Master the Mainframe: Persistence and Curiosity Win Out

Untitled design - 2020-04-28T163833.178.png

The IBM Master the Mainframe competition may be 15 years old, but it shows no signs of slowing down. There was a 40% surge in contest registrations to more than 25,500 participants in 2019, and participants came from nearly 4,000 schools and 154 countries. The program also saw a 123% increase in the number of students finishing all three parts of the competition. The grand prize and regional winners of the 2019 Master the Mainframe competition were announced on March 13, hailing from Japan, Argentina, India, and other nations. We caught up with one of the grand prize winners and some of the regional winners from this year’s competition.

Grand Prize Winner Credits Persistence

2019 Master the Mainframe grand prize winner Yen-Chang Pan from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, says the competition is a “promising path” for IT professionals. He’s worked in the IT industry for nearly a decade, currently employed as a full stack developer with a local health insurer. “I wanted to see how far I could go,” Pan said. “I’m passionate about IT solutions and always try to keep up to date on the latest technologies.” When he decided to take the plunge, he was surprised to find out he had been selected as a winner.

This was the first time Pan had participated in the program. Because he doesn’t have much experience with the mainframe, he says he didn’t expect to finish the entire competition. “I just kept going,” he adds. In part three, one of the last tasks was to configure CICS for a web application written in Java running in UNIX System Services (USS). “At some point, I was stuck, and it took me weeks to figure out there was a mismatch in the configuration. After notifying staff of the issue, it was corrected and I was able to get back on track,” he explains. “At first, it was really frustrating as I couldn't find my way out. I just kept exploring and digging in manuals, blogs, and on the web — literally anything within my reach. I was really persistent in looking for answers.”

Pan is hopeful that his win will open up new opportunities for him, as he seeks out his next career steps. “You have to keep pushing yourself to your limit and be curious about things you might not understand, and investigate until you do,” Pan advises. “Once you get it done, think of different ways to do the same thing. All your effort will be well rewarded in your career.”

Keep Learning, Pursue Success

2019 Regional Master the Mainframe winner Gonzalo Hemadi from the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa spent about 10 years in IT before enrolling in an engineering program at the university. As a mainframe operator at a local bank, he deploys programs and schedules jobs in Control-M for z/OS, and he is the first level support for products like Changeman (z/OS), Ondemand (z/OS and UNIX), and the BMC Control family. Hemadi says he first encountered a 3270 terminal as a tape librarian but really knew nothing about mainframes at that time.

Hemadi’s company urged him to enter the Master the Mainframe competition. He took it as an opportunity to improve his technical skills and learn from others, as well as encourage others to take part in the program. “Just participating in the program has already helped me,” Hemadi says, “giving me new knowledge and skills that I can apply today at work.” He adds, “I think that being a winner of Master the Mainframe program will open up new job opportunities and also will connect me to different people and employers in IT fields.”

Computer science engineering student Divyanshu Singh from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies in India, another regional winner, is excited about earning his bachelor’s degree and working with mainframe technology. University faculty advised him to enter the contest, which he did for the first time in 2018, making it to the second part of the challenge. After that experience, he focused his studies on learning basic mainframe concepts with the goal of becoming the overall winner in 2019. Even with his previous experience and additional skills, Singh says some parts of the competition had him stumped for hours. Even if some programs ran successfully, he soon found they were not the right solution for the challenge.

Singh sees his win as a boost to his future career, helping him land internships and eventually a job. In today’s cloud focused world, he adds, “There are many misconceptions about mainframe technology, and I suggest that any cloud enthusiast compete at least once in this contest. It will not only change their thinking about what the mainframe is, but also expose them to the mainframe on an international level.”

Another regional winner, software engineering student Yuto Isogami from Waseda University in Japan, says he’s eager to pursue a career in IT. His main focus has been researching a software testing method for a web application, and he was eager to participate in the competition after learning about it during an internship at IBM Japan two years ago. In 2018, he attempted the challenge for the first time and his strong experience led him to try again in 2019.

Knowledge Is Readily Available

Hemadi recalls that parts one and two of the program were the easiest for him because they were completed by following the step-by-step guides provided by IBM. He also adds that for these parts of the competition, participants could test the result and correct any mistakes before moving onto the next part of the competition. Hemadi admits that on the first day of the competition he did get stuck on one of the first challenges, but with an online search he was able to complete it quickly.

In the first part, Singh says he had to set up a workstation, follow basic connection instructions, and learn about ISPF and TSO environments. He calls this part of the challenge the “first exposure” to the mainframe environment. The second part of the competition, he says, helps participants become familiar with programming concepts like JCL, COBOL, Java, MVS data sets, UNIX files, and different navigation techniques for reviewing JCL job output using SDSF, among others. In this part, Singh says he was stumped by EBCDIC versus ASCII and packed decimal character encoding.

Isogami adds that many of the official z/OS documents are crammed with useful information, but the Master the Mainframe Slack channel helped him more in determining where to best find the information he needed during the challenge. The first two parts were easy, Isogami says, because he already had basic mainframe skills, as well as practice from the 2018 challenge.

Skills and Creativity Lead to Solutions

Some of the most challenging parts of the competition, according to Hemadi, were the problems that had more than one solution. “You couldn’t know if it was done correctly until the competition was over,” he says. In part three, the last challenge was tough because it was left up to interpretation and, Hemadi says, he had to be creative with the skills he’d recently learned.

“The night before the competition ended, I sat at my computer for hours, looking for information in the provided manuals and searching through Rexx syntax and functions,” he explains. “Through trial and error, it took me literally all night to finish the task.” Hemadi admits that he nearly gave up in this section because he had worked late at the office and was exhausted by the time he started it, but he pushed himself to complete it before time ran out. He adds that the experience was worth it. Hemadi recommends his coworkers and teammates apply for the next Master the Mainframe program. “It will help them to acquire new skills and see other ways of solving problems in the mainframe environment,” he says.

Singh agrees that the third part of the Master the Mainframe program was the most challenging, explaining that he had to take additional time to explore mnemonics, machine instructions, hardware architecture, and other information to successfully complete the task. He says that the final challenges are based on real-world problems encountered in the mainframe environment. The final part of the challenge tested all of the skills he learned throughout the contest. “The last challenge was a pioneer in toughness, as it had no instruction to get it done. One had to apply their own imagination and overview to make different reports using Rexx programming language to help a rookie or layman understand what the mainframe is,” Singh adds.

In part three, Isogami says he worried he wouldn’t be able to complete challenge 15 because he had to parse z/OS messages in the SYSLOG, but there were messages he did not know. “It was very hard for me to search the z/OS official documents for the messages that were useful in finishing the challenge,” he recalls. Isogami says the challenge gave him experience in using ISPF, JCL, and other technologies that will help him in his career. Even if he does not work directly with mainframes, Isogami says, “The experience using SQL, assembler language, and others will help me because they are technologies used in more than just mainframe systems.” For those with no mainframe experience, he does advise them to read the official z/OS documentation.

Master the Mainframe Offers Hands-on Experience

The consensus among 2019’s winners is that the Master the Mainframe competition may seem easy when you begin, but when participants hit the final challenges, they may find the hours falling away until they have that “a-ha” moment and power through to the end.

“The Master the Mainframe competition provides great exposure to help students develop valuable coding and enterprise computing skills, and it’s a fun way to get hands-on experience across a variety of technologies,” Singh says. Students with different skill sets have an opportunity to excel in the Master the Mainframe competition. All they need is a curious mind and the diligence to complete it.

Recent Stories
Modern Mentoring in Master the Mainframe

Message from SHARE: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Eclipse Che4z: Opening the Mainframe to More Developers