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Mastering the Mainframe From High School On

College student Elton Cheng took his mainframe prowess worldwide

5/13/2015 5:00:50 AM | It’s somewhat hard to believe the IBM Master the Mainframe contest first started a decade ago in 2005. The mainframe continues churning as the thriving and driving data center heart of most large industries and businesses, which is why the mainframe attracts the most curious and talented computer science enthusiasts.

And the mainframe doesn’t just attract veteran computer science students, either. Elton Cheng is currently in his fourth year pursuing a bio-engineering major at the University of California, San Diego, but he’s been participating in the Master the Mainframe contest since he was a junior in high school in Orange County, California. He was drawn to the contest due to the challenge of learning a different programming language.

And, of course, the prizes. Prizes are good, too.

“I was introduced to the IBM mainframe competition during my time in high school by my computer science teacher,” says Cheng. “He thought it was a pretty fun thing for us to try, especially with the awesome prizes, like the IBM mainframe shirts that were being awarded out. Ever since then, I continued to compete in each IBM mainframe competition held, just to see what challenges they throw out and to see how far I can get.”

Cheng has won more than a T-shirt or two. After coming in second place in 2013, he was awarded a Google Nexus tablet and a trip to tour the IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Room for Creativity

Remarkably, even now, Cheng considers computer science a “hobby,” even after the 2013 competition and later competing in the 2014 Master the Mainframe World Championship.

“When I initially entered college, I had plans on doing a double major with bio-engineering and computer science,” says Cheng. “However, due to the large course loads with both majors, I was left with the option of choosing only one of the two majors. I decided to pursue bio-engineering over computer science, since it was a new field to me that I had interest in.”

So, he’s keeping busy.

Cheng says the 2014 IBM Master the Mainframe World Championship presented considerably more difficult and alluring challenges. For example, during the six-week competition, students were introduced to a series of increasingly difficult mainframe-related tasks, culminating in a final challenge where the students had to develop a mainframe-specific, real-world business application.

“The World Master the Mainframe Championship was where you had free reign over a project, a project that showed off how much you learned from the general competition and where you can apply and show off other skills on the project,” says Cheng. “The projects of the finalists of the World Master the Mainframe Championship completely blew me away at how awesome they were, and definitely showed how creative these guys can be when given full control over a project.”

With 43 students from 23 countries competing in the 2014 Master the Mainframe World Championship, there was considerable room for creativity and adaptability. Regardless, Cheng was able to compete admirably, earning a 22nd place finish amidst a global cadre of competitors who know their way around a mainframe, and pretty much every other computing environment you can name.

A Positive Future

Despite his aptitude for working with mainframes, Cheng says he’s determined to stick to his bio-engineering focus, although he admits there’s room for carry-over between the two fields.

“I definitely feel that there are applications where computer science and bioengineering can work together,” says Cheng. “For example, I definitely believe that smartphones in the future can also act as portable health devices. Smartphones are becoming a more powerful tool each year, and with better and improved mechanical sensors and tools on these phones, they can definitely open up possibilities. Maybe an application that makes your smartphone a portable EKG machine or blood-pressure monitor can happen in the future.”

That’s a prediction for the handheld technologies of the future. As for the mainframe servers of the present, Cheng believes the mainframe is largely misunderstood and dismissed by the computer science enthusiasts entering the industry today. Despite the growing popularity and global reach of initiatives like the Master the Mainframe contest, the mainframe continues to wrestle with the incorrect industry concept that it’s somehow an obsolete technology.

“I feel like this preconception is a mix of both the media and how the mainframe works,” says Cheng. “Initially, the only idea of mainframes that I had was a room full of machines and tapes, and most of this imagery came from either movies or video games, because that’s how they portrayed mainframes or older computers. Because the job and work of the mainframe is mostly behind the scenes, it is hard to tell the difference by outside people to know what work is being done by a mainframe or another tool. I still see the mainframe being a powerful tool in the next 20 years; maybe utilized more by different industries and hopefully an updated image of how the mainframe works.”

Perhaps with the Elton Chengs of the world, tirelessly working on bio-engineering degrees while simultaneously crafting mainframe applications, the mainframe will be elevated to the computing position it so rightfully deserves.

Certainly, with 10 years of Master the Mainframe contests to its credit, and Master the Mainframe World Championship contests to become a regular event, the mainframe has some serious life left in it.

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