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


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!

Know Thyself

Know Thyself

This is the second installment of our five-part series on efforts to inspire, educate, and train millennials towards gainful employment in mainframe positions, such as systems programming and application development.  Yesterday we posed several questions that some consider heretical, particularly from the creator of a blog called “Millennial Mainframer:”

  • Are millennials actually receiving training in mainframe skills, finding mainframe jobs, and receiving adequate mentorship and training by experienced staff?
  • Are Millennial Mainframers merely a useful myth for dispelling concerns of a mainframe skills shortage when getting customers to upgrade their systems and software?
  • Do Millennial Mainframers actually exist in the flesh in any real numbers or are they the Unicorn or Loch Ness monster of the IT World… much talked about, but little seen in the wild?

In the Socratic tradition, this series of questions is not so much posed to draw individual answers, but more generally to encourage fundamental insight into the state of mainframe education. This dialectic is easily justified by the central role that new mainframe talent will play in ensuring mainframe vitality in the face of the impending mass retirements. Furthermore, given that one of Socrates’ most famous quotes is the maxim to “Know Thyself,” this post seeks to examine the Millennial Mainframer blog through the lens of the following question:

How successful has Millennial Mainframer been in attracting millennials to view its mainframe-centric content?

As of July 28, 2013, Millennial Mainframer has 1,457 likes on Facebook.  While this may seem impressive, closer examination of the number yields some interesting realizations.  Upon first glance, the Facebook audience seems to be fairly youthful.  In fact, more than 80% of the audience is 34 years old or younger.

A graph showing the age and gender distribution of Millennial Mainframer likes on Facebook.

However, the geographic location of the audience may be surprising to some of our readers:

A chart showing the breakdown of Millennial Mainframer Likes by country.

That’s right!  A full 55% of all Millennial Mainframer likes come from India, reflecting the fact that most recent mainframe job creation in recent years has occurred in outsourcing companies.  The United States comes in a distant second with 12% of Likes.  Egypt seems to come in third with 11.7%, but I have strong suspicions that many of those Likes are from fake Facebook-bots (curse you Zuckerberg!!!).  Brazil comes in forth with 4.3%, and the Philippines comes in fifth with 3.2%.  So there you have it.  Despite the content creators being mostly from North America, most of the audience is composed of “Indian mainframe freshers.”  This graph clearly matches Quasar Chunawalla’s perception that the numbers of Millennial Mainframers is downright “sizeable.”  From the point of view of Chennai, Bangalore, Pune, or Hyderabad, it probably seems downright silly to compare Millennial Mainframers to mythical creatures like Big Foot or the Nandi bull.

Looking at actual engagement on the Millennial Mainframer Facebook page paints a far different different picture.  In a given week, anywhere from 36 to 200 Millennial Mainframer fans may engage with our Facebook content.  However, the shocking fact is that millennials are by far the least engaged with Millennial Mainframer content.  Even though less than 20% of the Facebook Likes are from people 35 and over, this group is responsible for 58.4% of interaction with our content posted.  Additionally, there are some weird geographic oddities.  Even though the United States is only responsible for 12% of likes on the Millennial Mainframer page, they are the responsible for more than half of all interaction on our Facebook page.  This means that our fans from the United States are about 10x as likely to interact with content as our Indian fans.  Perhaps this is due to the preponderance of Millennial Mainframer being from North America or the fact that Millennial Mainframer typically posts content around the start of the business day on the East Coast of the United States.

A graph of facebook engagement on the Millennial Mainframer page.

The net result of all of this is that Millennial Mainframer’s most active fans turn out to be white men over 35 living in the United States.  Engagement with Indian millennials is low, but the number of likes suggests cultural affinity with the Millennial Mainframer blog.  This combination of being strong in Facebook likes from Indian mainframe freshers and general engagement from older US-based mainframers might suggest that our content would be popular with a group of Millennial Mainframers in the United States and other rich-world English-speaking countries, but that does not seem to be detectable in our numbers.

While it’s difficult to analyze our 242 Twitter followers to the same degree as our Facebook fans, Twitter analytics shows that around 55% of our followers live in the United States.  Given that this is similar to the geographical breakdown of our engaged Facebook fans, I think that it’s safe to assume that this group is quite possibly of a similar age demographic as well.

This trend seems to be equally reflected in our WordPress statistics.  As an example, my post last week with a Millennial’s take on the zBC12 announcement received around 300 hits.  A large number of these hits came from LinkedIn and Twitter, which I suspect is predominantly an older American audience.  Despite having quite a few Facebook likes, the actual number of folks that clicked-through from Facebook was only around 50 (Around 3% of Millennial Mainframer’s Facebook Likes).  Assuming that this traffic is similar to our long-term Facebook engagement numbers, I would predict that only around 20 of these readers were millennials.  This leads me to believe that millennials are responsible for only around 10-15% of the hits at Millennial Mainframer.

So in conclusion, the sad truth is that Millennial Mainframer largely fails to attract millennials to view its mainframe-centric content.  Older US-based mainframers seem to view the content, like it, and re-post/tweet/share it, but because they don’t have many connections with younger mainframers, this doesn’t result in a meaningful uptick in millennial exposure to mainframe content.  I believe a key reason for this is that most of the entry-level mainframe job growth has occurred in India, Brazil, and Philippines, so older American mainframers just may not know many Millennial Mainframers.  The failure of this blog to engage with millennials in places like India, Brazil, and the Philippines is most likely tied to the fact that most of our content creators are in North America, leading them to create content with a US-focus.  This clearly suggests that Millennial Mainframer must develop a new marketing strategy.  Firstly, it must more closely collaboration with IBM Academic Initiative to build a wider base of millennial mainframers around the world.  Second, it must consider ways to better serve the tastes of the Indian mainframer market without losing its global focus.

Then again, my analysis may not be spot-on, and there may be a variety of other reasons for our failure to engage Millennial Mainframers.  What do you think?  Am I correct that nearly all Millennial Mainframers are in locations like India, Brazil, and the Philippines?  Is there a way that this blog can better reach millennials in the United States and Europe?  Do you have suggestions for driving engagement with millennials in Brazil, India, and the Philippines?

Tune in tomorrow as we turn our analysis to the Master the Mainframe Contest.

Are Millennial Mainframers as mythical as Bigfoot?
Are Millennial Mainframers as mythical as Bigfoot?

For the past two years, Millennial Mainframer has sought to provide a “fresh perspective on all things mainframe.”  Nearly all of this “fresh perspective” has come from young millennials working in mainframe positions or studying mainframe topics at universities, such as Marist College or Rochester Institute of Technology, who were willing to write blog posts on aspects of the mainframe that most interested them.  Our content has been voluntarily created without solicitation or support from IBM or any other vendors as a public resource to other young mainframers. My hope and attention with this blog was to attract a younger readership than other mainframe blogs, and perhaps to eventually grow the blog into a social community and support network for trading best practices, training resources, and suggestions.

By some metrics, the Millennial Mainframer blog has been a resounding success.  The number of hits to the site have grown continuously over the past two years.  We’ve been cross-linked by a number of vendor and industry blogs and websites, re-tweeted by IBM Vice Presidents, and even listed on a variety of “Suggested Website” slides presented at SHARE.  Most importantly, we have created a space for first-time bloggers to project their voice into the generally-older mainframe blogosphere.  Considering the late nights and weekend that our content creators have spent writing and promoting this content, we have celebrated each of these small victories as vindication that our Millennial Mainframer perspective will only grow stronger as older workers retire and we assume responsibility for mainframe deployments around the world.

Despite this wonderful growth and name recognition, I have gradually come to the conclusion that Millennial Mainframer is failing its core mission of building an audience of mainframe students and other young mainframers.  While we intended to position ourselves as a medium for millennials to produce original technical content for consumption by other millennials, we’ve instead become a medium for millennials to produce content for older mainframers and IBM leadership.  This assessment is based on data from WordPress, Google Analytics, Facebook, and Twitter.  This theory leads me to some interesting conclusions, including that a majority of the hits on our entry-level “how to” posts may very well be by mainframe professionals that likely already know how to do everything that the author has written about.  I’m not sure why an experienced mainframe professional would care to read these basic articles, other than perhaps deriving some level of bemusement.

This has been a bit of a heart-wrenching realization for us.  If we’re not effectively reaching students and other Millennial Mainframers, we may not be making much of a meaning impact on the long-term vitality of the mainframe as we had previously though.  Could it be because of something we’re doing wrong?  After some introspection, I believe that there are certainly some things that we can do better to reach millennials.  However, I believe that the fundamental problem with writing a mainframe blog targeted at millennials is that our target audience of Millennial Mainframers is far smaller than expected, particularly to the level of engagement that would be interested in either reading a mainframe blog.  This potentially suggests that existing efforts have been insufficient to handle the mounting mainframe skills crisis.

Speaking with some of my peers has provided additional anecdotal support of this hypothesis, including instances of students taking mainframe courses but then going into other areas of IT, young mainframers losing their jobs during downsizing because they weren’t as ‘essential’ as older mainframers, and various so-called mainframe schools not actually offering mainframe coursework on a consistent or predictable basis.  Based on this thought, I have decided to spend some additional time looking at the IBM Academic Initiative, the Master the Mainframe contest, and the blogosphere to get a better idea at the success rate of these programs in shifting the demographics of the mainframe technical community and preventing the long-predicted mainframe skills shortage.  Are millennials actually receiving training in mainframe skills, finding mainframe jobs, and receiving adequate mentorship and training by experienced staff?  Or are Millennial Mainframers merely a useful myth for dispelling concerns of a mainframe skills shortage when getting customers to upgrade their systems and software?  Do Millennial Mainframers actually exist in the flesh in any real numbers?  Or are they the Unicorn or Loch Ness monster of the IT World… much talked about, but little seen in the wild?

Stay tuned to Millennial Mainframer this week for a detailed multi-part series on this topic:

  • On Tuesday, we’ll be providing detailed information demonstrating why we that Millennial Mainframer is failing to attract millennial interest
  • On Wednesday, we’ll be looking at the Master the Mainframe Contest
  • On Thursday, we’ll be looking at the IBM Academic Initiative and Mainframe offerings at universities around the world
  • On Friday, we’ll be tying all of these topics together for a final comprehensive conclusion and discussion