IBM’s Master the Mainframe Contest: It’s All About Skills Development and Opportunity

By Billy Clabby, Clabby Analytics

IBM has been running “Master the Mainframe,” an annual contest designed to teach students to code and build new innovations on the mainframe, since 2005. This year almost 17,000 students joined the competition, driven by a desire to experiment with a brand-new technology to them (a mainframe), as well as the non-threatening, no-experience-required environment where a student can develop a skill in a teachable, virtual environment.

A look at the demographics of this year’s event reveals some real eye-openers:

  • 80 percent of the registrants were new to the program;
  • The average age was 22 -with participants as young as 13 and as old as 68; also,
  • 23 percent of participants were female.

The 80 percent number is notable because it reflects high interest in the mainframe and its revitalization. The average age is interesting because even 22 year-olds (or thereabouts – millennials…) want to experiment with the big machines: mainframes.  But the 23 percent number is equally compelling – females, who usually do not pursue careers in technology, made up almost a quarter of the registrants.

Could it be that female registrants recognize that building applications in this learning environment means whoever writes the best code wins? 22 year old Anna McKee from the University of Texas apparently believed so when she claimed her 1st place finish in the United States – along with her position in the top three global entrants. Also, past winner Torrie McLaughlin believed so when she won an honorable mention in 2014, and followed her win by leveraging her experience in the program to become a mainframe systems programmer in the banking industry.

This Contest Is in Line With the Way Millennials Think

If you can “Master the Mainframe,” you have demonstrated that you have acquired a skill in mainframe computing. And “skill” is very important. The way we think in my millennial generation is echoed in this statement by Luisa Martinez, a former contestant and now a developer of ZOS Unix System Services:

Many young professionals want a career where they can make an impact. The mainframe is a perfect fit” according to Martinez, “because it’s the backbone to mission-critical IT resources for so many large corporations, from airlines, to banks, to retail stores and more.”

More often than not, the general consensus is that millennials want to immediately have an impact in their chosen endeavors, while continuing to learn. If a millennial ends up on a project where the team is not providing new challenges and an opportunity to learn, a fear falling behind his/her peers and other IT professionals is likely to enter the picture. Mainframe computing presents an opportunity to have a strong impact at the heart of the enterprise while continuing along a highly engaging professional learning path.

That said, our generation is not immune to other drivers such as compensation.  Today, Glassdoor lists over 6,000 mainframe jobs. With current growth patterns, IBM is predicting that by 2020 over 37,000 mainframe administration positions will be available. On average, at a starting salary of $113,000, mainframe developers are making double the salary of most electrical engineers!  In IT, application developers typically make $93,335/year; business analysts typically make around $87,500/year; and business intelligence analysts typically make close to $90,000/year – placing mainframe developers significantly ahead of developers and administrators on other platforms.

As previous generations of mainframe experts close in on retirement, there is more demand than ever for mainframe developers, system managers and administrators. Mainframe computers process an astounding number of the world’s transactions, IBM mainframe revenue is on the rise, and new markets such as Blockchain are developing that will run most optimally on mainframe architecture. This means that mainframes are not going away for the foreseeable future and their usage is actually increasing.

Businesses know this, teachers know this, and now students also appear to have figured this out. In fact, this years’ IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest had its largest turnout of contestants since its debut in 2005 – showing that millennials are starting to clue-in on the major opportunity the mainframe offers to make an impact and also make a decent living while doing so.

A closer look at the skill sets being used in the contest shows that mastering the mainframe might involve learning about and demonstrating proficiency in new operating systems (mainframes now run the Linux operating environment and 50% of IBM’s mainframe base is using Linux on z), or new software environments, and maybe even new programming languages. For example, a contestant might demonstrate proficiency in JAVA programming, or in the newer GO and Swift programming environments for mobile applications.

Additionally, the mainframe supports other new and popular open source software (i.e. Apache Spark, MongoDB, PostgreSQL, Puppet and Docker) which means contestants have a wealth of area from which to choose when attempting to prove their mainframe proficiency.  These are new, modern languages and databases – the kinds of technologies that millennials crave – and the kind of skills that they want.

Mainframe growth, the modernization of the platform to offer open source solutions and integrated support for the latest and greatest industry applications signal that mainframe skills will be needed indefinitely. In fact, over the past few years, IBM has changed the structure of Master the Mainframe to broaden the base of relevant skills that will make students stand out when applying for internships and full-time employment.

The Contest Itself

The Master the Mainframe contest is hosted by members of IBM’s Z Academic Initiative team, and it is one of many programs run by the initiative to find and encourage young people to become engaged with mainframe computing. The initiative has outreach to more than 1,000 schools across 70 different countries.

Each year Z Academic Initiative members meet with the top mainframe companies to discuss what skills they may be seeking in their future employees, and the challenge is structured accordingly. For instance, last year, Bank of America wanted to see challenges built around Assembler Language. IBM immediately added this as part of a challenge. Other companies sought other skills such as skills in analytics, and these, too, were added to the challenge. As time progresses and as new innovative technologies come to market, IBM’s goal is not only to expose students to z Systems and their importance, but also to other new relevant technologies that can be used on the mainframe.

The link between employers and students is highlighted very well by Visa, the credit processing company which uses the contest = to build their base of recruits for mainframe positions. For instance, Master the Mainframe has enabled Visa to recruit students from a large pool of contestants from around the world, “Which has become a critical success factor in extending the reach and capabilities of our network while at the same time enhancing the security of payments and maintaining high volume/high availability,” according to Jeff Gill, Senior Director, Switching Systems, Visa Inc.

The contest consists of three programming and solutions sections and not all contestants meet the needs of each challenge in each section. The first focuses on teaching those with no mainframe experience “green screen” connections and navigation. The second usually consists of 15 challenges that involve, for example, a specific programming language, RACF security, database administration and manipulation, or advanced functions with ISPF.  The third section also changes from year-to-year, and centers on solving a real-world problem as a data scientist would do, with real-world data and reporting and analysis tools.

Students who don’t complete all three sections don’t fail the challenge, overall. In fact, even students who have finished two of the three parts of the contest have proven to potential employers or to post-graduate programs that they have technical proficiency. In some cases, having just participated helped students land job interviews.

Summary Observations

A closer look at the Master the Mainframe contest shows that it’s all about skills development and opportunity. The beauty of the contest is that it lets young adults (as well as anyone who wants to learn about mainframes) experiment with mainframe technology using programming languages and tools that younger contestants are most familiar with – current generation programming environments like Java, GO and Swift – as well as open source technologies such as Apache Spark, MongoDB, PostgreSQL, Puppet and Docker.  But it also provides access to other environments such as analytics, COBOL and even Assembler for those who are seeking different challenges.

The opportunities offered by the contest are also hard to ignore.  It is no secret that there is a potential skills gap in mainframe land that could be created as older mainframe professionals retire. If millennials can step into that gap they stand a chance of having a big impact on enterprises – while also making some good coin. Both of these situations appeal strongly.

Additionally, the contest offers everyone the opportunity to develop new skills.  How often does one get a chance to play with Blockchain development or analytics tools on an IBM Z?  Through this contest, IBM provides all contestants with a wider range of tools with which to experiment than many of our high schools and colleges offer.

Overall, IBM’s Master the Mainframe is a great platform to showcase yourself and your talents, and learn some new technologies at the same time. Mainframe computers form the backbone for hosting the mission critical applications of many enterprises – so mainframe computing is the place-to-be when it comes to having a big impact on a given enterprise. With competitors ranging in age from 13-68 competing everywhere across the globe, this competition is appealing and open to anyone who wants to take advantage of the mainframe platform to prove their technical acumen and wants to prepare to help drive important enterprise initiatives.
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