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Reaching Out: COMMON Education Foundation Encourages Students to Pursue IT Careers

COMMON Education Foundation

The COMMON Education Foundation (CEF) works to keep the IBM i community vibrant by encouraging students to embrace a Power Systems career. CEF’s strategy is to encourage students and individuals, including those who have business experience and are considering career changes, to seek careers in the information technology industry, while providing them with supplementary educational opportunities along the way. As its name implies, CEF is the sister organization of COMMON.

For nearly 20 years, CEF has been introducing students and educators to IBM i and the COMMON community. CEF has provided tuition scholarships to students taking IBM i education at their schools, sponsored educators and students to attend COMMON events, and awarded scholarships to individuals in the community who are dedicated to the overall growth of the platform.

For its first 19 years, CEF was run by a dedicated group of volunteers. Late last year, COMMON took over the operations of CEF to better align the strategies of both organizations. CEF continues to be led by a volunteer board of directors. “With COMMON having a dedicated staff, it makes sense to have the organization manage CEF from a resource-sharing perspective," says Manzoor Siddiqui, executive director of COMMON and CEF. "We're able to work in tandem and look at all initiatives to see where COMMON and CEF fit," he notes.

Providing a Pathway

CEF aims to be a conduit for students and others looking for IT careers. “As many long-time IBM i professionals are retiring, we need to be proactive in helping companies attract new talent,” Siddiqui says. Currently, the CEF reaches out to a broad array of students in college, including those that aren’t familiar with the platform. CEF provides sponsorships for these students to attend COMMON’s events. These unique opportunities allow students to attend award-winning sessions with worldwide recognized speakers and authorities on IBM i, interact with industry professionals, meet and network with other U.S. students with similar interests, and advance their career goals.

Educational sessions offer both technical content as well as job-related training to supplement the practical education they are already receiving in school. Skills include how to work as part of a team, project management know-how and how to be a pivotal part of any business. “When you are a student concentrating on programming bits and bytes, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole other world that’s important to know before you step into your first job,” Siddiqui says.

In addition to the education students receive through COMMON events, they have an opportunity to demonstrate the skills they’ve already acquired. COMMON certifications are available at all COMMON events. Students can sit for COMMON’s Business Computing Associate certification. This specific certification tests the technical side of a student’s knowledge as well as a student’s understanding of business concepts like SWOT analysis and financial terms. For students, certifications can prepare them to step into their business roles. “As the strong demand for IT workers with IBM i skills continues to grow, we can be a funnel for the next generation of people to join the industry,” Siddiqui confirms.

Working with Others

CEF works closely with the IBM Academic Initiative to promote IBM i education and careers. "Our missions are aligned to expand the offerings of IBM to the next generation of IT professionals," notes Siddiqui. The Academic Initiative works with the CEF to promote the foundation's initiatives and provide resources on an ongoing basis that are critical to raising awareness of the foundation. In addition, an IBM representative sits on the CEF board.

In Early September, CEF partnered with IBM to host an open-source student programming competition. Competitors were challenged to create a cloud-hosted Node.js application to communicate with a Db2 database and RPG code via REST API calls. Final submissions were required to be an application deployed to and running on IBM Watson Bluemix technology. The winner of the competition received an all-expenses paid trip to the 2017 COMMON Fall Conference in October. “Partnering with IBM on this project was a natural fit. It allows CEF to engage students and show them how the platform is modern and still relevant for business,” says Siddiqui.

CEF also lends support to user groups with the same goals such as the Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association (WMCPA). The foundation sponsored the Women in IT track at the group's Spring Technical Conference.

CEF makes a point of being visible at COMMON events, too. The foundation encourages COMMON members to support CEF's goals by volunteering, mentoring students and providing internships. COMMON members are essential to helping fulfill the CEF’s mission of engaging and educating a new generation of IT talent.

Real-life Examples

Thanks to financial support from CEF, many students and educators are able to attend the COMMON Fall Conference. For 2017, CEF raised $32,000 through donations to bring 35 students and six educators to the meeting. Many students have used this opportunity as a springboard for their careers.

Kelly Mason, now a software engineer at Illinois-based Smalley, credits attending the COMMON Fall Conference in 2015 for broadening her knowledge. As one of several students receiving CEF funding, she attended a session on tips and tricks for Rational Developer for i (RDi). "I have used things I learned in that session everyday since," says Mason. "The most valuable part of the CEF experience is the opportunity to meet and learn from so many of the great people in our field," she says.

Like Mason, Lynell Constantine, an applications developer for Credentials Inc., was a student when he was introduced to CEF and COMMON. CEF enabled him to become more involved with platform and people in the industry. "Participating in CEF programs as well as contributing and being a part of the IBM i community has helped nurture my programming skills at every step of the way," Constantine says. CEF has given him access to experts in the IBM i community, which he finds truly amazing. He was also introduced to his current employer while taking part in CEF programs. "The CEF experience helped me gain a competitive edge over other new programmers in the industry," he says.

Bringing a new generation to the platform helps IBM i clients maintain and grow their systems now and in the future. CEF is focused on those up-and-coming IT workers. Both the foundation and the industry will benefit from these efforts to bring newcomers into the IBM i community.

Shirley S. Savage is a Maine-based freelance writer. Shirley can be reached at savage.shirley@comcast.net.



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