SHARE’s newest IBM Liaison, Al Chakra, currently serves as program director and achieved the distinction of master inventor at IBM where he works on IBM Z out of a North Carolina office. Throughout his 22 years with IBM, he has held multiple positions — from architect and software developer to tester and release manager — and has led such groups as the Patent champions group (he has filed more than 300 patent applications in the United States and globally).
Today, we’re sitting down with Al to chat all about his new role with SHARE, what he thinks of “skills gap” cries, and a glimpse at the future of mainframe and IBM.
SHARE: How did you come to the IBM Z community? Did you first fall in love with mainframe/tech in college or did you stumble upon the career later in life?
Al: I’ve spent nearly my whole career within the broader IBM Z community. Starting out, I supported IBM and its clients working on the print services in MVS in the mid ‘90s. About two years later, I joined the web server group, which at the time was called Domino Go Webserver for OS/390 and IBM HTTP Server for OS/390. Remember the e-business hype? As you can imagine, from there I lived the evolving world of our industry when pervasive computing became the thing (i.e., serving web pages to the early generations of mobile devices). In the last few years, I've been part of the z/OS development team, where I feel an enormous sense of pride and responsibility. Working on IBM Z means servicing critical operations, which, in turn, keep the business world turning. The most significant revelation for me when falling in love with the IBM Z community was seeing the innovation it encompasses. I enjoy serving as a mentor in various capacities, including helping others to develop inventions and attending community organization events like SHARE. I also frequently lecture within IBM, local organizations, and universities on various topics such as the importance of innovation.
SHARE: What have been some of the highlights of your career at IBM and with SHARE?
Al: There are a lot of highlights to fit into 20+ years! When you join the top-tier of the league in any industry, there is no other way but to feel a sense of pride and do your best to keep up with the standard you set up for yourself. For me, an early highlight was my involvement in bringing the open source Apache HTTP Server to OS/390 when so many said it couldn’t be done, mainly because, at the time, open-source projects had not fully been embraced or maximized by either IBM or the larger community. But that project eventually turned into WebSphere, which, in turn, became a platform on its own and a foundation of the then-called e-business.
On the innovation and inventions front, I’ve filed more than 300 patents over the length of my career, including one around "using semantic networks to develop a social network" — which was later sold to Google. For me, inventing is a journey that uses strategic thinking to come up with non-obvious, valuable solutions to complex problems. This is a huge part of IBM’s culture, and I'm proud to have contributed to the company’s history of innovation and patent leadership. In 2020, IBM scientists and researchers received 9,130 U.S. patents, the most of any company, marking 28 consecutive years of IBM patent leadership.
A third highlight would be my work with the IBM Service Corps. In 2008, I was the first person deployed to Romania for a four-week philanthropic assignment to help local businesses and nonprofits. One of them was a furniture manufacturer that I helped become more efficient by applying technology solutions to their business. It was an unforgettable experience to bring my expertise, alongside other IBMers, for the greater good.
SHARE: Explain in a few sentences your role as IBM Liaison to SHARE.
Al: IBM Liaison to SHARE serves on the Board of Directors with fiduciary responsibilities. Like many volunteers, I serve in an advisory capacity to the organization — to assist in ensuring the vitality of the organization for years to come. For me, SHARE is a natural extension of my job at IBM; both SHARE and IBM have similar core principles and cultures, with the added benefit of being a sounding board for both sides to continue to drive innovation.
SHARE: What interested you in the role of IBM Liaison?
Al: SHARE members are incredibly knowledgeable, especially about IBM Z. Being on the SHARE Board is an incredible opportunity to have first-hand experience listening to members’ points of view and gaining even more insights from their experiences. This role will help me grow while learning from my esteemed colleagues on the SHARE Board. It will also give me the opportunity to be part of a legendary organization (established in 1955) that knows how to negotiate the rather critical road bumps. Case in point: dealing with the 2020 pandemic.
SHARE: As IBM embarks on new directions, how will those changes help SHARE members into the future?
Al: IBM is laser-focused on hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence (AI). As clients and SHARE members enter the next phase of their hybrid-cloud journey, being able to modernize applications in place and do analyses of that data as close to where the data resides will be a key differentiator in helping them reap the benefits of hybrid cloud more quickly. By coupling IBM Z with Red Hat OpenShift and IBM Cloud Paks, SHARE members can take this a step further to fully maximize application portability and modernization, to build once and run anywhere.
SHARE: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the mainframe community going forward?
Al: Every few years, the rumors pop up around a mainframe skills gap. However, the reality is that for our clients that have invested in IBM Z skills — they have a robust pipeline of talent at the ready. One way we’re helping to bring even more talent to the IBM Z platform is our focus on open source and modern tools. Over the last two years, we’ve invested in new tools like IBM Wazi Developer for Red Hat CodeReady Workspaces, Red Hat Ansible Certified Content for IBM Z, and z/OS Container Extensions — not to mention new open source projects like the Open Mainframe Project's Zowe. Bringing these types of tools to the platform cuts down on the time new talent takes to get acquainted with the platform by democratizing the skills required to use it. If you know how to use Ansible, you can use it on Z. You need to spin up containers on Z and only know how to use Docker Images? No problem.
SHARE: How can SHARE and its members influence the direction of technology today and ensure their businesses continue to run smoothly, especially with the rise in cyberattacks against businesses and government entities?
Al: The SHARE community has an enormous wealth of expertise. By being highly engaged with SHARE, IBM is able to gain invaluable insights from users who have been with the platform journey for decades. Whether that is through our sponsored user program, open source projects, or other means, the SHARE community is already directly influencing product features for the next generation of Z and beyond. For example, the development of IBM z15 was a direct result of input gathered from our collaboration with over 100 companies.
SHARE: Anything else you’d like to add?
Al: This is an exciting time to be a part of the SHARE community. Despite the challenging times for all of us in 2020, the IBM Z team has worked hard and made incredible progress, delivering new tools that will be critical for our clients’ journeys to hybrid cloud.
Since last Fall, 75% of the top 20 global banks are running z15, validating the third major reinvention of the platform during its 50+ year history, the first two being Linux and Java. And, more recently, COVID-19 has unearthed a renewed focus on the platform working behind the scenes to help keep the world's financial trading, retail transactions, insurance claims processing, healthcare IT, and more afloat. IBM Z clients activated a total of nearly four-times more general-purpose capacity on demand in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the second quarter of 2019.