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Cameron Seay Raises Student Awareness of Mainframe Opportunities

Reg Harbeck talks with Cameron Seay, professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, about the need for mainframe education for students. Listen to the interview via the orange play button above or read the transcript below.

Reg: Hello, this is Reg Harbeck, and today I have the pleasure of talking to Dr. Cameron Seay, a mainframe professor who has had a very active role in developing a new generation on the mainframe. Cameron, maybe I can get you to briefly introduce yourself?

Cameron: Sure. My name is Cameron Seay. I am on the faculty at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University at Greensboro, North Carolina, USA. This is my sixth year there. Previously, I was at North Carolina Central University in Durham, North Carolina, which is where I became introduced to the mainframe platform.

Reg: Great. Now, you have sort of a unique role on the mainframe. Many of the mainframers that we're used to are people who have come up through the technology either as IBM employees or as systems people, or something of that nature, and eventually gotten involved in organizations like SHARE. But you, on the other hand, sort of came up through the education route and have been a key contributor to the development of a new generation on the mainframe. Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about your journey onto the mainframe and what led you to become a mainframe professor.

Cameron: Sure. I was in the industry for about 20 years in various roles, so maybe the last five to seven years in more of a managerial than a technical role, but I never encountered the mainframe in my professional capacity as an IT guy. I did kind of indirectly, and that was as a SAS programmer for a little while, but the SAS programs we were running were run on the mainframe, but that was kind of transparent to me. I did not know anything about the platform. I got a teaching position at North Carolina Central University in 2004, and in January of 2005, Don Resnik—who was then running the IBM Academic Initiative—on his way to NC State to talk about the Academic Initiative just happened to, he got a phone call from an IBM person and asked him to come by and talk to me at North Carolina Central just kind of on his way, so we were actually the first official stop of the Academic Initiative to universities just kind of coincidentally.

Reg: Cool.

Cameron: So, Don made a presentation, and I didn’t know anything about the role the mainframe could play in our program. I was oblivious to it before that morning. During Don's presentation, it took me about maybe 30 seconds to see that this was a niche that was ideal for our students, specifically, because we are a historically black college, which generally are smaller universities, more profile, have less resources, and so it is more of a challenge to get your students exposed to the industry, so this seemed like a very, very nice niche for us to have some presence and some visibility, and that has been the case both in North Carolina Center and in North Carolina A&T.

Reg: Cool. Now, of course you have a bit of a background in technology that allowed you to recognize this opportunity. Maybe you could just sort of shed a little bit of light of how you ended up being a computing professor that led you to have the opportunity to recognize this?

Cameron: Yeah, glad to share that journey. So, I define information technology in kind of a specific way that we don't need to go into for the purpose or this call, but I have a very clear understanding of what information technology is and, essentially, in just a sentence or two, it is the convergence of disparate technologies with programming, networking, project management and database. These are distinct and clearly identifiable technologies, and to me, information technology is the convergence or the overlapping of these technologies into practical applications that are used by businesses and organizations. So, that is kind of my entry point into information technology as a profession. So, I really liked information technology. It very much spoke to kind of my personality. It is kind of free flowing, open and kind of willy-nilly. You do something this week that you didn't do last week, etc., so I really like the discipline, and I define information technology as a discipline. I enjoyed the discipline of information technology, so I was pretty good at it and I rose up the ranks. I was in some pretty well paying positions for most of my career, but there was kind of an emptiness there in that I felt that I should be making a contribution more to society and to my community. One of the things I noticed is that, invariably, I would be the only African-American in a lot of these meetings, these technical meetings, these technical projects. There would be no African-Americans and be very few females. You know, looking at what it took to do this, you really did not need to be any particular type of genius to be good at information technology. You just needed a personality that allows you to have some persistence, some diligence, understand problem solving. I knew there were a lot of kids in the communities that I came from that fit that bill, so the reason I went into a Ph.D. program was to kind of understand why there were not more African-Americans and more females in information technology. My Ph.D. was actually in educational psychology, as opposed to computer science or information systems. I got some pretty satisfying answers looking at the scholarship, immersing myself in scholarship for, you know, five to seven years. So, basically, it is exposure; it is resources, things of that nature. A lot of the students, from both North Carolina Central and A&T, they do not come from professional families. A lot of them come from rural backgrounds, and they don't have a lot of professional exposure to the professional world. They don't have a lot of exposure to technology. A lot of their schools don't have very good technology programs, so that is why I evolved into an academic. I did a site visit to North Carolina Central University—I think in 2002, 2003, something like that—and when I met the students, immediately it became clear to me that this is something that I could do and I would enjoy doing, so that is my role, my transition from IT person to academic.

Reg: Cool. Now, at some point you also transitioned into a very avid supporter of SHARE. I was wondering if you could sort of tell us, how did you end up coming to SHARE in the first case, and how do you keep coming? We have had a number of mainframe professors come to SHARE but none as consistently as yourself.

Cameron: With one word I can answer that question, and that is the community. Right? It is the mainframe, as you know, is a very engaging and embracing community. When I went to my first SHARE, it was at the behest of IBM. I had no idea what SHARE was. This was in 2008, and it was in San Diego in the summer of 2008. Don Resnik—again, who was running the Academic Initiative—he said, “Well, you know, we'd really love for you to come to this conference,” and at that point in time, SHARE was really putting in effort to getting more students involved in the organization. So, I came to San Diego and I just—it was transformational. It was very enjoyable. I wasn't at the technical level that most of the people there were. I was a technical guy but not technical in mainframe. Mainframe is a deep pool, and these folks had much, much more experience and understanding of the technology than I did, but I had the enthusiasm. I like complex stuff. I like stuff that challenges me. I like a challenge, and that is what mainframe is for. Mainframe is for those kinds of people who like a challenge, and they picked on that and we just became very, very close with support from IBM, primarily, some other companies. I was able to attend most of the SHARE meetings. Most of the times I was able to go to two a year, usually would go to at least one a year. I can't think of—maybe one year—I missed both of them, but for the most part I have gone to either one or both of the SHARE conferences, and it has been very, very enjoyable. I want to make a note that when I was at North Carolina Central, we brought the first group of students that had been there in a while. Maybe some students had been there awhile back, but I brought 10 students. We drove a van from Durham, North Carolina, in Orlando, Florida, in that February or March in the meeting in 2009. I took 10 students there in a cargo van—well, not a cargo van but a passenger van—and they just loved it. They were treated like rock stars. The conference loved them, so that explains it, and I have been trying to be more or less a fixture at SHARE. I love going to SHARE. I love the camaraderie. I love the technical information you get there, so I mean, SHARE is probably the best conference I go to.

Reg: Awesome. Now, I think probably one of the most important things, the insights you can give our listeners, is about your students. I know you are absolutely super proud of the awesome students that you have, and so many of them show up at SHARE and become part of the future of SHARE—certainly active in the projects including zNextGen—so, maybe you should give us some thoughts about your students.

Cameron: I would love to. I would love to. Both at North Carolina Central and North Carolina A&T, the demographic is they are both public universities and the demographics is probably still 60 to 65 percent of the students are the first person in their families to graduate from college, so a lot of them come from rural backgrounds. Some of them come from urban backgrounds. Most of them don't come from any money. The main thing that they bring to the table is ambition and hunger, right, and they are spectacular. To see the transformation that this technology has allowed them to elevate themselves with is just very, very moving. We probably put maybe 140 students in the industry—both in the entire system and full-time jobs. There are dozens of success stories of students whose lives have been transformed, and generations that come after them will be much better off because of their involvement with this technology. They work hard, and one of the things I have to commend them on—because this is challenge that a lot of other schools are facing—convincing undergraduates to pursue mainframe as a career. It has never been a problem at North Carolina Central or North Carolina A&T. Maybe it is the way I sell it. I don't know, but our students just pick up on it, and they say, “This makes sense. Everybody uses this. Very few people are teaching it. If I learn this, it gives me a decided competitive advantage in getting a job in IT,” and so it has been a wonderful experience for the students. I can't praise them enough. They work hard. One of the things that the companies like about them is that, because a lot of them don't come from affluence, when they are given an opportunity, they are willing to dig and work. They are not worrying about, “When is my coffee break? How much vacation time do I get?” We train them to focus on the value that you can add to the organization. That is the way you are going to maximize what you get out of it, so that's been my story with the students, and it is the reason I stay in this. It most certainly is not the money. I do it for the students.

Reg: Well, that said, I mean, the students on the other hand, really do get serious career-enabling money, don't they?

Cameron: Oh, yeah, they do. They do. We are starting now seeing a 10 to 15 to 20,000 dollar differential between what the students get in kind of generic IT—with the decided exceptions of superstar programmers—but for the most part, standard stock and trade IT jobs start anywhere between $45,000 to $55,000 a year. Our students are starting—I can't remember the last time I have seen an offer letter for less than $60,000.

Reg: Awesome.

Cameron: And we are touching $80,000 regularly. That is pretty good money in the U.S.

Reg: Yeah. I guess to close up, if you have any other thoughts about the mainframe, its role in your life or just, you know, how you are looking to the future and seeing where things are going that matters? Any closing thoughts?

Cameron: Sure, some closing thoughts. So, I've had a lot of conversations with a lot of people—both in IBM and outside of IBM—about the future of the platform. There seems to be an attitude that the z/OS workloads are going to kind of plateau and maybe slightly diminish over time. I see the future as Linux on this platform, this technology. It allows you to do things with Linux that no other platform will allow you to do, so I am very much looking forward to us evolving and, as you know—you have been in mainframe for a long time—every time you try to kill the mainframe, it finds another way to stay alive, so I'm looking forward to seeing how this technology is going to evolve and looking forward to working with the community going into the future. The future is very bright. I thank you very much for this opportunity to share a little bit about.

Reg: Thank you. We got a little bit of a gap there when you said “an opportunity to share,” so if I can get you to just finish up with that thought again?

Cameron: Yeah. What part?

Reg: You were just sort of finishing up. You said, “Thank you very much for this opportunity to share,” and I just wanted to allow you to finish that thought.

Cameron: Oh, no, no. That was all. I didn't have anything else. I am just very grateful for the opportunity. I pretty much concluded what I had to say.

Reg: OK.

Cameron: But I am very much looking forward to the future.

Reg: Excellent. Well, thank you, Cameron.

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