Computing Applications

‘master the Mainframe’ Contest Lures Next Generation to Big Iron

A logo for the Master the Mainframe contest.
The Master the Mainframe coding contest is aimed at igniting student interest in Big Iron.

Don’t tell Miles Nosler, Patricio Reynaga, or Jovanna Marquez the mainframe is dead. They are among the 60,000 college and high school students who have participated in IBM’s "Master the Mainframe" coding contest, a competition that has ignited interest in "Big Iron" and created a burgeoning career path for a new generation of millennial students.

The Master the Mainframe contest lets students gain mainframe experience, get first dibs at internships, and obtain access to IBM corporate job boards. It also provides a steady stream of talented newcomers to fill the burgeoning demand for Big Iron-related jobs like software development, datacenter management, and security.

The contest is one component of IBM’s 10-year, $10-million zEnterprise Academic Initiative, launched in 2003 to reinvigorate interest in teaching mainframe-related college courses and to attract students to Big Blue’s zEnterprise platform. IBM started the Master the Mainframe contest in 2005, with no experience required to enter; college and high school students were permitted to compete. Big Blue hoped to get at least 100 student participants in the inaugural competition; "instead, it drew 750 contestants," recalls Don Resnik, IBM’s Worldwide Academic Initiative and System z Skills Leader.

To date, 60,000 students from 33 countries have participated in the competition. The 2013 contest ran from October through December 2013 and had more than 5,400 entrants, the largest pool of competitors yet. The top three finishers will be notified in March.

Resnik explained, "Students gain real-world skills while having fun. The contest introduces them to the vital role mainframes play in leading-edge, emerging technologies like cloud, Big Data, analytics, mobility, and security."

After overcoming his initial skepticism that the mainframe was an "antiquated technology," self-described "computer nerd" Nosler bested 4,600 rivals to win the 2012 match. He recalled, "I had lot of fun learning the IBM zEnterprise technology and figuring out the nerdy jokes, like ‘opening the pod bay doors.’" The win netted him a trip to IBM’s Armonk, NY, headquarters, where he picked up prizes including a tablet computer. He also had his pick of job offers; he chose a software engineering position with Visa in his hometown of Austin, TX.

Reynaga, then a computer science major at West Texas A&M University, said he "had no idea what a mainframe was" prior to the competition; he beat 3,500 contestants from 549 schools to win the contest in 2010. Fidelity Systems hired him as an Operating Systems Programmer upon graduation. "I never imagined a mainframe career; (those skills) weren’t something I learned in my usual computer classes," Reynaga said.

Three-time contestant Marquez, a junior at Lake Brantley High School in Florida when she first competed in the competition, initially thought mainframes were "something out of the movie ‘The Matrix.’" Currently a college sophomore, Marquez said she’s "fallen in love" with the mainframe; "it has opened my eyes to new career possibilities." She scored high enough on Part 2 that IBM described her as an "up and comer," and asked her to speak at its Enterprise2013 event in October in Orlando, FL.

H. Paul Haiduk, computer science program coordinator for the School of Engineering and Computer Science of West Texas A&M University, said students’ participation in the coding contest was "a natural extension" of classroom activities. Haiduk said student participation and positive feedback on the contest, and the rapid hiring of many participants, led the university to develop a four-course junior/senior track on enterprise computing.

"Mainframe technology holds the brightest career promise and opportunities for our graduates; 95% of Fortune 500 firms use mainframes," Haiduk observed. "Our graduates enjoy the highest average starting salaries as compared with all the other graduates from our university. They all have jobs at, or before, graduation."

The popularity of the contest isn’t limited to universities. Seth Reichleson, a computer science teacher at Lake Brantley High School near Orlando, said nearly 300 students—almost 10% of the school’s student population—are enrolled in computer science classes, and participate in twice-weekly after-school practice sessions for the IBM coding match. "We make computer science and mainframe coding fun, and we build students’ resumes, preparing them for full-time careers," Reichleson said.

IBM continues to expand the competition beyond its current complement of more than 1,000 colleges and universities worldwide, and now is looking to sites in Africa. "We’re just starting to build relationships with Africa. We’ll start with banks and local universities in Kenya and South Africa. We hope to announce something in 2014," Resnik said.

Observed 2012 winner Marquez, "IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest puts me in the driver’s seat. Students like me can power future innovations."

The Contest

The Master the Mainframe coding contest consists of three separate parts, each of which presents distinct challenges; the degree of coding difficulty increases as students progress to the next level. High school and college students log on remotely from their dorms, apartments, or computer labs to IBM System z mainframes, and are awarded prizes ranging from t-shirts for successfully completing Part One, to a laptop computer and a trip to IBM’s New York headquarters for winning Part Three.

  • Part One introduces students to the mainframe and gets them comfortable with remote secure access to an IBM mainframe, while performing simple tasks. Typically this portion of the challenge takes an hour or two to complete.
  • Part Two introduces contestants to advanced commands and system setup techniques; students usually spend approximately 30 to 40 hours on this portion of the match. Those who complete Parts One and Two receive hands-on experience in four operating systems (IBM’s mainframe z/OS; Linux on System z; z/Transactional Processing Facility, and z/Virtualization Machine).
  • Part Three is the most technically daunting coding challenge. Competitors utilize IBM’s Rational Developer for System zEnterprise coding tool to create complex, high-end CICS, IMS, DB2, and Batch applications to solve real-world business problems devised by IBM engineers.  The engineers typically take up to three months to review completed submissions; 2013’s top three finishers will be notified in March.

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, a Boston-area IT consultancy.

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