Master the Mainframe

By Ross Hettel

IBM will host its seventh annual Master the Mainframe programming contest this week and NIU stands poised to continue its winning streak.

A mainframe is a large computer – sometimes as large as an entire room – that is responsible for extremely fast data processing. Although extremely popular in the ’70s and ’80s, mainframes are largely considered obsolete. In reality, all of the top 25 banks worldwide run IBM mainframe systems, as well as 71 percent of Fortune 500 companies, according to statistics published by IBM.

The contest is designed to teach students about mainframe programming and give them experience in the field and is divided into three parts, according to the contest’s website. It starts Monday and is open to any NIU student, not just computer science majors. The contest concludes Dec. 28.

IBM has a vested interest in training new mainframe programmers to replace the outgoing generation.

“A lot of the IRS code is written in assembler (the programming language of mainframes), but they need people. The [programmers] are old and retiring, and they need somebody to update the [software],” said computer science instructor Georgia Brown.

Since the contest began in 2005, NIU has maintained a strong presence in the standings. In last year’s contest, two NIU students received honorable mentions and 13 students won the second part of the competition. Only five students from all the other Illinois universities combined won the second part of the competition that year. In addition, NIU student Jason Arnold won first place along with two other students in the 2005 competition.

“I think the mainframe curriculum is something that sets NIU apart from the typical computer science program, and it’s something that’s very attractive to a lot of the Fortune 500 companies out there,” Arnold said in an email.

Penny McIntire, assistant to the chair of the computer science department, said teaching students assembler helps them learn any other computer language they may face later on in life and makes them more attractive to potential employers.

“It’s like if you know Latin, learning Spanish or Italian or Portuguese is going to be easier,” she said. “Assembler lies behind all the other languages.”