On this episode of the “I Am a Mainframer” podcast, guest host John Mertic, Director of the Open Mainframe Project, is joined by Salisu Ali, a current mentee of the organization.
A final year medical student at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria, Salisu was introduced to the mainframe in 2017 through IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest. He participated in the contest for three years and joined the Open Mainframe Project when he started looking for an internship in the mainframe space.
In addition to being an Open Mainframe Project mentee, Salisu is a TechChannel zSystems Rising Star and is helping to modernize the mainframe through his contributions to ZEBRA, an open-source incubator project under ZOWE.
During their conversation, John and Salisu talk about the valuable advice he’s received and that he shares with others: You can’t learn everything overnight, be patient as it takes time to see results, and get involved and contribute — that’s how you’ll get where you want to be.
Connect with Salisu on LinkedIn.
Announcer: This is the I Am A Mainframer podcast, brought to you by The Linux Foundation’s Open Mainframe Project. Episodes explore the careers of mainframe professionals and offer insights into the industry and technology. Now, your host, Senior Analyst and Vice President of Sales and Business Development at Futurum Research, Steven Dickens.
John Mertic: Hi everyone, welcome to this episode of the I Am A Mainframer podcast. My name is John Mertic. I’m here in place of our regular host, Steven Dickens, who is away on business, and I have the great luxury and honor of speaking to Salisu Ali who is in the past one of the mentees of the Open Mainframe Project Mentorship and Internship program. Welcome, Salisu.
Salisu Ali: All right, thank you very much, John. Hello, everyone.
John Mertic: So-
Salisu Ali: I’m excited to be here. Thanks.
John Mertic: We’re excited to have you. Let’s start by giving folks a little bit of background on yourself, how you came to the mainframe and a little bit of your journey so far.
Salisu Ali: Yes, okay. Just like John mentioned, my name is Salisu Ali. I am a final year medical student living here in Kano, Nigeria. I’m studying in Bayero University, Kano. I came across the mainframe through IBM Master the Mainframe back in 2017. I have been participating in the contest for three years before I came to Open Mainframe Project. I actually discovered Open Mainframe Project when I was curious about an internship in the mainframe space. I did some Google search and that’s how I get to the Open Mainframe Project.
It is an exciting journey for me because when I first came into the Open Mainframe Project space, I was looking forward to learning more about the mainframe, but I don’t have an idea who to contact or where to go first. So, I started by joining the Ambitus project, where I attended one or two meetings, and then I tried to talk to some members in the Open Mainframe Project, particularly… Sorry, I forgot the name. His name is Joe.
John Mertic: Joe Bostian, I think, correct?
Salisu Ali: Joe Bostian, yes. I tried to send him a DM and he was like, “Okay, a good start for you is the mentorship program.” I applied for the mentorship program. That’s how I got here.
John Mertic: Well, that’s awesome. You’ve definitely found your way into the mainframe ecosystem, but let’s back up some. How did mainframe even get on your radar? How did you run into saying, “Mainframe is something interesting that I want to learn more about and get involved with?”
Salisu Ali: Yes. Actually, coming from Nigeria, mainframe is not a common topic everywhere.
John Mertic: No.
Salisu Ali: Even though I’m not studying computer science, but I came across it through the IBM Master the Mainframe contest. In the first place, I just took it as a contest, nothing more than that, but I got the opportunity to be sponsored by IBM to attend one of their conferences in South Africa. I was taken into the IBM data center in one of their offices there. I was given a tour of the mainframe. That was when I developed an interest into mainframe.
I was just amazed by how well-designed the mainframe is, and I had a lot of things that I couldn’t even comprehend at that moment. So, I told myself, “This is a good start for me. Since I have seen the mainframe, I know what it is. Let me just go back home and start studying it.” Just like I said, I did talk to Joe Bostian. The first thing he did was to send me some books to study and I actually studied a lot of them, even though not completely, but I learned one or two things from studying those books.
John Mertic: Well, that’s awesome. It’s almost like you just tripped into it. You were just seeing, “Let’s see some interesting things to take part of,” and this Master the Mainframe just happened to show up on your search and it just opened up a whole box of learning about this industry.
Salisu Ali: Yes, that is very true. I was just curious on something to do while still studying in school. So, I was just doing some Google searches looking for opportunities, and then I came across a website called Opportunities For Africans. That’s when I came across the contest and that’s what leads to the mainframe.
John Mertic: That’s awesome. As you have learned more and more about the mainframe, what has impressed you about it? What has stood out of saying, “Wow, this is really unique. This is really cool, and this is definitely different than other computing infrastructure out there?”
Salisu Ali: Yes. Actually, a lot of things stood out, but let me just go with the simple idea of, I have a machine that is running a lot of the daily transactions I do, for example, going to the ATM and just withdrawing money and then definitely something is going on behind that machine. I came to learn such kind of transactions are being processed by the mainframe. My airline tickets, by simply just going to a website and booking my tickets, such things are stored on the mainframe.
I really became curious when I heard that the number of transactions processed by the mainframe per second or per minute is very high when compared to normal pieces we have here. A lot of things like the availability, the mainframe is there 24/7. It’s up and running. There’s a high sense of security, and then it’s running a lot of transactions at the same time. I became impressed and I was curious. I would like to know more about this machine.
John Mertic: That’s awesome. It’s really interesting how you just start down that journey path and you just find all sorts of interesting tidbits and things about it and it just becomes so interesting.
Salisu Ali: Yeah.
John Mertic: You got involved, you got through the Master the Mainframe program. You went from there to getting involved with the Ambitus project and getting involved there of being a mentor. Where are you at now with the mainframe? Where are you at now in this industry? What are you doing today?
Salisu Ali: All right, as it stands, I have joined the journey to modernize the mainframe. I’m currently working on ZEBRA, which is an open source project for monitoring mainframe performance using RMF data. This project is under Zowe, which is a project under Open Mainframe Project. The journey has been for two years. We started 2020 with the mentorship program and we have continued as an incubator in 2021 and 2022.
For me, it has been a wonderful journey. I have learned a lot about the mainframe. I have come to understand so many new concepts, and for me to see mainframe data being harvested and put into open source programs like Grafana and Prometheus is just an exciting journey for me. That’s where I am currently. I’m an open source contributor, contributing toward mainframe modernization.
John Mertic: Let’s talk about open-source contributor. What has that been like? Is this something you’ve done in other realms before, or is the mainframe also your first jump into being an open-source contributor?
Salisu Ali: Yes. I think it will surprise you to know that before I came to Open Mainframe Project, I had no idea what GitHub is. I’ve never created a full request. But when I came to Open Mainframe Project like I was saying, I started with the Ambitus project. I’ll normally go to GitHub just to check my name under the attendance because at that time, Joe Bostian was keeping the meeting minutes. He would just write the name of people that attend. So, I was just going there trying to see what is GitHub.
I started learning what GitHub is and when I got accepted into the mainframe, my mentor, Alex, was one of the people that put me through GitHub. As it stands today, I’m still learning one or two things new about GitHub almost every day. So, the journey was when I came to Open Mainframe Project, that was when I got involved in open source and I have been contributing to open source. I think the only project I have contributed to so far is the Zowe Project and the COBOL programming course. I tried to do something, it was at the beginning, but with time, I couldn’t cope. But I have been contributing so far to ZEBRA.
John Mertic: Well, that’s awesome. I’ve been using GitHub for a lot of years and I learn something new about GitHub every day too. Don’t feel like you’re behind the curve at all.
I’m sure that you’ve talked to friends and classmates and folks like that about you being involved in the Open Mainframe Project and the open source community around mainframe. As you’ve talked to them, what has their reactions been? How do you talk about it to them?
Salisu Ali: Well, actually, I did talk to them and my, what do I call it, the benefit I’ve got from participating in the mainframe community also speaks to them. Let me talk about when I first won the contest and got to travel out of the country. Most of my friends were curious, “Okay, what is this mainframe?” I got one or two to participate, including at home with my brother. My brother was also excited to know what is this mainframe about. So, I told them about it and I got my brother and one or two classmates to get into the mainframe. We participated in Master the Mainframe together in 2020 and 2019 as well. Along the way, I lost my friends to blockchain, but my brother is still on the mainframe.
John Mertic: Oh, there you go. Your brother, I think, was also a mentee at one point, wasn’t he?
Salisu Ali: Yes, my brother was also a mentee of the Open Mainframe Project.
John Mertic: That’s awesome. I think that’s one of the only family pairs we have here, that one brother. Is it your older or younger brother?
Salisu Ali: No, my younger brother.
John Mertic: Okay. So, you’ve been the good older brother and brought your younger brother into mainframe as well. That’s so awesome.
As you look at participating in the Open Mainframe project, participating in this open source community on mainframe and projects like Zowe, what would you like to see come out of projects like that that you think could benefit you but also more people like you, people from Nigeria, friends, similar people of your age group, things like that? What would you like to see?
Salisu Ali: Well, actually, it benefits us a lot. Let me start by the fact that it is remote. So, you don’t have to go anywhere. You can just sit down from the comfort of your room and contribute. While doing so, every day you are learning something new. You are building your resume, you are building your portfolio.
As for the project, it is creating an easier way for people to work with the mainframe. Not everybody is conversant with going into the mainframe using the old languages to harvest data. But by simply using a project on GitHub, just node MPM stat, do some configurations, and you’ll be able to plot your charts in real time with Grafana. I think that is the work of mainframe newcomers into the mainframe as well.
John Mertic: That’s awesome. It’s almost marrying some of the technologies that are outside the mainframe or come from outside the mainframe-
Salisu Ali: Yes.
John Mertic: And bringing them in to really help strengthen that ecosystem. That’s excellent.
We’re getting on the back end of the interview here. I know you’ve probably told this to your brother already, but let’s say, if you’d go talk to someone else about getting involved in this industry, just even the broad IT industry or maybe even specific of mainframe, if you were going back and telling someone, what would you tell them? What would you tell them to think about? What would you tell them to be prepared for? What advice would you give them?
Salisu Ali: Well, I think the advice I give to myself and some of the people that I’ve talked to is the mainframe is an interesting area, but it is wide as well. You can’t learn everything overnight, and it will take some time for you to see results, but it is a very interesting area. Let’s say, you’re working on a machine that is running transactions from banks, airlines, from so many other things. It will take time to learn. There will be a lot of patience involved.
You have to be patient. You have to involve yourself. For example, I have been with the OMP, contributing to open source for two years. It has not been a smooth journey, because I’m still going to school while working at the same time. But every time I get a chance, I try to do something and contribute. That has helped me a lot. The mainframe is just interesting, anyone is welcome, but patience will be required before you get to where you want to be.
John Mertic: Patience and persistence. I think that’s great advice for anyone. It doesn’t come all at once, especially an ecosystem with such richness and such history. But being able to have that patience, I think that’s really good advice.
Well, this has been a great conversation, Salisu. It’s been a while since we’ve chatted, and it’s great to hear that things are going great for you. I think you’re in the final year of university. So, you should be graduating at the end of this calendar year or the next calendar year?
Salisu Ali: Yeah, sometime hopefully before May 2024 I will be graduating.
John Mertic: Awesome. Well, congratulations and good luck on all of your studies. It’s been great speaking with you, and excited to see you continue to be involved in our mainframe community.
Salisu Ali: All right, thank you. It has been nice speaking to you too.
John Mertic: Excellent. Well, this was Salisu Ali, one of our former mentees with our Open Mainframe Project mentorship program. If you’re listening to this, our mentorship program is going to be open for summer coming up here in the next couple of weeks. You can go check out, learn more about at the Open Mainframe Project website, and see a number of the great projects that you could potentially be a mentee for.
With that, thank you everyone for listening to this episode of I Am A Mainframer. My name is John Mertic sitting in for Steven Dickens. We’ll hopefully hear back from him next time, but if not, it’s been great speaking with you all. Thank you, and have a great day.
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