Rewarding Partnerships and Careers Evolve From IBM’s Master the Mainframe Contest

Illustration by Miriam Migliazzi & Mart Kle

High school and college students are being introduced to the world of mainframe computing through IBM’s Academic Initiative (AI) for System z* and they like what they see.

These students find the mainframe to be an eye-opening experience in terms of technology and career options. They’re testing their mettle in performing real-world projects on System z, and they find that the technology behind the cloud, day-to-day transactions and even smartphone apps is no longer a mystery to them. It’s technology they can understand and want to use to create a better world.

The mission of the AI, now entering its eleventh year, is to get students excited about emerging technologies and to ensure students are entering the workforce with mainframe skills. The curriculum provided to the schools as well as IBM’s contests are designed to expose students to the technologies and help them learn current and future software and systems.

“The AI program has constantly changed to reflect evolution of the modern mainframe and modern tools, open systems and emerging technologies,” says Don Resnik, worldwide leader, System z Academic Initiative.

Today’s students participating in AI programs are technologically savvy and many of them are from Generation Z, the first generation immersed in technology and computing. Gen Z, roughly those born between 1995 and 2012, is noticing the growing demand for enterprise computing, IT, mainframe, big data and analytics. “That’s what’s getting this new generation excited about IT and wanting to pursue a career in it,” says Resnik. “Gen Z will become the largest consumers of technology and data with higher expectations for instantaneous data than any prior generation.”

Not just consumers of data, Gen Z is eager to use and deploy the technology. This generation is willing to expend the time to learn the software and tools, Resnik notes.

Master the Mainframe

To capitalize on this interest in technology, the AI is engaging high school and college students with the IBM Master the Mainframe contest. Currently in its ninth year, the contest is open to any student in the world. To date, some 68,000 students in 35 countries have participated.

High school students were first invited to participate in the contest in 2007, and by 2013, 40 percent of the 5,601 North American students entering the contest hailed from high schools. The competition, which aims to introduce students to the mainframe and give them a positive experience, is run entirely by IBM volunteers.

Master the Mainframe has three parts that gradually get more difficult, however, no mainframe experience is required for entry. Part one takes about one to two hours to complete and contains basic information about the mainframe. Part two, taking anywhere from 10 to 20 hours, is more difficult and requires the students to do some programming. In part three, students spend three months working with mainframe software products, programming languages, utilities and security protocols.

Shirley S. Savage is a Maine-based freelance writer. Shirley can be reached at

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