and just recently too. I mean ten years ago going to conferences there was lots of oldies. You know the mainframe industry started in the '60's and the 70's and there were hundreds of thousands of people hired and they're all a lot of grey-haired folk in the mainframe industry when I first came into it but I go to conferences obviously before Covid but over the last few years, you'd go to conferences and there's just so many youngsters. They're breathing new life and giving new energy and bringing new ideas into this thing so I'm sort of you know with 10 or 15 years left to go with my career, I'm really looking forward to seeing the impact of all these youngsters and the new technologies and stuff. There's some exciting stuff ahead.
 
Reg: Excellent. Well Darren, this has been a real treat. Thank you so much for taking the time.
 
Darren: Always welcome Reg.
 
Reg: So, I'll be back with another podcast next month but in the meantime, check out the other content on TechChannel. You can also subscribe to their weekly newsletters, webinars, ebooks, solutions directory, and more on the subscription page. I'm Reg Harbeck.
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