Why You Should Learn Mainframes

In college, I was studying computer science, and given the competitive nature of the job market in New York City, I was always looking for a way to get a leg up, and set myself apart from my peers. I participated in all sorts of coding competitions and hackathons, but one that stood out for me, because it was *so* different from the others was Master the Mainframe.

Back in 2012, I decided to try Master the Mainframe, because well… I didn’t know what a mainframe was, but it sounded important, and the t-shirts were cool!

When you’re learning programming, there are so many words and terms and names of technology that you hear and all of it feels like “Well, add one more to the list of stuff I have to learn.”

“Mainframe” became one of those words for me, when it came up talking to older programmers about how they work. I thought it sounded like an outdated thing that I would not run across, since all of my recent-graduate friends were working on fresh code at startups.

But when I looked into some jobs as a programmer, I found that there were A LOT that were on Mainframe, and that they paid really well.

However, there are not a lot of resources to learn mainframe from scratch. When a professor recommended the Master the Mainframe competition from IBM, it was a good opportunity to join other people who were starting from no knowledge and trying to learn the acronyms and unfamiliar terminology, and open up another door for myself when looking to the future. Plus I would earn a green t-shirt, and green is my favorite color. 

The Master the Mainframe competition put me in a virtual computing environment, where I had to write code in COBOL! Seriously! It felt like I had stepped into a 90’s hacker movie, which I 100% embraced, by pulling up my hood on my black hoodie, and making sure everyone could see the green text on the black background.

I thought that I would be in over my head, but there were very clear instructions, and it took no time at all to get through the first level of the challenge. I was learning quickly. After completing two levels, I was able to have conversations with folks that had been programmers for 30 years, and they really appreciated that I shared knowledge with them!

Even though I did not end up pursuing a mainframe job after college, it is fun and interesting knowledge to have, everywhere I go in the tech field. And it’s been especially cool to meet a lot of folks who work on mainframes currently, and because of the magnitude of the software that runs on mainframes (all ATMs in the world), some have really crazy stories!

Despite my initial belief that mainframe was stagnant technology, even 8 years later, I’ve looked into the Master the Mainframe competition and see that it has changed a lot. It includes more modern programming languages, and it is all done in VS Code, the IDE I’ve been using for years as a professional programmer, rather than having to install a whole virtual machine. 

If you’re a student, interested at all in the tech field, I recommend you at least give Master the Mainframe a try this year. You can sign up at masterthemainframe.com!