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‘A Fascinating Piece of Machinery’

Truth: Sabine Diemt, a Learjet pilot and IBM Champion, said those words about the mainframe

This transcript is edited for clarity.

Reg Harbeck:
Hi I’m Reg Harbeck, and today I’m here with Sabine Diemt. She is an IBM zed Student Ambassador Captain, an IBM Champion for zed mainframes, and a Learjet captain on top of all that. Sabine, welcome. Tell us first of all, before we even get to the mainframe, how did you end up being a Learjet captain? And anything else you want to tell us leading up to that.

Sabine Diemt: Hi Reg, it’s very good to be here today. Thank you. How did I end up being a Learjet captain? Well, I was always interested in aviation since I was a little girl. I actually wanted to fly helicopters, but I could not afford that so I started to study for airplanes. After school I was working as a software developer and saw an opportunity to work as a flight dispatcher. By that time, I had no clue what a flight dispatcher does, but I thought I’d give it a go. I applied for that position with a business jet company in Austria, and they offered me the job. But that’s how I got into aviation. I did my pilot’s license during that time as well. And after a couple of years there was an opportunity to fly a Learjet 60 for that specific company based in Moscow. So that happened in 2011, and since then I fly Learjet 60s.

Reg: OK. So basically for the past 13 years you’ve been flying Learjet 60s. Now, I’m not an expert on planes. I know Learjets are cool—like, automatically I hear Learjet and I think, “cool.” But can you maybe give us a sense of what are some of the distinguishing features of the Learjet in terms of capacity, speed, range, anything else that you think is really cool about a Learjet 60.

Sabine: Well, the Learjet 60, they are said to be the thing that comes closest to a fighter jet.

Reg: Wow.

Sabine: So they are very responsive and very nice to fly, and they are excellent climbers. I mean, we are definitely not the fastest ones there, but we can climb like a rocket. So it’s always like, especially when it’s a cold day, it’s just a pleasure to fly that thing. Like I remember the other day out of Zurich, we were quite empty. We had a short leg and we had a climb rate of something like 6,000–7,000 feet per minute. So that’s really a fun thing. The baggage capacity is not that great. You can put, let’s say, eight passengers in the aircraft and it was basically built to fly in the U.S. east coast to west coast. So that’s about the range you’re looking at.

Reg: Wow. Which is basically the size of Europe. You know from the east coast to the west coast, I’m going to guess you can probably go from Ireland to Moscow on a single hop then, couldn’t you?

Sabine: Not quite, but yeah. Let’s say you can do Dubai to Moscow, Moscow to Nice. Stuff like that you can do, yeah.

Reg: So I’m going to guess there’s probably not too many countries in Europe that you haven’t flown to at this point.

Sabine: I don’t think there are. All the countries that have an airport I’ve flown to. I’m currently based in the Middle East, so I have flown a lot in the Middle East as well. We also did some flights to Asia, to the U.S.—I was in the U.S. the year I was in Canada—in Hong Kong, Singapore. Quite a lot of countries, yeah.

Reg: So the question that everybody listening to this is asking is: that is so fascinating! What on earth would make you want to be a mainframer? I mean I can ask you more questions about your life just because it’s so fascinating, but let’s start talking about the mainframe now. What the heck made you want to be a mainframer, when you could be a Learjet captain?

Sabine: Well, you know, when I first got in touch with the mainframe, I saw something about Master the Mainframe, and I saw that green screen and it reminded me of something. When I was at school and I worked in a company which had an AS/400. I worked with that, and that reminded me of the AS/400. I was curious: what is it about the mainframe? What is this thing? So I looked more into it. That’s how I got into the IBM zed Student Ambassador program and I think it’s a fascinating piece of machinery. You have some parallels to aviation and some major differences as well, obviously. But just when you look into—let’s say you look into the security. I mean, we test everything extensively in aviation before you can use something.

Reg: Right.

Sabine: And if you know the video of P.J. Catalano in his test center, you can see as well, like how those machines are being tested. So all this safety and security, you have this parallel thing there between mainframes and aviation. On the other hand, if I look at my aircraft, people think aviation is so modern and mainframes are old, and actually it’s the other way around, right? Because this aircraft I fly, this exists since more than 30 years, and if you want to do any modernization in aviation, that’s very difficult because everything has to be tested so extensively. It costs a lot of money, you need a lot of permissions from authorities. So it’s very difficult to implement any modernization, any changes in aviation. So for instance, some of the models of the Learjet 60, when you do the database updates for the navigation database, you still use zip disks. I use a Windows XP laptop when I do my database updates. You can’t use anything modern there! And then you take the mainframe and you have a z16 and you have quantum-safe algorithms, for instance. Yeah, so I find it very fascinating.

Reg: Cool. Now somehowI mean, obviously you’re saying you were already programming before you started flying, so you had a bit of an inroad for computing—but some opportunity must have clicked for you to get more and more fascinated with the mainframe that you had this chance to say, well, look at all the strengths of it. What was your on-ramp into the mainframe when you were already professionally a Learjet pilot? What was the opportunity?

Sabine: Well, the opportunity actually was the Ambassador program. And I love learning more about the mainframe, so that really got me into that, and we are very fortunate in the program that we have. They don’t only encourage us to do the IBM Z Xplore, but we also have access to Interskill courses. So we can do all the Interskill courses.

Reg: Oh, nice.

Sabine: So we have lots of learning opportunities there, lots of networking opportunities. So that’s really a great thing and I love making use of that those opportunities. You never know what’s happening in aviation, so I think it’s also a good thing to fall back on. I mean you have thousands of millions of Java developers around, but who knows something about mainframe? So I think that’s really a good path to follow there.

Reg: Very cool. You’re not just following the path, you actually are just finishing a bachelor’s degree as well. So how does that all fit in? How did you end up starting, and tell us maybe a bit about your degree, including your thesis.

Sabine: Yeah, I’m soon finishing my degree, luckily. So, like I say, I studied a Bachelor of Science at a distance learning university in Germany. And I just finished my thesis, which is about a requirements review based on a user survey for a university-wide, user-centered research data management system. So I was looking into those research data management systems, and to find out what users want in those systems, and how to have one which can be used by all scientific fields. I’m actually going to present my thesis next week. Let’s see what people will think about it. I’ve also published a paper already about it.

Reg: Oh, congratulations. Best wishes.

Sabine: So one more exam to go then, and then I have my bachelor’s degree and probably continue with my master’s degree, I think.

Reg: Wow. OK, so basically you’re using your career as a jet pilot to fund your second career as a mainframer, having gone into a career as a jet pilot from working on computer programming—I’m just trying to fit all this together—and somewhere along the way you became an IBM Champion for Zed as well. How did that all kind of fit in? Was that an outgrowth of your student ambassadorship?

Sabine: Yeah, I did a lot of advocating during my ambassadorship and that’s how I got into the Champions program. So I continue learning and I continue advocating for the platform, and I was fortunate enough to be able to help other people with the furthering their education, their knowledge. I’m also involved with the Academic Mainframe Consortium in Germany for the Germany-Austria-Switzerland region. So all those activities helped me get into the Champions program where again I can learn more and more. I learn so much from other Champions in that area, which is a huge opportunity.

Reg: Now so you say you’re going on to do a master’s degree. Now you know we each do our master’s degrees at different times of our life for different reasons. As you might know, I just finished my master’s degree, just coming up 2 1/2 years ago—36 years after I got my bachelor’s degree—and mine was in humanities. But it sounds like you’re going to kind of dive right into your master’s degree. What are you hoping to do with your bachelor’s and master’s degrees when you’re done? Are you going to move straight into a mainframe career, or do you have something else in mind?

Sabine: That’s a good question, Reg. I don’t have anything specific in mind right now. Right now I would say it’s just, you know, I did not move out of IT because I was not interested in it. It was just aviation interested me more, but it’s so essential to have a Plan B there. I like learning more, I like keeping my knowledge up-to-date, and what I also love to see is during the events in the area of IBM Z, what I saw so far, I found bits and pieces of stuff that I learned at university… This is not just theory, this is something that people actually use in their daily work. So I can see this really helps me, and this really increases my knowledge and hopefully helps me in the future and when I do move in into a job in the mainframe sector. Having said that, I’m mostly interested in Db2 at the moment. So I try to delve into that a lot because also in the past, I worked with databases, which is something that really interests me. But also, the academic way of working: I think it helps me in many ways in my job—to see things differently, I would say, to analyze things differently. And it also brought me in touch with the Austrian Space Forum, which is the performing analog Mars missions for years already. So I’m part of the remote science support team there. So the academic background that I have now helps me support experiments in analog Mars missions there. It all fits together somehow.

Reg: Wow! Well, another thing that fits together is something you’ve just started doing. I saw this on LinkedIn—and gliding! I mean, talk about bringing your passion for aviation to the most pure possible expression of it. What are your thoughts on gliding and how it fits in with everything else?

Sabine: Oh yeah, I had my first glider flight recently, and it was a glider aerobatics flight. So my thoughts about gliding is I probably share the same destiny—like my flight instructor back then he said he stopped gliding because he was always on the ground before the tow aircrafts. He was not exactly the best one to find thermals—it might happen to me as well, I don’t know. But I find that glider pilots are the best. Because, I mean, we have an engine in our aircraft. We come in short, we didn’t maybe do the best planning, whatever, [but] we always have some power. We have some power and off we go. The glider pilot—of course we train as well to land the aircraft without engines, so if we have a total engine failure we can do that as well. But glider pilots, they are so much better in those things, I think. They are masters.

Reg: Well, we have some Canadian—I want to call it lore, but I know it actually happened—called the Gimli glider, where back during the conversion—you’ve heard of it?

Sabine: Yeah, I’ve heard of it.

Reg: During the conversion from imperial to metric, an airplane fueled up in liters instead of gallons of gas, and thinking they’re getting gallons. And here they’re flying right across the middle of Canada and they ran out of fuel. The pilot fortunately happened to be a glider pilot as well, and so he had this jumbo jet and he basically glided it to a disused airstrip in Gimli, Manitoba, and landed safely without any fuel. And so that’s sort of part of our whole Canadian culture—that glider pilot saved everybody’s lives with that skill set.

Sabine: Yeah. And you saw it with Sullenberger as well. Who knows? I mean, for sure. He utilized his knowledge about being a glider pilot and that promised to have a better outcome for everyone.

Reg: Now that said, we’ve talked about all the things that kind of came together and enabled you to be successful, but there have been challenges as well. Among many other challenges, I’m going to guess that as challenging as it can be to be a woman in IT, probably being a woman in corporate jet piloting has also had a lot of important experiences and lessons for you. Maybe you can reflect on both of those?

Sabine: Yeah, I never had any issues of being a woman in IT. I was also at school—I was in an IT school. I was, in the end, I was the only girl in the class, but I had no issues with that. But when it comes to flying, yeah. People say for the commercial pilots, about 5% worldwide on average are women. So it’s a tiny, tiny fraction – I never flew with a woman, actually, because they are really so few. But since I was initially based in Moscow, we had several customers. They saw me in the cockpit, they said, “the other guy is flying. We don’t want her on the controls.”

Reg: Oh.

Sabine: So some people really have that thinking that women cannot fly an aircraft. Also, this has nothing to do with the muscles or anything. On the other hand, now I fly in the Middle East and the owner I fly for, he chose me over a man. He preferred having a woman—although I fly a lot in Saudi Arabia, which is an experience for itself!

Reg: Oh, I’m certain!

Sabine: Yeah. A couple of years ago I could not even do the radio because nobody would talk with me on the frequency. It was impossible. Things changed a lot, so now you have female controllers as well in Saudi Arabia. But I also had occasions—so I’m a captain. I had a copilot, someone from Germany, but originally African, and the security at the airport didn’t want to let me out. They said, “where is the captain? There is no captain here! I mean, there is a woman here, but she cannot be the captain! I mean, at least the black guy—at least he should be the captain!” “No, he’s the copilot.” “No, that cannot be!” So it was about 10 minutes of discussion until I was allowed to go out to my aircraft.

Reg: Wow.

Sabine: Some funny things.

Reg: Yeah! Now has as you move your career forward, I just have this sense that as much as you’re open to working directly on the mainframe, that probably these opportunities are going to grab hold of you and get you to do stuff that brings together all of these different abilities. And I think one of the interesting things is that you’re already a captain twice over, you know, nd neither time a military captain. So is there a connection between you having reached the rank of captain in the Learjet, and then having reached the rank of captain in the student ambassador program?

Sabine: The first might have helped me with the latter, because as a captain I have leadership experience. Being an ambassador captain, it’s all about leadership, supporting new student ambassadors in their journey. So I’m pretty sure that my experience as an aircraft captain helped me being a student ambassador captain there. Yeah, definitely.

Reg: Cool. So this has been fascinating, and I feel like I could keep asking more and more questions. There’s so much here, but I’d like to sort of open the floor to you and ask you, first of all, any additional things you’d like to share about your journey or your thoughts about where the mainframe is at. But also, where do you see the mainframe going and what’s your role in that if it’s up to you, in the near, medium, or far future of the mainframe and the role you’ll play in it. A whole bunch of questions.

Sabine: Well, my role, I hope I can bring more people onto the mainframe in my role as an IBM Champion or with the Academic Mainframe Consortium to help people learn about the mainframe—to see It’s not an old machine that nobody uses anymore, it’s not all about only COBOL—and that those things run the world. Yeah, I hope I can do my part in that, to show that. Because also at my university I had some events with professors of my university, and when I asked them if they would be a speaker, where the topic was about mainframe and AI, they were like, “oh, the mainframe still exists?” And the mainframe is not mentioned in any of our books at the university and it’s really so surprising. We learn about floppy disks and stuff, but we don’t learn anything about the mainframe. It simply does not exist at my university. So I hope I can change that a bit and show people that they have a future working on those machines.

Reg: Excellent. So this has been outstanding! Any last thoughts you have?

Sabine: Any last thoughts? I hope I can also learn from you, from your experience. And it was so great meeting you and I really enjoyed also when we met for the first time personally in Barcelona at the TechXchange, and I hope we can meet again. So it was really a pleasure, Reg.

Reg: Yes, absolutely.

Sabine: Thank you so much.

Reg: I’m inspired. You know, going there to IBM TechXchange in Barcelona, I met a whole bunch of really cool people. But I have to say that the coolness factor—I’m not in the habit of comparing myself to how cool other people are because it’s like, you know, I don’t actually measure on that scale. But even so, the coolness factor just boggled my mind and it is just so neat that somebody who literally defines cool is choosing the mainframe—and who knows what you’re going to do with it? But I think it’s going to be really neat to see what you do with all of this ability, this opportunity and I certainly look forward to staying in touch as your career proceeds and hopefully meeting again in person lots of times. It’s been a real pleasure. Thank you so much Sabine, for taking the time.

Sabine: Thank you very much, 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, e-books, the Solutions Directory and more on the subscription page. I’m Reg Harbeck.