IT Management

Students Compete to Master the Mainframe

As the fall semester of 2005 came to a close, Anna Clayton finally found time to return to the mainframe tasks she had set aside earlier in the fall. A senior computer science major at St. Ambrose University in davenport, IA, and a participant in the first-ever Student mainframe Contest, Anna had been given her own z/OS system to complete a series of increasingly difficult challenges on the mainframe, including setting up CICS/DB2 connectivity, solving JES initiator problems, compiling and executing Java code, and using FTP to download the SYSLOG to her workstation for further inspection, among numerous other tasks.

The contest, the first of many of its kind, was commissioned and sponsored by the IBM Academic Initiative System z, which brought together a team of mainframe new-hires from outside IBM, college students, technical experts, and IBM new-hires to design and implement the contest. This team’s mission was to develop a vehicle to give a wide audience of college students a chance to gain some hands-on mainframe experience, while reaching students with the message that mainframes are vital, relevant and (yes!) fun, with a healthy employment ecosystem and great paying jobs available to students who put in the effort to learn the basic concepts of enterprise computing.

Collaborating with college professors and IBM educators, the Student mainframe Contest Team developed a three-part contest that let students gradually ease into the z/OS environment, winning more valuable prizes as the difficulty of the contest tasks increased. This formula proved to be a winner. With an initial goal to drum up enough interest to reach at least 100 students with the inaugural run of the contest, the Student mainframe Contest Team watched anxiously as their registration database steadily grew to more than 700 students from 85 schools across the U.S. and Canada. The second incarnation of the contest, dubbed the “master the mainframe Contest,” kicked off in 2006 to an even bigger response—1,085 students registered to compete from 177 different schools.

Since 2005, the contest has been adapted to run in several geographies worldwide, with local IBM teams carefully planning, tweaking, and implementing the contest to most effectively appeal to local students. As of this writing, close to 5,000 students from more than 600 schools worldwide have competed in mainframe contests sponsored by the IBM Academic Initiative System z. With Brazil’s first mainframe contest, the Concurso Mainframe Brasil (, completing earlier this year, and several more contests kicking off in Europe, Asia and north America in the fall semester, 2007 promises to be the busiest year yet for student mainframe contests. For more information on the 2007 U.S. and Canada master the mainframe Contest, which runs from October 1 through December 28, please visit This year, for the first time, high school students also are eligible and encouraged to compete.

The worldwide mainframe contests serve as one more drum beat in support of the mainframe Charter, IBM’s long term commitment to the System z platform. In addition to providing innovation and offering value, IBM has pledged through the mainframe Charter to foster a community around the mainframe. The Academic Initiative System z program was created to help foster this community at colleges and universities, in conjunction with mainframe clients seeking students who have backgrounds in enterprise computing and large systems thinking. With the community growing and more schools adding mainframe- oriented concepts and classes to their curricula every semester, the contests provide an easy way for professors to generate some enthusiasm around their courses.

A large reason for the success of the mainframe contests is that they are designed to make the experience positive and interesting for the students. While the contest is constantly evolving to keep it fresh for students who enter multiple times, the basic flow runs like this:

Part 1 of the contest uses screenshots and explicit instructions to walk the students through the download and setup of a 3270 terminal emulator, which they then use to log into a mainframe such as marist College’s z/OS Knowledge Center, one of six mainframe hub systems worldwide that, through partnerships with the Academic Initiative, offers free mainframe access to interested professors and students at colleges and universities around the globe.

The contest Website walks students through logging into TSO, navigating the ISPF panels, creating a data set member, running a simple REXX exec and, just for fun, writing a haiku poem about the mainframe using the ISPF editor.

After submitting the simple output of a REXX exec to a user Id on the mainframe system that’s monitored by IBM judges, hundreds of students are awarded a custom “master the mainframe” Tshirt, which was painstakingly designed to accomplish the nearly impossible task of being cool enough for students to actually wear on campus.

Part 2 of the contest ramps up the difficulty considerably. The students are racing to win iPods, which don’t quite have the processing power of a System z  machine, but are much easier to fit in a dorm room. Rather than having screenshots to show them the way, students must remember the concepts they learned in Part 1 and apply them to various challenges, including JCL debugging, SDSF navigation, ISPF panel customization and debugging and running executables in various programming languages, including REXX, C, Assembler, and COBOL.

Part 3 of the contest separates the hard-core mainframers from the casual contestants. no credit is awarded for finishing early, and every Part 3 contestant has three full months to complete a rigorous set of challenges derived from real-world problems encountered by System z experts. While Parts 1 and 2 take place on a shared z/oS system (with RACF security constraints in place to ensure contestants don’t interfere with each other), all Part 3 contestants are assigned their own individual z/OS systems to allow for the completion of more complex challenges. The winners of Part 3 are the contestants who complete the most sequential challenges 100 percent correctly before the close of the contest. Prizes for Part 3 have included ThinkPads, Xbox 360s, Sony PlayStation Portables (PSPs) and, last but certainly not least, expenses-paid trips to the fabulous IBM mainframe lab in Poughkeepsie, NY. While some have asked (jokingly, we’re pretty sure) whether a trip to Poughkeepsie is a prize or a punishment, this prize has consistently ranked as the most popular reward with contest winners.

The contest concept has proven popular with educators as well. Tim Pointon, professor of Computer Studies at Georgian College in Ontario, made the 2006 contest a mandatory assignment for students of his enterprise computing class. more than 70 students enrolled from Georgian College, tying it with Clarkson College in New York for the school with the highest enrollment. After the contest ended, Professor Pointon said: “The master the mainframe Contest has been a big success with my students. A number of students have commented at the end of the course that they were very pleased I had made an assignment out of the contest. They felt the contest really solidified their understanding of certain concepts and they liked the challenge of the puzzles. The T-shirts also proved to be a nice motivator.”

Lisa Kovalchick, assistant professor of mathematics and Computer Science at the California University of Pennsylvania, offered extra credit to her COBOL students for taking part in the contest in both 2005 and 2006. For the most recent running of the contest, some of her previous students came back to tell her they were competing again. According to Professor Kovalchick: “These students were not enrolled in any of my classes and had nothing to gain except the mainframe experience. They found the contest and the skills they learned from it important enough to take time out of their busy lives to take part in it again for a second year. Thank you for offering such a contest and I hope that you continue to offer it.”

The IBM Academic Initiative System z indeed plans to offer variations of the contest in different geographies for the foreseeable future, as a part of its overall program to enable educators to teach large systems skills that will help their students find rewarding internships and jobs. In future contests, students who manage to successfully complete Part 2 will be eligible to submit their résumés to the Student opportunity System ( ur/SoS/index.html), which is accessible to IBM clients and Business Partners as they seek to fill open positions. Through this system, students who demonstrate proficiency in enterprise computing during the contest will have one more vehicle to get a foot in the door of some of the world’s finest IT shops.

And speaking of the world’s finest, when last we saw Anna Clayton, she was busy trying to get through some of the 2005 Student mainframe Contest’s more difficult challenges. Just before the contest deadline, she managed to get dB2 and CICS talking to each other, completing one of the final tasks of Part 3 and becoming one of only a handful of students to successfully finish the most difficult challenges.

It’s no coincidence that, promptly after her graduation from St. Ambrose University, Anna was hired as a developer and tester on the z/OS Parallel Sysplex team, where she recently celebrated her first service anniversary. She also joined the master the mainframe Contest Team to help plan future versions of the contest. With many more stories like hers coming out of past mainframe contests at client shops as well as at IBM, the Academic Initiative System z looks forward to linking more students, educators, and clients worldwide through the master the mainframe Contest program.

The IBM Academic Initiative System z sponsors numerous educational programs worldwide. If you want to get involved, partner with the IBM team, locate schools, or just chat with someone about what we’re doing to build z skills, drop us a line any time at zskills@us.IBM. com. you also can find us online at IBM. com/university/systemz. Z to the System z platform.