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

Illustration by Miriam Migliazzi & Mart Kle

For the 2013 contest, students developed a banking application, increased their tool set and learned to code, says Michael Todd, Master the Mainframe contest team lead. After completing each part successfully, students are awarded prizes ranging from T-shirts to a trip to IBM’s mainframe lab in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to tablet computers.

Ready for the Challenge

Gen Z is eagerly stepping up to the challenge. At Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla., students are keen to understand System z and participate in the contest, thanks to the efforts of teacher Seth Reichelson. Junior Charlie Qualmann and sophomores Megan Elwood and Hannah Sheridan have entered the contest each year and all have completed parts one and two.

”I had the chance to study a platform with pervasive influence in numerous industries from scientific research to banking.”
—Sushain Cherivirala

Qualmann, a two-time consecutive prizewinner of part two (2012 and 2013), plans to tackle part three during his senior year. He says encountering all of the new data sets and figuring out how to put them together was initially daunting, but the collaborative atmosphere at Lake Brantley contributed to his learning and helped him understand the mainframe and how to work with it. He now helps others who are new to the mainframe, noting, “It’s great to help others.”

Elwood, whose father works with computers, is intrigued by coding and problem-solving, talents that are critical to working with the mainframe. “The mainframe was confusing at first, but now I’ve grown to like it,” she explains. Attending Reichelson’s Advanced Placement Computer Science class, being in the contest and going to the IBM help sessions at school enabled her to broaden her knowledge of System z.

Following in her sister Caitlin’s footsteps, Sheridan enrolled in the computer science class. Entering the contest, she found a big learning curve associated with the mainframe, but “once I starting working with the mainframe, I realized it was fun,” she says. Though the contest is challenging, Sheridan says it shows that “if I can do it, anyone can. I was the last person that I thought would be participating in this contest, but here I am today, having done it two years in a row.”

Breaking New Ground

Gen Z students are proving they have the drive and analytical skills to rise to the top of the competition. Sushain Cherivirala, a junior at Dulles High School in Sugar Land, Texas, is the youngest top-five finisher in part three, achieving that recognition in 2012. Initially attracted by the contest prizes, Cherivirala found that “after completing the first two parts, I was genuinely interested in z/OS* and eager to continue learning about the environment that powers essential services throughout the world.” Further, he discovered that the “fundamental differences in objective between consumer systems and the business-oriented mainframe piqued my interest and convinced me to try the contest.”

As Cherivirala worked through part three, he had to grapple with languages that were new to him, such as REXX, and read through detailed documentation. He’s happy he stuck with it. “I gained valuable experience in languages such as JCL, REXX and TSO, languages that in their very structure illustrate the origins of mainframes,” Cherivirala says. “Even more importantly, I had the chance to study a platform with pervasive influence in numerous industries from scientific research to banking.”

Being in the contest has altered Cherivirala’s college goals. “It was IBM’s competition and visiting their eye-opening Poughkeepsie campus that convinced me that computer science/engineering would be my college major of choice,” he explains.

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

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