IBM Launches Effort to Woo Students to the Mainframe

IBM is about to hold its sixth annual "Master the Mainframe" competition, where high school and college students learn mainframe skills and IT expertise as they compete for prizes. The competition is an effort by IBM to help groom a new generation of mainframe and enterprise IT workers.

IBM has announced its sixth annual "Master the Mainframe" competition, which is aimed at helping to familiarize students with large systems and other concepts for the enterprise computing industry.

As the name indicates, the competition is largely focused on large enterprise systems, namely the mainframe. The contest has grown rapidly since its inception in 2005, with nearly 22,000 students from 17 countries having participated. Last year, more than 3,000 students from the United States and Canada participated in the contest, nearly double the amount from the previous year. Other countries to host Master the Mainframe competitions this year include France, Mexico, Australia, Russia, Taiwan, Brazil, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

For most students, the Master the Mainframe contest provides an introduction to IBM's new zEnterprise system, which IBM claims is the world's most powerful and energy efficient server. Representing an investment of more than $1.5 billion in IBM research and development, the zEnterprise system is ideally suited to help clients address their most pressing business issues. The zEnterprise system is also the first system that allows workloads on mainframe, Power7 and System x servers to share resources and be managed as a single, virtualized system.

Meanwhile, an explosion of data from electronic sensors, the Internet, governance and compliance requirements is expected to lead to a 650 percent increase in the amount of data companies must manage, process and store over the next five years, IBM said. The Master the Mainframe contest is designed to equip students with skills to make them more competitive for jobs with businesses facing these challenges.

Indeed, computers have become a core part of the social fabric, especially for today's high school students who are likely the first generation not to remember when a computer wasn't a normal part of daily life. Thinking of a teenager's computer use sparks images of updating Facebook, Tweeting, downloading iTunes or playing video games.

However, IBM is hoping to smash the stereotype of how youngsters spend time on the Internet, at least at Lake Brantley High School, just outside Orlando, Fla. More than 150 students from Lake Brantley will participate in IBM's Master the Mainframe contest this year.

"Before being introduced to the contest, many students are not aware of the mainframe and its role as the Information Technology backbone for many of the world's largest businesses," Mary Williams, principal of Lake Brantley High School, said in a statement. "This year, we have more than 150 students participating in the Master the Mainframe competition, not as part of required classroom curriculum, but as additional work outside of normal school hours on students' own time. Now, many of these students have expressed significant interest in exploring career opportunities involving the IBM System z Mainframe."

Lake Brantley computer science and physics teacher Seth Reichelson was introduced to the Master the Mainframe Competition several years ago by a student, he said. Since then, Reichelson has offered all his students the opportunity to participate in the contest on their own time.

Previous IT knowledge is not required to participate in the Master the Mainframe competition, which starts off educating students on basic concepts before moving to increasingly difficult tasks. Prizes are given after the completion of each of three levels. Prizes include T-shirts, cash and iPads. Grand Prize winners receive a trip to IBM's mainframe manufacturing facility and the opportunity to meet senior IBM executives.

While competing against older college students on complicated computer science subject matter may seem daunting for most high-schoolers, the students at Lake Brantley have embraced the challenge. For this year's competition, they have set a goal of winning all 60 cash prizes available for being the first 60 entrants to complete the first two rounds of the competition, a win that could net Lake Brantley High students up to $6,000 in cash, Principal Williams said.

However, prizes aren't necessarily the main benefit, Williams said. Masked by a contest, IBM is helping to get students to learn outside of the classroom and on their own time, she said. Students participating often turn to other students for help if needed. Thus, in addition to learning about the mainframe, students' self-esteem is increased by learning to solve problems as a group without involving teachers or parents, Williams added.

To help Lake Brantley reach its goal, the School has arranged for a "field trip" on Oct. 4 and 5 after school from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. to the Lake Brantely High School Media Center and Plato Lab, which houses more than 100 PCs. Here, students will be able to spend up to 14 hours of their own time working on becoming the first 60 students to complete the first two phases of the contest.

IBM officials said a key challenge for students entering the workforce over the next couple of years will be to use systems like the zEnterprise to address the jumble of disparate technologies added to corporate data centers over time to run specific applications and which operate in silos, sometimes unable to communicate with each other.

As the students' familiarity with the process grows, they are asked to acquaint themselves with and operate the mainframe user interface, perform systems programming and application development tasks, and handle real-life situations encountered by experienced systems programmers. Registered students will be able to remotely connect into an IBM mainframe from anywhere they can access the Internet, IBM said.

The contest is part of IBM's Academic Initiative for System z program, a project by IBM to align with academic institutions and businesses across the globe to develop mainframe and large enterprise skills for future employment with Fortune 500 companies worldwide. The Academic Initiative for System z program has now worked with more than 700 colleges and universities around the world.

Registration for students is now open. The competition will run from Oct. 4 through Dec. 28. The winners will be announced on or about Feb. 2, 2011. Students can log on to the following Website to register for the competition and receive full instructions: