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Face Time With … Kevin Matesi

In December, Northern Illinois University graduate student Kevin Matesi claimed first place aftear beating 4,900 contenders in the 2014 IBM Master the Mainframe contest, which allows students to test their mainframe computer programming abilities. In March, Matesi will fly to Poughkeepsie, New York, where he will tour an IBM facility.

He first got a degree in English because he enjoyed writing, then found he liked writing computer code, too.

Daria Sokolova: What is the contest like?

Matesi: The first step is relatively simple, it’s an introduction. The second step is a little harder and then, once you get to the third and final step, that’s where there’s a lot of work involved, there’s no time limit to it and usually it takes a few weeks to a month to complete. It’s all about IBM mainframe.

Sokolova: Where did you get your undergraduate degree?

Matesi: University of Illinois (at Urbana-Champaign), that was in English.

Sokolova: How did you make a transition from English to computer science?

Matesi: It’s a bit of a jump. I’ve always loved technology, I’ve always loved reading and writing, too. While I was at U of I, I made a decision. I want to pursue my writing, but I always enjoyed doing computer science. Once I graduated, I started taking courses at community colleges, I took some at U of I, then I started going to community colleges and taking computer science courses, and I had a choice of getting a second bachelor’s in computer science or master’s. And it took a little bit more work to qualify to enter the program, but it’s definitely worth it.

Sokolova: What was the most difficult thing in your transition from English to computer science?

Matesi: I guess with English you really had complete freedom. You can say whatever you wanted about a passage, you can write whatever you wanted. And you come into computer science and you still have [freedom], but it’s more guided. You have rules that you have to adhere to. Learning a computer language is a lot like learning Spanish or learning English as your second language because it works the same way, there’s a logic behind it, there’s a syntax, semantics to it. But it’s a little bit different from what I thought.

Sokolova: What do you like the most about computer science?

Matesi: To me, it’s like solving a little puzzle. ... I’ve always loved puzzles [as] a little kid. When you are writing a program, you have a picture of what you want to do or what it will look like at the end and have all your little pieces that you put together. Even building simple trivial programs is like writing simple sentences. It’s interesting to me.

Sokolova: What’s the most challenging thing about computer science?

Matesi: You can write a thousand lines of code and forget a comma somewhere or a period or a semicolon, and your whole program [will] break down and it may take you hours just to find out where that is. ... If you get a program to run on the first try, that’s a miracle, that doesn’t happen.

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