As my sophomore year in college was starting to spin up (and inevitably out of control), I received an email from the faculty advisor of our local Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) chapter about a fun competition opportunity for the membership. In the email, he mentioned how a student had won a cash prize after competing the previous year; so naturally, I was instantly intrigued.
Comforted by the phrase “No Experience Necessary” written in large friendly letters, I started to follow the instructions to prepare myself for the day the contest started. I remember thinking to myself how the last time the word “mainframe” was even mentioned in my general direction was during a brief historical overview of the computing industry in my introductory classes, and that's about it.
The first step of the contest involved downloading the TN3270 emulator. "No big deal, just an application to use to access the mainframe," I thought to myself. It was when I actually logged on and connected to the mainframe that I really felt out of place - like I was interacting with alien technology. It was pretty intimidating, and I was thankful for thorough step-by-step instructions for logging on with TSO and starting ISPF. I missed my pretty GUIs and was completely thrown off track by the concept of navigating through an entire system with only my keyboard. My mouse just kind of sat there, completely idle and unmoved for a solid fifteen minutes as I tried to orient myself in this unfamiliar territory. Sure, recently finishing an Introduction to Java course in my freshman year forced me to stumble through a command prompt, but it certainly didn't prepare me for this.
Luckily the sets of instructions were refreshingly simple and easy to comprehend and, for the most part, explained just enough about the z/OS file system using analogies to Windows file systems so that I didn't get too confused.
The home stretch for part one consisted of creating and populating a member of the generated data sets allocated for my user name, followed by running and viewing the results of a REXX script then finally submitting my entry to the judges - it was a complete blur, and I probably consumed more iced coffee than what would be considered a healthy acceptable amount. To my surprise, I found out later that we (being myself and some of my friends from ETSU who also participated) were one of the first to finish. Although I looked through the second and third parts, course work was unfortunately becoming too overwhelming to consider any sort of free time for completing these.
The Master the Mainframe competition was a great experience for me to engage in something entirely different from what I was traditionally exposed to as a computer science major at ETSU. The next year I repeated the first part of the competition again, this time with the assurance that my ACM local chapter knew all about it. Since the first thousand or so students to complete part one would receive a free t-shirt with the city of their university on the back, we had more than enough of an incentive to get involved.
I never fully understood where the activities performed in the competition fit in the overall picture of the kind of services IBM provides, nor did I realize how massive that picture it really is. Never in a million years would I have guessed where it would lead me after college. The moment I started a TN3270 session using PCOMM during my first week of work at IBM it was like an instant flashback to the days I had spent fumbling around with a TN3270 emulator for the competition.
As I start my career in Communications Server, I learn more and more about that overall picture and what I have gotten the chance to become part of. Making the connection between the activities in Master the Mainframe I clumsily went through around three years ago and the tasks I encounter now in z/OS Communications Server is both ironic and fulfilling. The IBM Master the Mainframe competition is something that I feel every hopeful computer science major should attempt, even if it is just the first part.