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The Open Mainframe Project Mentorship Program: The Next Generation of Mainframe Talent

“It’s a fantastic thing to know that as a community we have the ability to give back to the broader ecosystem,” says John Mertic, Director of Program Management at the Linux Foundation. For the past six years, Mertic and several other staff have coordinated the Open Mainframe Project Mentorship Program, helping participants learn valuable mainframe skills to launch their careers while contributing to open-source projects that will make it easier for certain infrastructure applications to run on the mainframe.

Through one-on-one mentorship, participants learn crucial skills to be successful in technology roles, including project planning, communication and problem-solving.

Getting Started

Before mentors and mentees are paired up, candidates apply to specific projects that are selected by the mentors. The key requirement is that the project must be open source—and be designed to benefit the larger open-source and mainframe communities. Mentors come from many backgrounds, but most often from Open Mainframe Project’s communities or member companies.

When reviewing candidates’ applications, mentors evaluate the aptitude and technology area of the candidates, but “one big thing is to understand the personal drive of the student because this is a program where they’re not going to be directed what to do … it’s really on the mentee to be the driver,” says Mertic.

Candidates who are accepted into the program participate in a three-month mentorship, working around 40 hours a week on the project assigned by their mentor and building both the technical and soft skills needed to succeed in today’s technology environment. Mertic notes, “The mentee is really put in a position like in the real world, where they’re given a problem and they have to find their way through it.”

That’s where the mentors come in, providing technical knowledge and helping mentees determine the scope of their projects. Similar to other jobs, it takes time for students to get up and running with their projects. In the early stages of the mentorship, mentors and mentees work together to create a project plan, determining milestones, deliverables and ways to track progress or detect if the mentee falls behind.

Then, the mentors take a step back and offer support when it’s needed. “Often, mentees haven’t had to work like this before,” adds Mertic. “It’s a new dynamic for them.” While mentors are there to offer technical knowledge, most of their time is spent building a relationship with their mentees, helping them develop soft skills and adjust to a new environment.

The Value of Mentorship

Since it started in 2015, more than 55 mentees have graduated from the program, bringing new talent into the mainframe community. “There’s a high level of attraction to cloud and web technologies. Mainframe just didn’t have that same appeal in some cases … I think this program has changed that perception quite a bit and brought in a new generation to this technology,” says Mertic.

In addition to highlighting the value of the mainframe, the program exposes mentees to career opportunities and helps them build relationships with other professionals through conferences. Before the pandemic, the first class of mentees presented at SHARE in 2016 with much success. “They were the hot stuff at the show,” notes Mertic. “It was actually one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had here at The Linux Foundation and even in my career as a whole. I get to see students who come from backgrounds that maybe never would have gotten them exposed to this technology, and through this program, they’re able to.”

Mentorship Program Results

The Mentorship Program has a demonstrated history of success. For example, many of the initial projects focused on Kubernetes, Cloud Foundry, HyperLedger and a number of other open-source projects—all with the goal of exposing students to the mainframe. Mertic notes, “There’s career opportunities out of it, which many of our mentees have went on to have careers in mainframe and many in our various member organizations.”

In the past few years, Mertic says the Open Mainframe Project has started to build up a larger portfolio, opening up more opportunities for mentorships and interest in the projects. For example, a previous mentee has taken over as maintainer of the Software Discovery Tool project. “It got them introduced to the mainframe, but then they were also able to take on a leadership role in open source so it was a great stepping stone for them,” notes Mertic. In fact, one of the first mentee projects involved porting Alpine Linux to the S390X architecture—that mentee also went on to maintain that same port, go to grad school based on his work and get a job in the IBM Labs in Germany.

“We get amazing talent,” reflects Mertic. “I think that’s really one thing that everyone in this community is impressed with, saying, ‘Wow, people really want to be here.’”

What’s Next for the Mentorship Program?

Looking to the future of the program, Mertic says, “We certainly always want to grow it.” The biggest barrier to the growth of the program? Funding. “The more membership dollars, the more funding that comes in, we’re able to push those dollars back into the program,” Mertic says.

Before the pandemic, mentees were able to take advantage of in-person meetings and conferences, giving them additional exposure to the community and to new technology. “We’re hoping to start bringing mentees back in person,” says Mertic. Another goal for the program is to start partnering with more university programs and offering academic credit for completing a mentorship.

With more than 350 applicants so far this year—recording record numbers—the future looks bright for the Mentorship Program. 2022 Summer Mentorship opportunities are now open, and you can apply here to be a mentor or a mentee up until May 18, 2022.

With the continued growth of the program, mentors and mentees will continue to impact the mainframe community and bring in fresh talent. Mertic says, “The impetus is this: Let’s get this next generation in here and let’s use the previous generation to connect them to the future.”