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Mainframe: The Next Generation

The Master the Mainframe World Championship contest raises awareness of z Systems to students

8/10/2016 12:30:54 AM | In 2000, with the new millennium underway, the IBM z Systems mainframe and its faithful industry adherents found themselves in an uncomfortable dilemma. Despite the fact the mainframe remained a reliable fixture as the IT backbone powering some of the world's largest enterprises, it had largely been relegated to the status of a business computing throwback by the emerging IT experts and soothsayers of the time.

The IT darlings of the late 1990s and early 2000s were the UNIX and Linux variants taking business data centers by storm. With the OS GUIs, ease of customization and relatively affordable cost of acquisition, they grabbed most of the media attention. Computer science students, likewise, were drawn to the emerging systems that offered an ease of usability they'd become accustomed to with Microsoft Windows. Nevertheless, the mainframe remained—and still remains—the bulletproof machine many of the world's largest enterprises in almost every major industry segment rely on for security and uninterrupted reliability.

The challenge for the mainframe space in general—and the space occupied by IBM z Systems in particular—was spreading the word to up-and-coming computer scientists that the veteran workhorse system was far from a throwback and, in fact, provided the promise of a long-term and lucrative IT career path.

To that end, in 2005 IBM unveiled the first Master the Mainframe contest as part of its broader Academic Initiative. The contest was and is designed for participants with no previous mainframe experience, but becomes more challenging as they advance through the contest's three stages.

First open to universities in the U.S. and Canada, the contest has since become an international competition—including the annual Master the Mainframe World Championship—that's now open to high school and college students too. Indeed, with a Dallas high school junior, Sushen Patel, winning Master the Mainframe in 2007, the contest has become an invaluable introductory springboard for a much younger generation of mainframe professionals who can step in to fill the void being left by legions of the retiring mainframe vanguard.

“I think we can look at the Master the Mainframe contest as a definite success story when it comes to elevating mainframe awareness,” says Troy Crutcher, IBM Academic Initiative, z Systems lead. “We've been adding new geographies with each contest and the contestant pool regularly includes younger and enthusiastic participants.”

High (School) Power

To augment Crutcher's point, look toward the 2015 Master the Mainframe—U.S. and Canada—first place winner Ari Kenney, left. Kenney, who won the contest as a senior at Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Florida, is the second high school student to win the contest. Kenney, however, first participated in the contest during his freshman year.

“I found out about the mainframe and, by extension, the Master the Mainframe contest, from my APCS (Advanced Placement Computer Science) teacher, Seth Reichelson,” Kenney says. “He makes it a high priority every year for all of his students to gain experience with the mainframe and even hosts us in his classroom late after school on the day the contest starts.”

With APCS introducing him to the mainframe as a freshman, it's easy to imagine Kenney being born clutching a laptop to his chest. However, even though he'd always used computers in some way or another, he says he basically found himself being interested in the science behind computers rather by accident. During the summer after his seventh-grade year, Kenney took part in an iD Tech Camp at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, receiving his first in-depth introduction to programming. He discovered he was surprisingly savvy at it, thus strengthening his resolve to take APCS as a freshman.

None of that, however, prepared him for the early realities of the Master the Mainframe contest—particularly since his preferred OS was and remains Windows, the OS he most encounters in his everyday experience and programming.

“Improving at the contest took years,” Kenney says. “In the beginning, I was pretty bad at it. My freshman year, I didn't even come close to winning Part 2. It took me most of the time on the first day to finish Part 1. Our teacher allowed us to stay after school together and work in the same room, so we were able to collaborate and help each other. Thanks to that method, Lake Brantley has had many Part 2 victories in the past few years.”

When Kenney participated in the contest as a sophomore, he believed his experience and determination would earn him a sweatshirt for completing Part 2. Despite his enthusiasm and confidence, however, he says eagerness may have prompted him to rush things a bit more than was probably wise. While assisting a fellow participant after submitting his own Part 2 answers, Kenney realized he'd made a mistake himself.

“The next morning, I found that my submission had been rejected and I wasn’t going to be a winner,” he says. “However, on the bright side, that neighbor I helped ended up with one of the winning submissions. I was a bit crushed for a while, but I didn't really let it get to me. I was even more determined my junior year.”

Unfortunately, the Master the Mainframe specter continued to haunt Kenney through his junior year. Although he successfully completed Part 2 and moved on to the difficult Part 3, his IBM account crashed while he was working on the final challenge, where he found himself stuck, unable to proceed. Despite yet another contest setback, he received an honorable mention for his work completed during Part 3.

Fourth Time's the Charm

Finally, as a senior, the cosmic tumblers that unlocked the 2015 Master the Mainframe contest fell into place for Kenney, who managed to out-mainframe a field of 4,800 competitors in the U.S. and Canada to become the second high school student to win first place and secure a spot in this year's Master the Mainframe World Championship.

The 2016 Master the Mainframe World Championship will be unlike anything the team has previously seen. The top Master the Mainframe competitors from around the globe will participate in a two-part event. Part 1 includes 65 students from 26 countries battling it out through a series of challenges—all of which are conducted on IBM z Systems—over a two-week period. At the end, the field will be narrowed to the top 10 finalists from each competing geographic sphere. From there, the finalists will complete a series of challenges spanning three months, culminating with the final challenge.

For that final challenge, the finalists will compete in San Francisco, in IBM Innovation Space environments tailored specifically for them. They will have two days to impress the team with their mainframe talents, while also meeting top executives and gaining real world knowledge to pass onto potential future employers.

The top two winners will be sent to Las Vegas, where they will be recognized on stage at Edge 2016 by IBM's General Manager of z Systems, Ross Mauri. View the 65 Mainframe World Championship competitors.

Kenney was selected for the World Championship. “I wouldn't miss this opportunity for the world. It's all worth it for the experience and I have room to improve in all aspects of mainframe computing.”

Kenney plans to attend the University of California, Berkeley, this fall, continuing his mainframe education, including taking on the Master the Mainframe contest as long as possible.

“It's easy practice for a system I'm sure I'll continue to use,” says Kenney. “I absolutely have plans to pursue a career in the mainframe if that opportunity is afforded to me. Any chance I can get to gain more experience in the industry is invaluable. I probably wouldn't have even known about Master the Mainframe if I hadn't attended Lake Brantley with Mr. Reichelson.”

Open Their Eyes

While good timing and a great teacher brought the Master the Mainframe contest to Kenney's attention, the contest itself continues to raise mainframe awareness the world over, while the mainframe continues as a preeminent presence in the enterprise-level IT marketplace.

“There's no question Master the Mainframe continues to raise international awareness about the mainframe and entices new users every time we conduct the contest,” Crutcher says. “In 2015 alone, we had more than 10,000 people compete in regional contests worldwide. Those contests featured contestants from 47 countries, which included 18 countries that hadn't participated before. The contest arms students with enterprise computing knowledge and skills that they may not have been exposed to otherwise and opens their eyes to mainframe IT career paths they may never have known existed.”

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