A Closer Look at the 2018 Master the Mainframe Winners

Past winners talk about their experiences with the contest

By Adam Oxford

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For a decade and a half, students from around the world have been taking part in IBM’s annual Master the Mainframe competition. Designed as an introduction to the world of z/OS programming, the contest requires no prior knowledge or skills, and leads participants from their first taste of the UI and the concepts that underpin mainframe computing, through to solving real-world challenges with languages such as C, COBOL, Java and REXX.

The curriculum and challenges change every year, and so do the participants. The first Master the Mainframe contest saw 200 students from North America take part. Today, more than 17,000 participants put themselves forward to compete, representing over 3,000 schools in 120 countries. The competition is structured in three phases, and prizes are awarded for the first finishers in each phase. These prizes range from small gift vouchers for Phase 1, to hardware and the opportunity to attend high-profile IBM events, where later phase winners can meet and learn from leaders in the mainframe industry.

When it kicks off in August, the 2019 Master the Mainframe competition will be the biggest yet. To help those who are keen to take part understand what they can expect and what the benefits are, IBM Systems magazine caught up with last year’s winners to find out more about their experiences.

“I learned a lot of programming skills. But I also learned a large amount about problem solving, too. I got the most out of the final challenge, which demanded a lot of creativity.”

Matthew Bowen // A senior at Columbus State University in Georgia

A Truly Global Competition
There’s no obvious route to success in Master the Mainframe, beyond a willingness to learn and determination to take part. The 12 winners of the 2018 competition came from all over the world, including the U.S., Japan, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Algeria, India and Pakistan. Their level of academic experience was also no indication of outcome. Winners ranged from first-year college students, to post-graduates keen to develop a better understanding of the platform’s potential in emerging technologies.

They also had very mixed expectations. “I had heard of mainframe,” says Yuto Isogami, a graduate student at Wasesda University in Tokyo, who learned of the competition while completing a summer internship at IBM. “But I had no experience of it. I thought mainframe was an old, large-scale platform, but I learned that it has been advancing with the times, and working with z/OS is challenging and fun.”

Apurv Todkar, a B-Tech student from the Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) in Tamil Nadu, India, says that his interest was piqued watching a roommate coding in a command line interface. Prior to that, he says, he was completely unaware of mainframe systems. Conversely, Brazillian Diego de Franco Matos—who has since graduated from FATEC in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and now works as a technical consultant on zAnalytics—was a past winner who entered the competition for a third time. “I wasn’t going to enter because I was busy with other projects,” Matos says, “But I couldn’t resist, my fingers were itchy and I had a lot of fun.”

The Experience of Competition
“The contest changed the way I look at mainframes,” says Zimbabwean Brian Zhou. “It gave me a glimpse of the future of enterprise computing.” Zhou says that his passions are data visualization and machine learning, and that he’s looking forward to a career in research. The contest, he says, inspired him to stretch himself, learning new languages and database skills for deep learning.

Zhou’s comments are echoed by Simona Saitta, a master’s student at the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy. “I had the opportunity to use mainframe technologies for the first time, and learned new languages such as COBOL and REXX.” Saitta says that her favorite part of the contest was “The real sense of fulfillment, not just in successfully completing Part 2, but finding out I was one of the first 150 to do so. That incited me to go on and challenge myself with Part 3.”

The 2018 competition was the first time that two female students made it through to the winners’ podium, as Saitta was joined by Anna McKee, a senior at the University of North Texas. McKee, a third-time competitor, became the first woman to win Master the Mainframe when she took part in 2017. “This competition has taught me that if I set my mind on a goal and work really hard, I’m capable of achieving anything,” says McKee.

Japan’s Isogami says that the competition was also a personal journey. Feeling overwhelmed in the final stage, he was ready to quit. “I learned the value of not giving up.”

Perhaps the most intense experience, however, was for Pakistan’s Abdullah Zafar. Zafar says that the pressure was on as he raced to finish the final part of Master the Mainframe. “I completed the last challenge just four hours before the final deadline. My end of semester exams were the next day,” he explains. “I did OK in those, too.”

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Reaping the Benefits
All of the winners were keen to discover more about how mainframes are used for emerging technologies and their place in the fourth industrial revolution. Soumyadeep Bhattacharjee is a typical example: A master’s student at the University of Stuttgart in Germany, he is planning a career as a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and other “futuristic technologies.”

Ryoya Sotokawa is the only winner studying a noncomputing field, and was looking to gain very specific knowledge out of the competition. A student in molecular biology and neural development at the University of Tokyo, he says that he had some experience in bio-informatics but struggled with the early challenges, and approached the competition “as though it was a puzzle game.”

Master the Mainframe is designed to help students learn and understand z/OS and the opportunities that it has at the cutting edge of computing. But many of the winners say that they learned more than that.

Matthew Bowen, a senior at Columbus State University in Georgia, underlined the other benefits of taking part. “I learned a lot of programming skills,” Bowen says. “But I also learned a large amount about problem solving, too. I got the most out of the final challenge, which demanded a lot of creativity.”

Bowen says that he values the credibility that the competition and its badge system confers highly.

“Now that I have the experience of competing in Master the Mainframe, I’m not worried about my career prospects here or anywhere in the world.”

Murilo Branquinho de Andrade Pintor is now a graduate of the Federal University of Sao Carlos in Brazil, and is now working as a public servant. “The job market is always looking for candidates with a good theoretical background,” he says. “But it values what you’ve put into practice even more. The competition opens doors because we can show to the world that we are capable of solving the same problems that are faced by businesses every day.”

For McKee, the stand-out highlight was the opportunity to take part in IBM’s annual THINK conference. “The conference was spectacular,” McKee says. “I enjoyed seeing the community that has been built around IBM Z. It makes me excited to be a mainframer.”

Abhibav Prakash Singh, a third-year student at the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in Dehradun, India, says that there’s one big benefit waiting at the end of the competition. Mainframe developers, he points out, “are very generously paid and well regarded.”

“It’s an exciting opportunity for showcasing your skills,” he says. “You may have to review the basics, but there’s no need to spend a lot of time learning beforehand.”

Preparing Yourself
McKee’s advice for those thinking of entering Master the Mainframe this year is to “do it!” At least one of the 2018 winners is planning to do exactly that again this year. Apurv Shrikant Todkar says that he’s looking forward to expanding his experience of working in the command line interface through the challenges.

For those still on the fence about entering, Isogami points out that, “there aren’t many opportunities for students to come into contact with mainframe systems. It’s really worth investing the time into this.”

Bowen emphasizes the point about commitment. “It does take a time investment to be successful, but it’s very worthwhile. There’s a major skills gap in our generation. [What you learn] will easily kick-start your career. If I can do it, anyone can.

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