Master the Mainframe: Learn by Doing

Untitled design - 2020-05-06T151911.671.png

The virtual Master the Mainframe program just wrapped up another successful year. The program, which can be completed at a participant’s own pace, is “an interactive learning resource for the next generation to gain experience and skills that are required to run critical enterprise systems,” says Meredith Stowell, vice president of IBM Z Ecosystem at IBM, in a press release from the company.

The grand prize winners were Takao Kaburaki from Hosei University in Japan, Mark Budavari from University of Szeged in Hungary, and Yen-Chang Pan from Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina, whom we spoke with earlier in this series. The 2019 competition also had several regional winners from Rwanda, France, the United States, and other countries. We spoke with some of the regional winners who consider themselves newer to the mainframe environment.

Novices Can Go Far with Curiosity

2019 Master the Mainframe regional winner Pacome Simon Mbonimpa from the University of Rwanda considers himself an IT hobbyist, but as an electrical engineering student, he sees IT as another way to advance his future career. He found the contest and decided to take on the Master the Mainframe challenge to learn about the technology. He found the competition arduous as he didn’t know COBOL or Rexx programming languages beforehand, and the interface itself, Mbonimpa says, can be difficult for a newbie unfamiliar with how to navigate folders and directories.

Another regional winner, Georges Kopp from OpenClassrooms in France, works in finance but has dabbled in mainframe technology since his early school days. At that time, he took an experimental course in school on Fortran IV on an IBM 370 before reconnecting with IT in the 1980s. “Since then, I’ve been fascinated with mainframes and looking for a free way to teach myself about them. I found the Master the Mainframe competition in 2018,” he said. “People might think I’ve gone crazy because I’m 61 and too old to take on challenges of this kind, but IBM offering this opportunity was heaven to me.” Kopp, who considers himself a disciplined person, relied on Google, YouTube, and other tutorials to learn the structure of the mainframe and adapt to new IT concepts during the challenge.

Regional winner Avishek Sen from Sudhir Memorial Institute in India says the Master the Mainframe competition was an opportunity to advance in computer science after high school graduation. A physics teacher advised Sen to enter the competition because of his passion for coding and exploration of programming languages. Sen says the challenges were easy for him because of his prior knowledge of Linux basics, terminals, SSH, Telnet, and other technologies.

University of Dallas Admission Information Systems manager Christos Polemenakos, the regional winner from the United States, manages the team responsible for developing and supporting tools for CRM business processes and platform integration. He found out about the Master the Mainframe competition through his Master’s Degree program in information and technology management. Polemenakos took an unusual route to IT, beginning with an undergraduate degree in sculpture and a lot of work in electronic and interactive digital media. As his career took him into more technical directions, he always heard talk about mainframes and how it was a difficult path to follow. “So, when I had the opportunity to learn mainframe skills in a practical way, I jumped at the chance,” he says. “I’ve always been a tinkerer.”

Challenges Build Your Confidence

Mbonimpa explains that the second part of the challenge encourages participants to work quickly as if in a race, but he relied on his experience from the previous year’s Master the Mainframe challenge to work confidently through those levels. Part one is the easiest level, he says, because it is mostly introductory. But part two forced him to learn new skills and then use them more creatively in part three. “The program was arranged as if it was not only a contest, but also a tutorial. That encouraged me to complete the program,” Mbonimpa says. He adds that he’s now confident to tackle new courses related to z/OS, and he advises new mainframers to push the limit.

Kopp says the competition kept him on his toes, but that he kept his main goal in mind throughout the challenge: “learn to play in the mainframe yard.” He adds, “In the challenge, new concepts are continuously there, and because of my past experience in languages, databases, and other operating systems, I was comfortable in those areas, but in the new ones I was lost until I understood and found examples and other definitions.”

Sen says the last few challenges in part three were time consuming. “It took me quite a few days to construct it correctly, and I was struggling with it on the last night of the competition and carefully testing every piece of the code for possible uncertainties,” he says. “I was finally able to complete all the challenges within the time period.” Sen explains that he read the tutorials thoroughly to make sure he didn’t miss anything, which he says gave him an edge over other competitors who stumbled upon things accidentally. He believes his problem solving skills, dedication, and determination helped him overcome the challenges.

His biggest challenge, according to Polemenakos, was to learn a new interface and working environment because he’d never heard of TSO or ISPF before. “Rexx was also a completely unfamiliar language to me,” he says. “Fortunately, IBM has very robust documentation for z/OS and mainframe tools available online.” He adds, “Whenever I ran into trouble, I would go searching in the documentation for the answers. Sometimes along the way, I would find things that I didn't realize I was looking for. The more I looked, the deeper the well of tools I found available.” By the end of the competition, Polemenakos says the Rexx language was straightforward. “I ended up writing everything for the final challenge in Rexx, even though I'd never heard of it before the competition,” he recalls.

The competition builds on the skills you learn throughout each challenge. Polemenakos explains, “Once I got into the flow of it, I felt like as long as I kept my momentum going, I would be able to finish. Sue Conger, the professor who told me about the competition, likes to say that ‘In programming, it's just you against the computer. And as long as you have enough time and don't give up along the way, you'll always win.’”

Use Skills Creatively, Have Fun

“Being one of the regional winners is definitely a huge accomplishment for me, but this is just the initial step,” Sen adds. “This win has provided me with [a] huge [amount of] confidence that can help me achieve a lot more in my career. I want to participate again and compete to be one of the three global winners.” Overall, mainframes are not hard to understand or handle, Sen says, but the challenges in the competition make them fun to work on. “Participants, however, have to know how to manage time, read through the instructions carefully, stay focused, and apply a little bit of critical thinking to ace the competition,” he advises.

For those taking the competition head on, Polemenakos advises that participants take their time. “Make sure you truly understand what each challenge is trying to teach you before you move on to the next one,” he says. “And if you get stuck, know that the answers are out there for you to find.” Polemenakos notes that the challenge opened his eyes to new opportunities, explaining that he can now “take on new challenges and not just survive them, but excel.” Kopp agrees and advises new mainframers to “try it and enjoy the journey.” Polemenakos adds, “In a way, it comes back to my sculpture training. Most of the tools and techniques have been around for centuries. It's not about inventing a new saw or chisel — the real magic comes from combining those existing tools in a creative way.”


Are you up for the challenge? Click here to learn more about Master the Mainframe and how you can get involved.

Recent Stories
Eclipse Che4z: Opening the Mainframe to More Developers

Quickly Improve COBOL Programs with IBM’s Automatic Binary Optimizer (ABO)

SHARE Grows with zNextGen