Thought Leadership: Oh 'Seay' Can He See...a Bright Future for Today's Young Mainframers

Cameron SeayBy Teddy Durgin, Reporter at Information Inc.

Dr. Cameron Seay is an assistant professor of information technology at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, N.C., where his research focus has been on enterprise systems. A founding member of the Enterprise Computing Community, the leading academic entity with a focus on enterprise systems, he has been described as "an unabashed mainframe evangelist" by his colleagues.

Dr. Seay has worked in the industry for over 20 years in a variety of capacities, working his way up to management level. But throughout his career, Dr. Seay wanted to transition into education. In the last 10 years, Dr. Seay has imparted his expansive knowledge onto students at North Carolina Central University in Durham and North Carolina A&T State University, both historically black colleges. His main focus during his tenure at both institutions has been the development of an enterprise systems education program.

During a recent phone interview for SHARE'd Intelligence, his passion for helping students succeed beyond graduation in this field was most evident. Seay spoke of the exciting career opportunities the mainframe has to offer them. However, he also shared his concerns on the skills gap that has developed between aging mainframers and this younger generation. Ever the problem solver, Seay has some ideas on how to fill that gap.

SHARE’d Intelligence: You are considered an expert on educating the next generation of mainframers. What are some of the characteristics of this next generation, and what are some of the challenges in educating them?
Cameron Seay: For starters, among most undergraduates, the technology itself has kind of a bad image in that it's "old technology." The first thing is to get them to understand that this technology is state-of-the-art, always current and always relevant. Not every student is going to be attracted to enterprise systems technology, but there is a population out there that is very open to challenge and very open to the types of jobs that are available in this area. The technology is compelling, and the careers my students are getting are often irreplaceable in the IT industry. They're very unique. But there has to be greater buy-in at the administrative level, the faculty level, the student level and the industry level. It's very important for all of those pieces to be in sync as far as student development goes in this space.

SI: How serious is the skills gap between the aging, retiring mainframers and the younger generation you are trying to cultivate?
CS: When you're talking the industry, it is pretty serious. It's more serious than possibly a lot of the executives understand. The problem is a lot of the companies are kicking the can down the road. I've never liked to extract the enterprise systems skills gap from the IT skills gap, in general. Ours is a subset, and it may be more acute. But there is a general skills gap in IT across the board.

SI: On Aug. 12, you are going to present a keynote session at the SHARE in Orlando event centered around an online mainframe curriculum you have developed that can be deployed across different campuses. Can you provide some details?
CS: One of the things I noticed both at North Carolina Central and at A&T is that you can only reach a certain amount of students in a semester. At the most, 20 to 30 students. One of the things I have felt very clearly for the last several years is that we need a way to expand the exposure to this technology for the students, and online is a great way of doing that. The problem has been the coordination with the schools. There is a lot of coordination that needs to go on at the administrative level, the faculty level and the student level. The idea is to contact multiple campuses and arrange to teach multiple students in the same semester at the same time frame. We piloted the project at Alcorn State in Mississippi last spring. We started with a small pilot of 12 students, and it was very successful. So, we're expanding that to include Tennessee State and Albany State this fall. We're looking to have about 100 students a term in classes on multiple campuses at the same time. We've started at historically black colleges simply because those have been the ones most open to trying this approach. They've been very desirous of niche markets that they can focus on and be successful in. We think it can be a big solution to the skills gap.

SI: Did you have a team for this project? Who else have you collaborated with to develop the curriculum?
CS: The person who worked with the faculty at both Alcorn and Tennessee State is a guy by the name of John Thompson, a former IBM executive in the enterprise systems space. He is more of a consultant than an instructor. Also, my administration has been great. Dr. Benjamin Uwakweh, the dean of the School of Technology, and Dr. Clay Gloster, our chair of the Department of Computer Systems Technology, have always been open to anything I've wanted to do in this space.

SI: What advice did you receive as a new mainframer that you would like to pass on to the new generation?
CS: The advice I got wasn’t explicitly articulated; I just gleaned it talking to a lot of people. IT is a tremendous space to be in, and it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be. Just enjoy it! Find out what you love to do in this field. Find out what you would do without being paid, and find a way to develop a profession in that space. If you do, you'll never really have to work a day in your life. This has never been work for me. It's always been a sheer pleasure.

SI: What's the favorite part of what you do?
CS: Without question, it's the students. It's seeing that light come on in their eyes when they say, "This is very, very cool!" and "This is something I can do, and I can do it well." We have some students who are going to be very senior people very quickly, and there is a tremendous sense of fulfillment that I get from that. It's not a hard sell to the students. Nice money, interesting work, stable careers. More and more of them are jumping on the bandwagon. The more students we expose to mainframes, the more of them we will have to work with.

SI: What is still challenging for you? What frustrates you?
CS: The inability on the part of industry and education, executives and administrators, to understand the role they need to play is frustrating. The mainframe skills gap is something they need to devote some time and resources to. One of the things I've been consistently disappointed in is the industry, at large, understanding that the mainframe skills gap is everyone’s problem. This is not an IBM problem, and IBM is not solely responsible for coming up with a solution. I think IBM has done its part. If I'm a large bank or major insurance company and I have a large part of my business committed to the platform, the mainframe skills gap is my problem also.

Dr. Seay will give a presentation at SHARE in Orlando titled, "A New Model for Enterprise System Education." The session will take place Aug. 12 at 11:15 a.m at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort. His presentation will provide a demonstration of the model program that enables universities who have an interest in Enterprise Systems, but no experience teaching it, to offer their students the opportunity to take classes online for degree. As far as Seay knows, this has not been done anywhere at the undergraduate level, and he is excited about the possibilities. He believes the model will not only allow more students to learn about the mainframe, but it will also welcome them into the mainframe culture and help close the skills gap.

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