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Building Computing Skills Through the IBM zStudent Contest

Last year, more than 25,000 contestants participated in the 2022 IBM zStudent Contest, designed to teach participants computing skills and help them gain an edge in the enterprise computing industry. This year’s contest centered on sustainable energy, guiding participants through challenges to collect battery parts for an electric vehicle.

Students learn and use JCL, z/OS, SQL, COBOL, Python, APIs, Unix and more while progressing through a series of six successive challenges, or drops, leading to their final submission.

In February, HackerEarth and IBM Z Xplore announced the contest winners. Out of the 25,000 contestants, only eight winners were selected. Among them: Salisu Ali and Hartanto Ario Widjaya, who were previously named 2022 TechChannel Mainframe Rising Stars. The Rising Stars initiative recognizes individuals who have worked on zSystems for five years or less but are already making a significant impact on the community.

We caught up with Ali and Widjaya to learn about their experience in the IBM zStudent Contest and how being recognized as a Rising Star has impacted them.

TechChannel (TC): What inspired you to participate in the IBM zStudent Contest?

Hartanto Ario Widjaya (HAW): After learning about mainframes from IBM Z Xplore (formerly Master the Mainframe), I have been looking for ways to test my knowledge. The IBM zStudent Contest proves to be a suitable tool for that. It provides a challenge for students to go through, using both the skills that we have learned from the IBM Z Xplore learning platform and also from our independent research on the various z/OS utilities out there. In addition, it’s free to join and there are prizes for winners, along with swag for all the finalists!

Salisu Ali (SA): I simply want to improve my mainframe skills as much as I can. I was a regular contestant of Master the Mainframe before it was replaced by the IBM zStudent Contest. The mainframe is vast and there is a lot to learn. By participating in the contest, I always find something new and learn new skills by finding the solutions to the challenges. I also like to put my skills to the test through exhibitions, hackathons and contests. When it comes to mainframes, IBM Master the Mainframe—now IBM Z Xplore—is my favorite.

TC: Did you face any challenges along the way? If so, how did you overcome them and what did you learn?

HAW: One thing that I discovered shortly after participating is that there are a lot of things that we are expected to learn on our own to solve the challenges. For example, the first drop of the IBM zStudent Contest: We were asked to gather ISPF statistics data to see who last edited data set members within a PDS/E.

There are a lot of ways one can solve the challenge. You can use Zowe CLI to gather the data and use it that way, or you can also try using ISPF services via a REXX script. In any case, we needed to figure out our own ways around the various commands and utilities out there. Personally, I found that the IBM Documentation is quite detailed in those aspects.

However, that does come with a caveat. Knowing where to look in the documentation to solve your problems is a very valuable skill, both to save time and to pinpoint potential solutions easily. That, along with the desire to experiment with my solution, was helpful in solving the challenges.

SA: Yes, I did face a challenge. It was understanding the second set of instructions in the third drop. The instructions said, “Sort 5 recent orders (highest) in descending order.” I attempted it countless times, interpreting “recent” to mean “based on time.” At one point, I had no idea what I was doing. I felt like giving up and I put out a tweet showing my frustration. However, a friend advised me not to give up. I went back to the contest forum to ask questions. The community was supportive and I got the hint that the time it took the solve the problem wasn’t important—I should just focus on the order number, not the time stamp. That helped me understand and solve the problem.

TC: What does winning the IBM zStudent contest mean to you?

HAW: To me, it is evidence of what I have learned so far. I have shown myself that I can do it and defeated all the doubts and hesitations that I had along the way. It’s not only that, though. I am aware that one person who saw my submission for the 2021 IBM zStudent Contest managed to complete (and won) the contest this year. Knowing that I have influenced people positively to grow in the field is one of the best parts of this IBM zStudent Contest.

SA: It means a lot to me. I come from a non-tech background, and I was applauded by my colleagues, my lecturers and a lot of people around me. Personally, it was satisfying to win the contest some months after receiving TechChannel’s Rising Star recognition. It justifies the recognition and the efforts I put toward improving my mainframe skills. Professionally, I believe winning the contest will motivate me to work harder and boost my resume. This will enable me to get better opportunities in terms of exposure to the mainframe world through mentorships, internships, open source and more.

TC: Since being recognized as a 2022 TechChannel Mainframe Rising Star, have you started to work on any new projects? What are you working on?

HAW: Outside work, I am still around as a Committer—an individual who is permitted to modify the source code of a project, triage issues and review contributions—for the Open Mainframe Project’s COBOL Programming Course. The course is open source, and it provides a free and accessible way for people to learn COBOL on z/OS. It came with lab access and we are still adding new things. So, if you are interested in contributing, check out the course on GitHub!

Other than that, I am still actively advocating for more students to learn about mainframe. With all the new developments in the field—for example, the upcoming z/OS 3.1 or the new IBM z16—the future looks promising for a student to join the field.

SA: I continue to contribute to the ZEBRA project, which is still an incubator project under Zowe. We focus on improving the project, adding new features and making conference presentations. By doing so, I continue to improve my knowledge on mainframe performance monitoring using RMF, for now.

TC: Do you have plans to continue working in the Z ecosystem? How will your victory in the zStudent Contest—and your recognition as a TechChannel Rising Star—impact those plans?

HAW: Not long after the IBM zStudent Contest, I graduated from university and I managed to find employment at a local company in Singapore. One thing that I noticed when applying for jobs is how many hiring managers and HR professionals became curious seeing a fresh graduate with mainframe skills. My recognition as a TechChannel Rising Star and the hands-on experiences obtained from IBM Z Xplore are differentiators, showing employers that they will not make a wrong call by hiring a fresh graduate like me.

Getting employment as a fresh graduate, especially for those outside the U.S. and Europe, might be a bit challenging. But one thing I really appreciate about the industry is how friendly people are. There are a lot of amazing individuals who have helped me along the way, connecting me with locally based people, and also helping me to learn more about careers in the field. So don’t hesitate to reach out to people, especially the IBM Z Champions—they are all advocates of the platform—and you will see for yourself the amazing people in the mainframe field.

SA: Yes, I definitely want to continue working in the Z ecosystem. I found myself contributing to Zowe and I realized how beneficial open source is to the modernization of the mainframe. I am very much interested in mainframe modernization and wish to give my own contributions, be it through mentorships, internships or open-source contributions. Winning the contest and TechChannel’s recognition will impact this plan positively. I’m excited and motivated. I am looking forward to learning more, contributing and improving the tools available in the Z ecosystem for the benefit of all mainframers.