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Open Mainframe Mentorship Project Aims To Bridge The Talent Gap | John Mertic

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The Open Mainframe Mentorship Project, which is part of the Linux Foundation aims to encourage new people to learn Mainframe. The Mentorship program gives the opportunity to learn from experienced mainframers. The program is in its eighth class of mentees and its set of mentees is growing each year.

In this episode of Mainframe Matters, John Mertic, Director of Program Management for Open Mainframe Project at the Linux Foundation, sits down to discuss the Open Mainframe Project mentorship and why it has been created. He goes on to explain what mentees and mentors can expect and where to go for further information. He goes into detail about the current talent gap and how the program is tackling this problem.

Key highlights from this video interview are:

  • The Open Mainframe Mentorship Project aims to attract new talent to learn Mainframe. It is not easy getting started in Mainframe but having someone to model can make it easier. One of the key challenges in open source is burnout. Mertic explains how the Open Mainframe Project helps bring in the next generation.
  • It can be daunting as a newcomer learning Mainframe, but similarly challenging for experienced Mainframers who may not have mentored people before. The program helps both parties in their unique challenges. Mertic feels that the human interaction side of the career is often not widely considered in training, and the Mentorship program aims to change that.
  • A lot of seasoned Mainframers are retiring and there weren’t as many coming into newer mainframe jobs, they would rather go into cloud, web development, or other technologies. Mertic goes into the factors that lead to the creation of the project and the results they have seen.
  • The outreach strategy for the Mentorship project is twofold: through the online outreach of the website and through university and academic partnerships. Mertic explains the different avenues for potential mentees to hear about the project.
  • The Mentorship program is completely remote, and Mertic discusses the benefits of this approach. He feels that some of the students are used to a classroom setting, whereas the mentorship program gives them insight into a working relationship. He explains how mentors and mentees partner up and what sets this apart from an internship.
  • Mertic shares his advice for people who are interested in the program to set both the mentee and mentor up for success. Mentors need a clear idea of what they are trying to accomplish and put together a detailed plan, with work courses the mentee should take, or pre-reads. Mentees need to look at the requirements and ask lots of questions.
  • The Mentorship Program aims to give students opportunities to gain an understanding of the industry. Mertic explains the role the program plays in bridging the talent gap, and where it fits in with other programs.

Connect with John Mertic (LinkedIn, Twitter)
Learn more about Open Mainframe Project (LinkedIn, Twitter)

The summary of the show is written by Emily Nicholls.

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Here is the automated and unedited transcript of the recording. Please note that the transcript has not been edited or reviewed. 

Swapnil Bhartiya: Hi, this is your host Swapnil Bhartiya, and welcome to another episode Of Mainframe Matters. Today we have with us once again, John Mertic, Director of Program Management for Open Mainframe Project at the Linux Foundation. And today, if you are going to talk about Open Mainframe Project mentorship. John, it’s great to have you on the show.

John Mertic: Likewise, great talking with you, Swapnil.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Before we talk specifically about the Open Mainframe Mentorship Project, the project is part of the Linux Foundation and you folks do a lot of work in encouraging new folks and Open Mainframe actually is an ideal place because these technologies have been around for a long time. You do have to attract new talent. At the same time, you have folks who have a vast amount of experience with them. So, talk about first of all, the importance of mentorship for Open Source in general.

John Mertic: It’s the way that new people get really brought in. And you can all sort of remember it, if you remember your first job where you showed up there and you’re all sort of nervous, you don’t know what desk I should sit at. You’re not quite sure where do I hang out with who at lunch, all of that kind of basic social stuff, but then also just sort of the etiquette of how you get things done and how you move through your daily tasks and things like that. Having someone that you can model and learn from is the way that you begin to grow, because that’s how you grow through real life experiences and working out in these communities. So there’s a definite benefit for the person because it’s hard, it’s a hard path to get started in Open Source.

It’s not very straightforward and being able to see someone you model makes it easier. On the flip side of that, if we look at what healthy communities look like, they’re diverse communities and they’re communities with a number of new participants coming in. One of the biggest challenges in Open Source today is burnout. Where that kind of keeps coming back to is you have these big maintainers that really steer and help run the project and they end up needing to burn the candle at the both ends of the wick as they might say, and get involved in coding and get involved in code reviews and then get involved in strategic stuff and having to deal with all sorts of feedback and things in the community can just burn them out. You end up getting into an area where you have this single fulcrum within your project to get things done.

After a while, you just tap out that resource. Those people think I can’t leave, I can’t take a vacation. I can’t walk away. Or maybe this technologist just isn’t interesting to you at all. You’re sort of setting this project up for a bad cycle. So that’s one thing I work with a lot of project communities on is just thinking about how are you bringing that next group in because that next group is what helps carry it forward and lets you as a maintainer, then step back and let that next generation move it forward. So it’s a really, really important part of a healthy project lifecycle to always be bringing new people in and especially bringing them in leadership roles.

Swapnil Bhartiya: I mean the way you explain, I think that for any Open Source Project, it’s very critical to have a kind of such a [cansum 00:03:07] in place. So it’s not just you may get exhausted or tired and then life takes its own course, so whatsoever reason. And so many people, so many organizations rely on those projects, so suddenly a gap could be disastrous. And of course, I was talking to Greg at Linux once in a while, that it allows them to go on vacation also. I mean their vacation actually is over their laptop. They’re never without that, they’re still working from there. But the thing is that you do get, world will not fall or collapse tomorrow just because you did not see a patch and you did not update it.

Now, when it comes to mentoring and mentor, it’s sometimes I’ve talked to a lot of folks from the Open Mentoring Project itself, is they are so seasoned and working with them can be intimidating itself. You are working with who has been doing that. So new students can get intimidated as well. So can you also talk about how do you approach it so that also the experienced folks they have not worked with, unless you are a teacher you have not worked with how to actually deal with a newcomer. At the same time, newcomers get intimidated. Talk about how you approach this program so that you help both sides, both parties.

John Mertic: Yeah, it’s a hard thing because I don’t think, as well in many of our technologists careers, we’ve been really exposed or maybe even taught the way that how you do a lot of human interaction and growing. I mean, there’s even, we go on a longer tangent around software engineers that grow in their career and their next step is management and they’re not anywhere prepared for it. This is in a lot of ways sort of the same thing. What I’ve always seen it really come down to is how do you build sort of relationships with one another and get sort of past some of the preconceived bit of notions. And oftentimes, it can be just really, really, really simple things such as for the mentee of trying to help them get over their intimidations. For mentors, maybe sometimes the mentor coming and asking them questions about stuff and showing interest in what they’re doing and trying to understand a little bit of their background.

I remember years ago one of my first big forays in Open Source, there was a big name of somebody at Open Source I’ve never met. I ran into him, we were going to dinner with some mutual friends and he looked at my phone and it was right when Android phones were first coming out and he was checking, he was like, “Oh, I’ve not seen this one. This is really cool.” And looking at it and all of a sudden that exercise in itself was just disarming. Because then it became from somebody like, “Oh, there’s this big notoriety, big this that I can’t approach.” And it came down to like, “Oh wow, they’re just like me.” All of a sudden things just start to become a little bit easier. So I think there’s that big piece of it, one.

I think another thing is understanding sort of where the expectations that each person is coming from and understanding that each person has some strength and each person has weaknesses. For someone who could be that seasoned person, like you mentioned, they might know the technology back and forth, but maybe they’re not the best way of articulating pieces. Maybe some of their project management haves are missing and maybe that’s where a mentee can come in and help fill that. And as they’re working through their mentorship, their way of keeping the project organized and keeping things updated, maybe that’s something that just connects with the mentor and they’re like, “Oh wow.” But at the same time the mentor has to be open to seeing that. They have to be okay with, they’re not going to know as much as I do on the technology, but they’re going to know all of these things that I don’t know, and being able to sort of show that mutual appreciation. So yeah, I think it’s a really interesting thing of just understanding who each other are and understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses and being open to hearing that and being open to seeing that and seeing sort of where those gaps are and having appreciation and also having appreciation to sort of teach and sit down and work with them.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. Now we have kind of established the foundation of mentorship program. Now let’s talk specifically about the Open Mainframe Project, mentorship program, what it is, what is the goal? And yeah, let’s start there first.

John Mertic: Yeah. The mentorship program was actually the program that really got kicked off at the early days of the Open Mainframe Project. Because there was this big identified issue of, there are tons, like you said, of tenured people in the mainframe world, tons of great real world experience, but these people were towards the back end of their careers. There wasn’t as many people coming into newer mainframe jobs. We saw them going to cloud, WebDev, other technologies that might be a little bit more flashy, but they were not as much going into mainframe. And so the question was, why is that? How can we help bring more of these students in? And there have been a lot of different attempts at this over time. But another thing that the mainframe community saw was the future for them was going towards Open Source. Linux, it came to the mainframe, we were seeing more and more Open Source being ported to the mainframe.

IBM was getting ready to announce it’s a Linux only mainframe at the time. So the thought was could the working in Open Source where we see more and more students, that sort of skillset that the tenured track maybe doesn’t have as much experience with, but more students have more experience, could we pair that interest back with the tenured interest, the knowledge in the mainframe space that the students don’t have, but the other, the more tenured folks have? That’s really where this program was born was let’s get these people that really understand mainframe, let’s get students that understand Open Source and work in different areas. In our first year we had some really, really cool results. We had a Linux distribution ported to the mainframe, Alpine Linux. We had contributions upstream to various Open Source projects.

It did a couple of really interesting things out of the first year. I mean, one, it showed students that there is job opportunities. And matter of fact, out of that first class I think we had a handful of people that either were employed in mainframe right then after their mentorship or soon thereafter. It also sort of changed the perception of the mainframe world that there are people that really will get into this technology and have the same appreciation that they have for it once they’re brought in and they’re exposed to it. There was always this, “Oh, geez. It’s mainframe.” People aren’t going to be as, they have this inherent bias. But the first students that went through is like, “This stuff’s amazing. We had a lot of fun. This was really good.” And I think in a way, it really helped the mainframe community come around to this is how we can engage with these folks.

We show them the technology and they’ll be just as excited as we are. So that was really where it started to come to be and as more and more project, as the Open Mainframe Project sort of moved from a sort of a singular project to more of an umbrella, similar to a CNCF or a OpenJS Foundation, we saw some of our hosted projects use the mentorship program and that’s, I think where we’re predominantly seeing it as a way to bring new students into their projects, which are also bringing new students into the mainframe world. But they’re rooted in our project’s technologies, which is helping set their workforce going forward.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you also talk about from a historical perspective for how long this mentorship program has been around?

John Mertic: So it’s been, this will be our eighth class of mentees. It’s been around seven years. We started with the summer of 2016 with our first set of mentees and we’ve had a growing set every single year since then with our largest classes these last two years, of about 12 and I think this year 15 students that have been a part of it.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you also talk about what is the process? How do folks, first of all, of course they have to do their own research, but how do they find about the project or how do you kind of, what is your outreach kind of strategy to reach out to new folks who can be potential mentees?

John Mertic: So we do it through I think two mechanisms. One is just through just the online outreach through our website. The last couple of years we’ve been using the LFX Mentorship Program, which has brought a lot of interest in, because we’ve seen that as sort of a central place where mentees that are looking for mentorships in Open Source are going to. But we also have a rather large university and academic partnerships as well with schools like North Carolina A&T, Eastern Carolina, East Carolina University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and a number of others that often have mainframe programs in it and we partner with them as well to showcase to their students. Matter of fact, we even have some students that come into our mentorship that just do it for class credit. They do it as a part of their class project. We have students at Virginia Commonwealth and Western University of Ontario that do exactly just that.

So there’s a number of different ways that students are finding from it. We’ve also found it also creates a little bit of a word of mouth. We’ve had students that have completed the program and then they tell their classmates and their peers about it and then they apply. Or we even had one situation here with a student in Nigeria that did the program and told his brother about it and then the next year his brother applied for it. So we’ve also seen a really large word of mouth, which has got more and more interest out.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. I just want to go a bit deeper into the student participation, if you can just a bit explain how do you work with

John Mertic: Yeah, so students, they work where they’re at. So it’s a completely remote mentorship. They work with mentee or mentors that are also remote. They might be at their company sites or whatever, so it’s an entirely virtually ran mentorship. One of the really, the key things that we see as success in it is not just the mentor, mentorship bond, so building that working relationship, but also the mentee’s ability to really be a self starter. This is often kind of a first time for some of these students. They’re very used to in a classroom setting that the professor gives them their assignments, they give them a deadline, it’s kind of a very linear process. Here, the mentor and mentee, the mentors will put up all the mentorships available in sort of the high level, but then what happens is the mentor and mentee will sit down after they kind of honed in and say, “Hey, this is the mentee that I want to work on my mentorship this year.” And they’ll work through the details of what it looks like. What are the deliverables? What should be coming each week, all of those things.

What’s kind of cool is that the mentee has sort of skinned the game with it and they can help direct what that is. They can say, “Hey, I’m looking at this here and this piece of work here. I think this might be a two week sprint for me to get done. Maybe this one I can get done in three days.” But it really leaves it to the mentee to be helping drive the direction and the pace and the mentor’s not there to sit there and sort of tell them what to do. It’s not like an internship or something like that, that you might classically think of as I’m giving these three things and oh, by the way, go get my coffee. It’s this mentee is figuring it out, they’re needing to be resourceful. They’re needing to understand sort of the dynamic of the project around it. They need to be communicative. If you think about it, so those are the skills that a good, not just a programmer, but anybody, even folks in your line of work, if you run into somebody who’s a self starter, you snatch those people up right away.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Right. No, very well said. And that also kind of leads to my next, which more of like if I asked you what advice you would give to somebody who is either is starting a mentorship or who would like to apply for it so that knowing once again, they’re fully prepared what the expectations are and what they should so that they both parties get the most out of it.

John Mertic: So I think for a mentor that is looking to put together a mentorship, I think the first thing that they would really need to do is get kind of a clear idea of what they’re looking to accomplish with it. Start to put together, and it doesn’t need to be a super detailed plan, but a sense of this is the problem, this is sort of what our outcome is looking like and start and put that together so a mentee can look at it and understand it. I think another thing that a mentor really has to do is to understand that they have a deep understanding of this technology. The mentee is not going to have that and it’s going to take a little bit to come up to speed with that. So there’s a piece of it that what should a mentee do as pre-reads. Are there courses they should take?

Are there things that they should work on? Is there books they should read? Is there other documentation things that they should be aware of? All of those that a mentor should really start to consider as they’re putting that together. Also, they might know what their, a mentor might know what their own velocity for getting things done are. They need to kind of pare that back a little bit and say, “You know what, a mentee’s going to have a different pace at it.” They might be real slow to start, but then they might really take off. So I think having a little bit of understanding that you don’t want to give them the most difficult assignment in the world. You don’t want to give them also the easiest because you don’t want to bore them to death. You want to give them somewhere in the middle so it’s interesting to them, but you also want to have enough lax in there that they have a path to be successful because that’s really what you’re wanting them to do is to see that they can be successful.

So I think that’s, if I’m a mentor, that’s what I’m thinking about. If I’m a mentee, you spend time, you read a lot of these requirements, you read the mentorship, you understand what it’s about. You ask questions. Mentors are going to be really interested in people that are going to be interested in what they’re working on. So the more that you’re asking those questions, not only is your name sort of getting top of mind to that person, but at the same time, you’re showing that you have a lot of interest of what they’re doing. Also, as you’re doing sort of your application, I think the more and more that you can talk about your experiences, how you approach projects, all of those things and really being able to show a lot of those interests and help paint a picture, because again, this person, the most they’re probably going to meet you is a Zoom call.

So, they’re not going to know much more and more about you. So the more that you can show that portfolio of your work, how you approach things, your background, the better. So I see mentees that are more successful, they take that time to build that out. They’ll be the ones that will have the longer application, but they’re doing that because they’re really trying to paint that picture. Even a mentor will look at that and say, “Wow, this person is really invested. They’re not just sending a whole bunch of applications out and seeing what sticks, they’re putting the time into it, because they care and they really want to land this.” And that means a lot to mentors.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Thanks for sharing those certain tips because not, these are also interpersonal skill as well. And not everybody has, especially people in the software and tech industry. We are not known to be the most outgoing folks there. So thanks for sharing those. Now I want to wrap this on a higher level note, which is more of, we started our discussion about in general the mentorship, the need to, that there are experts and there are newcomers. But there is a bigger problem that is going on, which is a huge gap in supply and demand of skilled folks. So what role do you think these mentorship programs can play in bridging the gap as well?

John Mertic: I mean, I think it’s the start of the iceberg of showcasing and giving students opportunities to really get a peek into what this industry’s about and what are the opportunities. So it really serves as that way for them to figure it out because sometimes these students don’t know it. They’re not exposed to mainframes typically, they’re not exposed to particular communities. I mean, and it’s the same with a lot of other different technologies and similar verticals as well, they’re not as exposed. So this is a great opportunity for the student to understand it, to gain a little bit of appreciation, to see if they see this as a part of their space in it. So I think it fits a little bit of it. I don’t think it takes the place of more broader programs because I would say in terms of an onboarding program for newcomers to an industry, it is certainly one of the most highest touch ways to do it. There’s no doubt about it.

If I see a community, this is part of a series of programs that helps get people involved. Everything from training, to good solid documentation, to certification programs and things like that, that help get students more broadly aware and help sort of define a little bit more of what that workforce is. But then I see these as sort of these opportunity, mentorship as sort of that next step that’s starting to come with that and a paired opportunity to that to say, “Hey, here’s a way that I can get in here and start making an impact in this area and get my name known in it.” That’s where I sort of see this in here. So it’s, to me, sort of a piece of a puzzle to closing the skills gap and it can be a really effective one if used really well.

Swapnil Bhartiya: John, thank you so much for taking time out today and talk about mentorship. And as we discussed, this is not just specific to this project, this is something which we need, not only in the Open Source world, but in software in general. The folks with experience, how they can help the next generation hand over the flame to the next generation. So thanks for sharing those insights and I as well would love to have you back on the show. Thank you.

John Mertic: Thank you.

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