IBM’s Master the Mainframe contest is open year round to anyone interested in hands-on mainframe technology training and earning IBM digital badges. IBM says that more than 85,000 applicants from 3,000 schools across 120 countries have participated in the program. No prior knowledge is required, and anyone age 13 and up can take part. The program exposes participants to a number of enterprise systems, enabling them to gain unique skills, learn how to code, and build innovations using mainframe technology. Anna Clayton, IBM Z software engineer and Master the Mainframe 2005 winner, says, “You never know what you're capable of until you've done it, so don't miss out on things by not trying.”
Clayton says she developed an interest in computer programming and technology when she was in high school in the late 1990s, and chose it as her major in college. While at St. Ambrose University, a small liberal arts school, she took every computer science class they had, including a COBOL class in which students compiled and ran programs on the zSeries mainframe located at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York.
It was through her senior year COBOL class that she learned about the Master the Mainframe contest. “Even though the start date had come and gone, I registered for the contest that evening,” recalls Clayton. “We had already done some work on the mainframe in class, so the first few challenges in the contest — logging on and navigating through the Interactive System Productivity Facility (ISPF), submitting job control language (JCL), etc. — were very simple.”
Challenges of the Program
Initially, Clayton thought the challenge was tough, but once she completed the final part, she wondered if IBM had underestimated the capabilities of college students, as there were hundreds of winners that year. “When I found out I was one of only five who completed the last part of the challenge, I was very surprised,” she says.
It’s been 15 years since winning the challenge, but Clayton remembers one specific part in the competition’s last stage: submitting a piece of JCL to lower the maximum user count to zero, so she could no longer log onto the system via TSO. “We had to recognize what had happened and use other means to fix the error,” she explains. “I struggled with this for quite a while before pleading with the contest team for a hint.”
“This was my first interaction with Paul Newton,” Clayton says. Newton was responsible for creating the third phase of the contest. He hinted to her that something completed earlier in the competition could solve the problem, which Clayton recalls being related to submitting jobs via File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Newton also offered her some encouragement to keep going. Even though the contest deadline was just a few days away, Clayton still had several challenges left to complete. “I'm sure at that point his actual opinion was that he'd never hear from me again. But since finals were over and I finally had a bit of free time, I was able to work my way through the contest. The rest is history,” Clayton says. “Newton has been inspirational and so helpful throughout my career. He knows so many helpful z/OS tricks and tips. I'm glad whenever I get an opportunity to bump into him in person, when he is visiting Poughkeepsie for the Enterprise Computing Community (ECC) Conference at Marist College.”
Take a Risk, Keep Learning
3 Stages of the Master the Mainframe Challenge:
Following her Master the Mainframe win in 2005, Clayton was given the opportunity to work at IBM. Even 14 years later, Clayton says she still finds her day-to-day work at IBM challenging. “This is not the path to follow if you want to learn your job in and out, and just show up and perform it day to day,” she advises. “You’ve got to be on your toes, always learning, always looking to explore the next big thing, to thrive here.”
It’s clear that Clayton thrives on challenges and always has. Following the IBM competition, she decided to enroll in a master’s program at Marist College within a week of purchasing her first home. “I don’t know how I survived renovating a home, working full time, and staying up nights to finish class projects, but now that it's done, I’m so glad I didn't decline the offer to get my master’s degree because I was ‘too busy,’” she says.
Academic courses can teach the knowledge students need for a mainframe career, Clayton says, like converting a number from decimal to hex. She adds that learning IT through hands-on experience and from colleagues can shape a career in unexpected ways. IBM’s Master the Mainframe competition “was an excellent foot in the door, and introduced me to so many people who influence my career even today,” she says.
For those new to the mainframe and IT world, she says, “Be curious, investigate, and stick to challenges until you figure them out. Never be afraid to ask for help. But before you rely on another person too much, do all you can to figure things out for yourself. Aim for success and always keep learning.