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Black History Month Spotlight: Cameron Seay

Written By Cameron Seay, Co-Chair of the COBOL Working Group, PhD. and Adjunct Professor at East Carolina University

I am writing this blog at the request of the Open Mainframe Project, of which I am a proud member, for Black History Month.  Open Mainframe Project has always seen inclusivity as the bedrock of the open source philosophy, and this permeates its projects and activities.  In that light, I am happy to contribute part of my story which has included the ascension of hundreds of African American into rewarding IT careers using mainframe as a career starter.

Cameron Seay with students at North Carolina Central University

My journey in mainframe began in January of 2005 with a visit by Don Resnik of IBM.  Don had been tasked to head IBM’s new Academic Initiative for System Z.  NC State was supposed to be the first stop of his inaugural campus tour, since at one time more NC State grads were hired by IBM than any other campus globally.  Don had received a call from another IBMer, Andy Rindos, who suggested that he stop by my campus at NC Central University in Durham, since it was on his way to NC State.  I had no idea how this initial visit would change my life.

Don made a brief (30 min) presentation on the IBM “mainframe.”  I was somewhat familiar with the technology since my father had worked for IBM.  But in my mind, it was ancient and outdated.  Don’s presentation quickly informed me otherwise.  Teaching at an Historically Black College/University (HBCU), which are chronically under-resourced, I was looking for an advantage for my students and this was clearly it.  I have found this to be the case at the four HBCUs I have taught, NC Central, NC A&T, Alcorn State, and Tenn State, and the non-HBCU, East Carolina University:  wherever you teach mainframe the companies that use it- and the jobs they bring with them- won’t be long in showing up.

Cameron Seay with a students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

I went into education to teach IT to black people in America, but my classes are open to anyone from anywhere, and I have had the privilege to teach students from all over the world.  But what has been especially gratifying has been seeing literally hundreds of African American students, most from humble origins, establish themselves as world-class IT professionals across many disciplines.   One of my ongoing disappointments is the reluctance of HBCUs to embrace mainframe as a valuable addition to any CIS/IT/CS program, especially at an HBCU.  I will outline why in what follows:

For reasons I have cited in other blogs, mainframe has all but disappeared from college curricula.  This is in spite of the very real fact that not only has mainframe use not abated, it is seeing its usual increase in use year over year.  Also for reasons I have stated elsewhere, the mainframe’s continued use in business is almost guaranteed for the foreseeable future.  What this provides is an essential technology that almost no academic departments teach, which to me is a tailor-made opportunity for HBCUs, but given how horrendously they have been underfunded for decades they have much bigger fish to fry than the mainframe, but it would be a great cost-free addition to any program.

And because almost no one knows even the basics of this technology any student with a couple of courses under their belt has a tremendous advantage in seeking a job among the Fortune 100 companies.

But it always comes down to the students and I can say with complete accuracy that every HBCU where I taught mainframe the acceptance by the students was both instant and complete.   They never “didn’t get it” because the opportunities mainframe provides are starkly clear.  And over 400 students have taken advantage of these opportunities.  At East Carolina, mainframe was already part of the culture in a program started by Joel Sweatte, so its impact there was already known when I showed up.  But I must say that the interest seems to be increasing and the classes are always full.

But I cannot pass on the opportunity to explain a little about my teaching methodology, where it comes from, and how we can more broadly apply it if the academic orthodoxy chose to.

My doctorate is not in technology, but in education- though I have 2 advanced degrees in technology-related areas.  I went into education because I wanted to understand why there were not more black folks in leadership roles in technology.  In my doc program, I was exposed to “socio-cultural learning theory” developed by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian.  The focus of study is not the student or the topic, but the activities of the domain- cultural practices, vocabulary, etc.  He saw learning as a collaborative process where  a community of practice would emerge.

All of this made sense to me (why, I don’t know), and coupled with reading Alfred Binet, Jean Piaget, and a host of other learning theorists I developed an educational philosophy that gave me a platform from which to work:

Intelligence is the ability to make analytically and/or esthetically valid decisions in identifiable contexts.  It is an innate quality of being human, and not a quantity that is distributed among humans in varying amounts. While it does manifest itself differently in different settings, to say one is human is to simultaneously say that one has the capacity for intellectual development.  It is the solemn mission of “education” to facilitate and enhance this intellectual development.  I use technology wherever appropriate to support the mission of education.

My first application of this theory was at a charter middle school in Atlanta with African American students.  There I first noticed something that I would note continuously in my teaching:  the girls were better communicators than the boys- if by better one means better outcomes.  I have  noticed  this without exception in all of my classes.  And while women are often less than 10% of my class, women always among the strongest students.   This has continued to be true at non-HBCU ECU also. Many, many women alums have gone on to superstar careers.  It’s truly a blessing to witness.