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Rob McNelly




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March 2011

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02/08/2011

Growing Mastery

After six years, the Master the Mainframe contest is still drawing an increasing number of new users to the IBM mainframe. A record 3,537 students from more than 400 schools across the United States and Canada participated in the most recent contest; the winners of the three-part contest were announced Jan. 26.

Mike Todd, with the IBM System z Academic Initiative, says the increased participation is likely a result of the current generation of students who realize mainframes offer a solid career path. “If students didn’t see a future in mainframe computing, we wouldn’t be seeing the kind of growth that the contest has experienced: from 750 students in 2005 to 3,537 students in 2010,” he says.

Patricio Reynaga, West Texas A&M University, took first place. Another college student, Jay Thomas, Pace University, was awarded second place. A high school student, Calvin MacKenzie, Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts, received third place. Other top winners and honorable mentions are listed online.

Sponsored by the IBM Academic Initiative System z program, the Master the Mainframe Contest invites students to gain hands-on experience with the System z platform. The contest welcomes students who have never logged on to a mainframe system before, guiding them through the basic tasks required to successfully navigate the system.

Three-Fold Competition

The contest is divided into three increasingly difficult parts, allowing students to decide how deep they want to go into the inner workings of the mainframe. In Part 1, students learn to navigate the user interface. In Part 2, the challenges get much more difficult; students debug Job Control Language (JCL) errors, learn to navigate UNIX on the mainframe, alter C programs to produce different output, manipulate security protocols and learn more advanced system navigation. All of the students who complete Part 2 earn certificates of completion from IBM and receive invitations to upload their resumes to the IBM Student Opportunity System (a resume database accessible to all IBM Business Partners and clients).

Todd says participants receive everything they need to log on to a mainframe system for the first time: screenshots, detailed instructions and a healthy dose of encouragement. “We understand it can be intimidating to tackle a brand new platform, and we do our best to ease students into the world of enterprise computing,” he adds. As students progress through the contest, they learn skills needed in future challenges.

In Part 3, students are faced with problems that have flummoxed systems programmers in the real world. IBM clients have also pitched in ideas for skills they’d like to see students acquire during the contest, such as more experience with VSAM data sets. “Students must bring tenacity, dedication and technical ability to succeed in the contest, Todd says, “but they don’t need to have a background in mainframe-specific technologies.” In fact, past winners have started the contest with no mainframe experience at all.

“Students see that we’re teaching them real-world skills that are in demand with many of the world’s largest companies, and they’re drawn to the contest in part because it’s fun and they can win prizes, but also because they’re picking up skills that can give them an advantage in the job market,” he adds.

Adding Rational Developer for System z

This year, for the first time, students were invited to download and install Rational Developer for System z (RDz), an Eclipse-based integrated development environment (IDE), to complete the Part 3 challenges. RDz is a more familiar environment to most students than a traditional 3270 emulator, Todd says. Contest organizers, who were predicting technical-support issues to arise, were surprised at how quickly students became productive with RDz. As no technical support-issues arose, RDz will likely be a component in future Master the Mainframe competitions.

Get Involved

The 2011 competition kicks off the Tuesday after Labor Day, with the contest beginning in early October. Students can keep up with the latest on the contest at ibm.com/university/contest, and also on the Facebook fan page.

Even if a contest isn’t running in your country (or if you’d like to practice for an upcoming one), students and educators have worldwide, no-cost mainframe access through the IBM Academic Initiative System z. Visit the website for details.


Email Natalie at [email protected].