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Closing the Mainframe Skills Gap With Diverse New Talent

How Albany State University’s Dr. Robert Owor is advocating for mainframe education and diversity in the technology ecosystem

It’s no secret that the mainframe community is in need of fresh talent—it’s a message you’re likely to hear from any large company or university computer science program today. Adia Sakura-Lemessy, a student at Albany State University (ASU), a historically Black college (HBCU) in Georgia, says the problem is that “[people] don’t know that the mainframe is an option, they don’t know what it is and they don’t know what they can do with it.”

Classmate Tyler Mills adds, “A lot of [mainframers] are on their way out, but [universities] keep getting rid of these credentials … that they desperately need in order to train students.”

Dr. Robert Owor, a professor at ASU, is working to change that narrative through the IBM cybersecurity program at the university.

“We focus on the mainframe,” says Dr. Owor. “We believe the mainframe is here to stay and every student should learn it, then they can learn other things.” Students in the program focus not only on cybersecurity, but also on topics like blockchain, artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics and Internet of Things—all on the mainframe.

Learning the Mainframe 

Before coming to Albany State, neither Sakura-Lemessy nor Mills had an interest in the mainframe. After arriving on campus, however, a classmate introduced Sakura-Lemessy to the platform. She recalls, “He asked … ’Do you know about the mainframe?’ And at first my reaction was just, whatever, it’s just a big computer. I wasn’t that interested in it.” As she learned more about the mainframe, however, her interest grew. She says, “A lot of what I do is more of the general programming and cybersecurity interest and I’m pivoting some of that knowledge now toward … the mainframe.”

For Mills, the path to the mainframe was different. After starting a desktop support job and taking an interest in cybersecurity, Mills shifted from a major in forensic science to computer science.

Both students cite Dr. Owor’s support—and the efforts of other professors in the program—as a factor in their decision to study computer science, along with the career opportunities the program has opened up. In addition to the program at ASU, both students have used external resources like Corella, Interskill and IBM Z Xplore to develop mainframe skills.

Key Takeaways From SHARE

This spring, Sakura-Lemessy and Mills were among a group of seven students from ASU who attended SHARE Atlanta, an enterprise IT conference. Registration is free for students, and the college paid for each student’s hotel accommodations.

Dr. Owor gathers a group of students to go to the conference every year. “The students are always totally surprised by how big the mainframe is, how big the community is and how much they can do on the mainframe,” he says. “They come back from the conference so excited. And from then on, I don’t have to preach anymore. Once I take them to SHARE, they really understand what the mainframe is.”

SHARE Atlanta was the first time Sakura-Lemessy and Mills had experienced a tech conference. “It opened my horizon, seeing that mainframes are really just a platform and a tool for all the other stuff you want to do in computer science,” says Sakura-Lemessy.

Brushing shoulders with industry professionals was one of the biggest highlights for the students. Sakura-Lemessy notes, “You can actually see a person who does this for a living and just shake their hand and take their LinkedIn profile. And that really does a lot to kind of ground what you’re imagining when you can actually see and interact with someone who does that.” Mills adds that even seemingly small conversations with industry professionals made a big difference, helping him understand how he can apply his cybersecurity knowledge to the mainframe.

In addition to networking, the students had the chance to attend technical sessions at SHARE, which opened Sakura-Lemessy’s eyes to the wide range of possibilities in the mainframe ecosystem. She notes, “It was just getting there and going to some of the presentations when actually I began to realize … there’s a lot here that I actually could do. It is a lot bigger than I was assuming before.”

The students also came away from the conference with hands-on learning opportunities. Dr. Owor notes, “Most of the students who went to the SHARE conference have gotten opportunities as a result of connections and networks they established.”

Diversity in the Mainframe Ecosystem

In addition to training students in order to close the skills gap, Dr. Owor is working to bring more people from diverse backgrounds to the mainframe workforce. He explains, “I want to bring this diverse group into technology—and I want them specifically in computer science—and I want them specifically in mainframe, so that they can solve the next big challenges of the world, such as climate change, agriculture and food health, major health problems. All these problems are going to be solved by the computer.”

As a student in STEM at an HBCU, Sakura-Lemessy says there is a fair amount of imposter syndrome. “Sometimes you get so bogged down [by] the idea of what you don’t know that you start to forget what you actually do know and are capable of. So I really feel like what companies … really need to do is just be there to support us,” she says.

Sakura-Lemessy urges companies and universities to be present in conversations about diversity, offer hands-on training and mentorship—and think critically about why diversity is necessary. She adds, “Sometimes it feels more like it’s the concept that diversity would look good over, ‘We want to have diverse people in our boardrooms, in our companies, in our workspaces’… Helping us get there would really make a difference in showing us that we are capable of doing it. And there is a space for people like us in these industries.”

Mills notes that diversifying workforces not only benefits individuals, but the company and ecosystem as a whole. “It opens up a different perspective on how we tackle problems … [it’s] imperative that you not only look at something through one lens because the reality of it is there are a million different lenses on one different focal point. So, we’re all looking at something, but we all have a different way of how we solve a problem,” says Mills. “And that’s where diversity comes in, because the next person [may have a solution that’s not necessarily] better or worse, but it’s still a different solution than what you have.”

As more experienced mainframers are retiring from the platform or aging out of their careers, the need for new talent to replace them is always growing. “Why don’t we train this young, diverse group and bring them on board?” asks Dr. Owor. “That’s the challenge that I have.” Dr. Owor’s mission—bringing in and training new talent from diverse backgrounds—offers a two-fold solution to the growing skills gap and the need for more diversity in the technology landscape. And with bright, eager talent like Sakura-Lemessy and Mills entering the scene, the future looks promising.