Out of more than 18,000 participants worldwide, one of the three winners in the 14thannual IBM Master the Mainframe competition is a Columbus resident.
Matthew Bowen, 21, is the valedictorian of Shaw High School’s Class of 2015, now majoring in computer science with a concentration in cybersecurity at Columbus State University. He went into his senior year unsure about his job prospects when he graduates this spring. But now, thanks to this success, he has multiple options.
“It’s unbelievable,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer. “… Not in a million years did I think I could win it.”
He decided to major in computer science, Bowen said, because “I want to be a part of how the world is going. We’re basically making history with all this stuff.”
Mainframe computers, also known as computer servers, are the central processing hubs of computer networks.
“They’ve been in existence since the 1950s and 1960s, and a lot of the legacy code that people wrote back then, they’re retiring now,” Bowen said. “So they’re going to need younger people who know how to fix it if something goes wrong or just simply maintain it.”
Bowen is grateful that the TSYS School of Computer Science at CSU offers mainframe courses.
“There’s not terribly too many universities that do that,” he said.
So he took a mainframe course in COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) programming, taught by Neal Rogers, in the fall 2018 semester.
“I figured out that this is something that I could really get into,” he said. “I quite like it.”
Bowen heard another CSU computer science instructor, professor emeritus David Woolbright, casually mention the IBM contest, and Rogers encouraged Bowen to register.
The competition, which is free to enter, has three parts.
Part 1, which started in October, involves understanding the platform and the basic concepts of mainframe programming.
Part 2 entails learning or practicing more than half a dozen programming languages, such as JCL (Job Control Language) and Rexx (Restructure Extended Executor). Participants who complete Part 2 earn the IBM Digital Badge, which they can show prospective employers.
“I had to stop midway through Part 2 during the semester because classes and whatever got busy,” Bowen said. “But I picked it back up over Christmas break.”
Bowen estimated it took him about 30 hours over several weeks to complete Part 2.
“When I got through Part 2, I thought that I learned a lot of stuff,” he said. “I wasn’t sure I learned everything I wanted to.”
But the positive feedback he received from the computer competition during Part 2 boosted his confidence.
“When it said ‘correct’ next to everything,” he recalled, “I was like, ‘Huh. I might have something on this.’”
After he qualified for Part 3, he finished the final 15 challenges in two weeks, working on them roughly five hours per day, as the tasks became increasingly more complicated.
“The difficulty curve went up, for sure,” he said. “… Part 3 is like real-world challenges. A lot of them give you an open prompt, like, ‘This is broken. Here’s a tip for you.’ But there is no right or wrong answer for it.”
For example, the final challenge required him to learn and creatively use z/OS, an operating system for IBM mainframes. He had to write a program that shows a beginning programmer how to program. He also had to write instructions in accompanying text.
“You’re playing the role of an experienced IBM technician helping a new person become familiar with the (mainframe) environment,” he said. “… So you have to run certain commands that would tell you stuff about the system.”
As he completed his answer to the final challenge, Bowen thought, “OK, this has gotten as good as it’s going to get, so just hit ‘enter.’ Hopefully I’ll hear something back.”
In January, while playing video games at home, Bowen read the email informing him that he is one of the two winners in North America. He thought, “Oh, my gosh. Are they sure? I know I put a lot of time and effort into it, but I didn’t know it was like that level of quality.”
A few weeks later, another email told him he is one of the three worldwide winners. He thought, “Are you kidding me? I didn’t expect to even really finish this when I started it.”
Part of his prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to the IBM Think conference Feb. 11-15 in San Francisco. And it was his first plane ride.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “Considering I haven’t been out of this area, the Southeast, before in my life, there were so many new experiences. It was just mind-blowing to me.”
It also was potentially lucrative. He collected more than 20 business cards from company recruiters — and some of those contacts have led to job offers.
“I don’t want to go too much into it, because there’s options involved,” he said, “but I’ll just say this for-sure opens a lot of doors for you.”
His ultimate goal, Bowen said, is to work at IBM.
“A lot of people that win this competition end up getting employed there,” he said.
Bowen also is supposed to receive a $1,000 gift pack and an official Master the Mainframe hoodie.
He credits the knowledge he gleaned from his CSU computer science classes for helping him in this competition. Bowen’s professors know his potential.
Rogers said he is “not really surprised” about Bowen’s success.
“Matthew is an exceptional student,” said Rogers, who has taught computer science for more than 40 years, including 20 at CSU. “… He doesn’t wait until the last minute to complete assignments.”
Woolbright, who taught at CSU for more than 40 years before retiring, said, “This couldn’t happen to a nicer or more gifted student.”
He called Bowen “a self-starter and a self-learner.”
Woolbright noted, “CSU has a long history of teaching mainframe classes because of our connections with TSYS and Aflac. Matt was able to take a COBOL class (taught by Rogers) on an IBM mainframe, and no doubt this helped him get started with the contest. Still, he had to acquire many skills on the fly.”
Bowen also is a member of the CSU team that placed second out of 31 teams at the Southeast Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition qualifiers this year, advancing to the April 3-4 regional at Kennesaw State University. Other team members, coached by professor Yesem Peker, are co-captains James Ericsson and Tyler Staut, as well as Brandon Corn, Eloghosa Obasuyi, Justin Sewell, Matthew Warner-McKinley and Christopher Wilson.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.