The purpose of this article is to share some Master the Mainframe Tips for Success that I’ve learned through my experience competing in the past four contests.

A little about myself

When I was taking AP Computer Science at Gabrielino High School, my teacher Ms. Evelyn Torres-Rangel approached me and suggested that I consider participating in the IBM Master the Mainframe Contest. My first response was mild bewilderment. Like most millennials, I had never learned about mainframes before that time. If I didn’t really even know what a mainframe was, how could I possibly be experienced enough to compete against other students?

It was not until I visited the official website and saw the words “No Experience Necessary” that I felt more comfortable about participating in the contest. I eventually enrolled and competed in the contest, and in a way, I started an annual tradition that has continued on into my undergraduate studies at UC San Diego. This year will actually mark my fifth time participating in the Master the Mainframe Contest.

The reason that I keep coming back to this contest is the critical role that mainframes play in many large enterprises, organizations, and society at large. Because of their great computational power, mainframes enable business and organizations to process a large amount of transactions instantly. I suspect this is also one reason that mainframe developers are very well paid and well respected. Unfortunately, this importance seems to be lost on many schools or universities, as courses on mainframe topics are unavailable to most students. Nonetheless, the Master the Mainframe Contest is a fantastic way for students to overcome some of these obstacles and learn about the mainframe.

How to be successful at Master the Mainframe

Here comes the most exciting part for all the contestants out there. I will share some of my personal experiences and tips on competing in the Master the Mainframe Contest.

Part 1

The challenges for part 1 are very similar every year. To get ahead of the game, you may want to do the following before the contest starts:

  1. Download 3270 emulator: This is what you use to connect to the mainframe. Get the latest version from Tom Brennan Software. Please note that this is a 30-day trial. Before the contest starts, you will receive an email containing the license key. Alternatively, if you use a Mac, you may want to read Sean McBride’s post entitled “Mac 3270 Zen.”
  2. Connect to the mainframe: If you open up the emulator, you will see Host IP Name or Alias and IP Port. The IP varies from year to year, but the port usually is 623. Again, you will receive an email specifying the IP and port ahead of time. Try to connect to the mainframe once you have received the information. You should be able to see an ASCII art of z/OS.
  3. Know your user ID: You don’t want to spend your precious time on the day of the contest digging through your emails. Your user ID will be something like IBM####. On the day of the contest, use LOGON IBM#### to log on.
  4. Follow the instructions: To win the Master the Mainframe T-shirt, you have to complete this part 100% correctly, which means do exactly what the instructions say.

Hopefully with the tips above, you are able to resolve any technical difficulties ahead of time and complete challenge 1 and 2 without any problem.

Part 2

Part 2 is a little bit more challenging, but the prizes are much more attractive! Although no programming knowledge is required, it would definitely help!

  1. Be ready for lots of JCL: You will spend a great amount of time working with JCL (Job Control Language). You may want to review the basics, but there is no need to spend a lot of time learning it beforehand. I would suggest spending most of your time on other languages. See the tip below.
  2. Why not spend more time on JCL? This contest covers JCL very well. Most of the information it gives you will guide you through the contest. However, the materials you learn from an outside source might be different/more advanced. If you are new to this language, learning it beforehand might confuse you even more.
  3. Get familiar with C, Java, and SQL: In contrast, the contest teaches you only a portion of C, Java, and SQL. You may want to study these languages ahead of time. Even if you are not planning to be a mainframer, these are some essentials skills that will help you in your future career.
  4. Don’t rush through it: Advanced programmers tend to rush through part 2 in one day, hoping to be the first 60 contestants to submit their work and get the awesome prizes. But to win the prizes, you not only need to be fast, you need to be 100% accurate. I would suggest taking your time and reviewing all your works before submitting.

Part 3

Part 3 is the most intensive part of the contest. You will have a couple of months to work on it. Unfortunately, this part is very different every year, so I don’t have any specific tips to share. One general rule is: apply the skills you have learned from the previous challenges. Below are the topics covered in the U.S. & Canada 2012 Contest:

  1. Job Control Language (JCL)
  2. TSO, ISPF and SDSF
  3. Systems programming fundamentals
  4. Advanced systems programming
  5. System utilities, system commands, system log and system catalog
  6. Collecting and reporting information about the z/OS environment
  7. Optional (but encouraged!): Rational Developer for System z, an Eclipse-based IDE for System z

Conclusion

So those are the tips and suggestions that I’ve learned over my past contests. If you are a Master the Mainframe veteran and have other suggestions for new contest participants, please post them as a comment below! If you are a student considering enrolling in the contest, please feel free to ask me or other Millennial Mainframers questions below or in the Millennial Mainframer activity feed.

Over the next few weeks, IBM will update the official IBM Master the Mainframe – North America page with 2013 contest information and open up registration.  If you end up having any issues getting started with the contest, please feel free to post your problem in the Millennial Mainframer – Master the Mainframe Forum.

Good Luck!

5 thoughts on “IBM Master the Mainframe Tips for Success

  1. Excellent post and well done on your achievements, but let me ask you this. Has this experience had an impact on your target field of employment? I.E. Are you going to deliberately look for something in the mainframe field which probably means working for a large corporate employer or is it a case of you looking elsewhere and if you end up doing something mainframe related, great and if not, oh well?
    When I started in this business there were only mainframes (yes, I am THAT old!) but today there are so many different disciplines to chose from, from mainframes to mobile, the cloud and even embedded hardware that it can be hard to know just ‘where’ to aim for. In a sort of reverse approach to career development , as a die hard mainframe guy I am trying to learn iPhone app programming and all I can say is ‘gosh, it’s hard! Give me some good old assembler any day but I can see that the reverse is also true and that learning the mainframe (it is a pretty complicated beast these days) can be pretty daunting so kudos to you for giving it a go.

    Reply
    • Hi Dave, I don’t mean to speak on Wai Ho’s behalf, but I’m going to guess that most contestants are not necessarily going to seek out a mainframe specialization absent some sort of compelling reason to act. This could be higher salary, the potential to eventually create a start-up targeting this area of IT, promotion potential to Enterprise Architect / IT Management, excellent job prospects with x,y,z company located close to family, or other such things depending on the specific interest of the contestant. Given that most millennials tend to prefer smaller organizations and start-ups, I think that for many the idea of “working for a large corporate employer” is more of a negative than a draw. I also think that the chance to work alongside other millennials is a draw, which is certainly not available in mainframe shops today. With the general job prospects in technology being so good right now, this puts responsibility on the shoulders of potential employers to make it worth Wai Ho’s time to work in mainframes rather than mobile or web. Is this easy in a climate where Google and Silicon Vally start-ups offer superior perks and go out-of-their-way to make their environments enjoyable for millennials? No. However, I’m sure that there are all sorts of talent management changes that corporations could pursue to be more effective in this area.

      Reply
    • Hi Dave, thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you that there are so many disciplines nowadays. There are a couple of them that interest me, for example, mobile application development, cloud computing, game development, operating system, etc. So I don’t think I will deliberately look for something in the mainframe field, but it might be possible for me to work with mainframes in the future.

      Reply

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