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Master the Mainframe With Misty Decker

By Destination Z posted Mon December 23, 2019 03:34 PM


In May, Misty Decker was announced as the new program manager for the IBM Z Master the Mainframe contest and learning system. Decker had been leading a worldwide team that enables colleges and universities to teach the large system skills in enterprise computing that the world's largest companies are looking to hire. The IBM Z Academic Initiative program gives away software, courseware and access to hardware to faculty to enable their enterprise computing courses. Then, the program connects students to local employers looking for these highly sought after skills.
Prior to Master the Mainframe, Decker spent five years in University Alliances where she identified opportunities for IBM to collaborate in developing joint research with universities around the world. Prior to that, she was a development manager for four years where she led firmware development teams in Poughkeepsie NY, Sunnyvale CA and Bangalore India in development of z10 and zEnterprise systems. She previously spent two years as a project manager for zSeries Customer Satisfaction, four years as a z/OS release manager and eight years in MVS Installation and Build. 
To get Decker’s insights on the Master the Mainframe program, I sat down with her for a Q&A session.
Q: How do you explain Master the Mainframe to someone who has never heard of it?
A: Master the Mainframe is a fun way to learn, earn digital badges and experience hands-on mainframe technology with no prior knowledge required! Master the Mainframe’s learning system is open to anyone year-round for technology training and earning IBM digital badges. For an individual, it makes mainframe technology accessible by starting at the beginning. For an educator, it’s a great way to expose students to a broad variety of technologies since it covers programming, security, transaction processing, databases and much more.
Q: IBM is in the hardware, software and services business—why this special focus on mainframes?
A: In early 2018, Glass door listed over 6,380 U.S. "mainframe" jobs and Indeed listed 9,675 jobs in mainframe, COBOL, z/OS, JCL, CICS and IMS. Based on current growth patterns, IBM predicts that approximately 37,200 new mainframe administration positions will emerge worldwide by 2020. The mainframe platform enables you to work on networking, analytics, databases, deep programming languages and APIs—the full 360 degrees of IT. With the increased focus on high-speed transactions and data security, the mainframe’s importance is only growing.
Q: Who can participate in Master the Mainframe?
A: From September through December, academic students ages 13 and up can compete in the Master the Mainframe Global Virtual Contest to earn prizes and IBM Digital Badges. The Master the Mainframe learning system, which provides the same series of technical challenges on a real mainframe system, is available year-round to anyone wanting to learn and earn IBM Digital Badges.
Q: What is the role of the Master the Mainframe learning system? 
A: The learning system for Master the Mainframe enables anyone to learn basic mainframe skills by providing the same challenges that the students go through in the contest. Participants work through a three-part learning journey—learn the basics, practice and gain expertise.  
Q: Can you elaborate a bit more on the three-part learning journey?
A: The program is carried out in sequence. Below is a brief summary of each part. 
  1. Learn the basics. Meet the mainframe and complete step-by-step instructions to become familiar with the user interface, basic concepts and data structures.
  2. Practice. Learn and develop on the mainframe using program commands, programming languages (C, JAVA, COBOL, Assembler and REXX) and get familiar with z/OS. Part 2 is like a “sample platter” in that you get a small taste of a wide variety of topics.
  3. Gain expertise. Dive deeper using scenarios to solve challenges encountered by experience mainframe programmers at companies that rely on mainframe technologies. The real-world challenges in Part 3 require you to use the documentation to figure out solutions, just like real programmers.
Q: I understand that there is a contest. What is that about? 
A: Yearly, the IBM Z Academic Initiative sponsors a Master the Mainframe global contest where academic students can learn while vying to win prizes. To compete for the prizes in the annual contest, you must be an academic student attending an accredited learning institution. New challenges are posted each September. 
Q: What are the benefits of participation?
A: Master the Mainframe introduces all participants to enterprise systems and inspires interest in mainframe technology. It offers something special for educators and employers too.
Participants gain unique skills required for enterprise systems, learn how to code and build innovations using the mainframe, earn Digital Badges, and find employment opportunities. 
Educators take advantage of graded, turnkey, hands-on projects that are easily incorporated into curriculums, and get additional educator resources including curriculum, access to systems, e-learning, and more through the IBM Z Academic Initiative. 
Employers connect with talented students who have earned Master the Mainframe Digital Badges using Talent Match and the job board. They can also upskill and reskill their employees using the Master the Mainframe Learning System to introduce the mainframe.
Q: I want to learn more about the program modules. What is the content of Part 1?
A: Part 1 introduces the mainframe and how it is different from other platforms. You will be given screen shots and precise instructions for the challenges in Part 1. You will logon to TSO, ISPF and the Unix shell, create and manage data and run a job. New for 2019, you must pass a final quiz in order to earn credit for this part.
Q: What is Part 2 about?
A: This part of the learning experience has 15 challenges. For each challenge, there is a short lesson and then a related hands-on challenge. When you are finished you will have acquired these z/OS experiences as a result of completing Part 2:
  • TSO, ISPF, SDSF and JCL 
  • System log 
  • System commands 
  • System utilities 
  • Unix system services 
  • Unix file systems 
  • Data set types, attributes and characteristics 
  • Data character encoding schemes 
  • Disk storage management 
  • Data security 
  • Network communications 
Q: What is Part 3 about?
A: The 15 challenges in Part 3 focus on deeper skills and real-life examples. The participant has the ability to innovate on the mainframe by solving real-life situations encountered by experienced systems programmers. Upon completion, this individual has demonstrated their extensive programming skills (advanced commands system navigation) and is able to develop application tasks (C, Java, COBOL, Assembler and REXX) on the z/OS platform. Employers often search for candidates who have completed Part 3 because of the level of skills necessary to complete it.
Q:  What digital badges are available?
A: Two badges are available: Master the Mainframe Part 2 and Master the Mainframe Part 3. For Part 2, you must be at least 16 years of age, register in the IBM Master the Mainframe contest or the Learning System and complete the IBM Master the Mainframe Part 2 challenges. For Part 3, you must complete Part 2 and complete the IBM Master the Mainframe Part 3 challenges. Employers regularly look for candidates who have earned one or both of these badges for their mainframe positions.
If eligible, the IBM Academic Initiative will contact you with further instructions to receive this badge upon your completion of the requirements for Part 2 and Part 3.
Q: What is new for Master the Mainframe in 2019?
A: This year marks the 15th anniversary of the contest, so we have made some pretty exciting changes! The look of the website has been updated but more importantly we’ve added a number of video tutorials, especially in the early stages of the contest. We’ve also created a new user community ( for any past or present fans of the contest to share memories, learn new things and make connections.
The prizes have also changed. This year we will be making a donation to the UN World Program through for every person that finishes Part 1. Each participant will be feeding two children for a day as a result of spending about an hour doing Part 1! Every Part 2 finisher will be invited to an exclusive Career Marketplace community with exclusive career development content like mentoring and career webinars. Everyone who finishes Part 3 will receive an exclusive “Part 3 Finisher” t-shirt so their accomplishment will be easily visible at any mainframe event.