If you spend much time lurking in the various System i forums, you'll inevitably come across a few vociferous, angry rants about how IBM is abandoning System i to its inevitable demise. The tirades are often thunderous enough that you'd be forgiven for believing them. However, the doomsayers' hypotheses bear scant resemblance to reality. IBM's Academic Initiative for System i is proof of that.
The mission of the Academic Initiative is to provide colleges and universities with the resources they require to teach the System i skills that businesses need. At the time of writing, according to the Academic Initiative's Web pages, approximately 100 schools in the United States alone and 80 additional schools in the rest of the world participate in the program. IBM has been working hard to expand the program, so these numbers will likely be out of date by the time you read this. Making it harder still to quantify academic participation, IBM is reluctant to talk about the number of schools involved because its focus is on working with education institutions that will develop high-quality curricula with meaningful System i content rather than on producing a bloated list.
Another reason that global statistics about the Academic Initiative are difficult to come by is that IBM is intentionally driving the program from the local level to ensure that it meets actual needs. To maintain the local focus, IBM has an Academic Initiative leader in each of 20 regions worldwide, although that person may also have other roles within his or her region.
One number that IBM does boast about is student participation. More than 20,000 students in over 25 countries are now benefiting from the Academic Initiative annually.
The principle objectives of the program are as follows:
- Get universities and colleges to teach upgraded curricula that include independent System i–related courses and integrate System i subjects in existing courses.
- Nurture the active job community and foster collaboration by ensuring that participating schools are connected to the System i business community, including System i customers, Business Partners, ISVs, and user groups.
- Increase and/or create System i mindshare among students and, as Linda Grigoleit, worldwide program manager for the Academic Initiative for System i, put it, "let them know that the world does not run on Windows."
The skills development aspect of the program is very much demand-driven, a demand that exists despite the common perception. In the various System i forums, you'll occasionally read posts lamenting the dearth of System i jobs. Again, reality seems to be at odds with these views. According to Grigoleit, a primary reason that IBM started the program was because "our customers and Business Partners are telling us that they can't find the skills they need. So there are jobs out there."
The program consists of the following three basic elements:
- Access to System i hardware and software
- Education for faculty to teach them about System i or to update their knowledge
- Curriculum content that can be incorporated into classes
Hardware and Software
A key component of the Academic Initiative is a $2 million System i installation maintained by IBM. It acts as a hub for the program and exists exclusively for teaching purposes at the participating schools. At no cost, students and faculty can access the hub remotely through a URL to use in teaching labs or to download course material. About 2,500 to 3,000 people use the hub on a regular basis.
The hub holds software from IBM and its Business Partners as well as courseware that registered education institutions can use for free.
Beyond the main hub, smaller hubs are scattered around the world, primarily at universities, but at least one is being administered by a System i distributor. At the time of writing, one hub was being installed at the University of Nebraska and three more at key universities in China. There are also operational hubs in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.
In addition to the resources available on these hubs, IBM offers participating universities and colleges significantly discounted lease and purchase options on System i hardware and software.
Keeping professors and instructors up-to-date on System i is another major objective of the program. IBM provides in-person faculty education that is offered primarily in the summer because that's when professors have time that they can devote to the courses. For example, faculty from approximately 30 education institutions, mostly in the United States, recently attended a summer school put on by IBM in Rochester, Minnesota.
The faculty courses are taught by IBM educators and experts, along with professors who are already teaching System i concepts in their universities. Summer school events are being conducted in a number of other countries as well.
IBM also invites faculty to other IBM events and makes Web-based education available to them. In addition, COMMON has a program that allows professors to attend the COMMON Conference for free, and many local System i user groups offer faculty free or discounted memberships.
IBM provides ready-made, free courseware that can be downloaded over the Web by program participants. At time of writing, the courseware repository listed 27 courses. Topics covered include system architectures, application design and development, database design and analysis, work management, backup and recovery, high availability, and security, among other subject areas.
It doesn't stop there. IBM is actively developing new curricula in technical skills as well as in related business concepts. "As you know, it's a business system," explained Grigoleit. "We work with a number of schools of business on MIS programs and courses because they are very interested in not just the technical side, but also the business side."
When drawing up the curriculum, IBM keeps in mind System i certifications. "We have a three-phased approach to our curriculum development," noted Grigoleit. "Phase one is about operations and a little bit about system administration, etc. This is about a 60-hour course that can be used as a single course or as separate modules that can be put into existing courses.
"In order to make sure that our courses are preparing students to feel confident that, if they conquer the course sufficiently, they can then be successful in a System i certification exam, we're involving some of our educators and some of the courseware development folks in the development of the certification, as appropriate. They will not be involved in the actual question-writing because we don't want to run the risk that our educators will teach to the test, but they are involved in course blueprinting and in defining the skills that system operators need to understand."
IBM is not in this alone. Business Partners and ISVs are supporting the education community in a big way, whether through the Academic Initiative or on their own. For example, in March of this year, Or Yehuda, Israel-based Magic Software Enterprises, announced a grant of $1 million worth of business process and development software to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in support of a worldwide hub for advanced teaching and for remote access by other universities.
"Magic Software's grant to the University of Nebraska builds on the work of the IBM Academic Initiative for System i to enable the university to act as a hub for the advancement of innovative solutions in areas such as business process improvement," said Mark Shearer, general manager, IBM System i. "The presence of software companies like Magic Software as part of the community of software providers supporting System i enhances collaboration between IBM and the university."
Magic Software is not the only ISV involved. For example, Burnsville, Minnesota-based RJS Software Systems attended an iSummit gathering of six or seven Business Partners and about five colleges, all from the Midwest. The group discussed how they could get involved in the Academic Initiative. The immediate actions they identified included loading software on the hub so schools can build the software into their curriculum and so students can work with software that is used in the real world at today's businesses. RJS and other System i Business Partners also plan to consider students for internships at their companies.
ProData Computer Services is yet another example of an IBM Business Partner that has provided free releases of its software to all schools participating in the Academic Initiative. The company's stated reason for doing this is to help IBM increase awareness of System i and to help increase awareness of ProData's own products.
This brings up a question: What's in it for the ISVs and Business Partners? "From a perspective of internships, we get a better crew," explained Bill Whalen, sales and marketing manager at RJS. "On the other side of the fence, we maintain and build the platform. We want to make sure that System i sticks around. In addition, if students work with our software in a college setting, then when they get out in the working world, they'll know about us."
Centerfield Technology is another IBM Business Partner that is participating in the program. In fact, it began to get involved with universities before it even knew that IBM had an Academic Initiative. "At the beginning of last year, we decided that it was a great idea for us to donate some of our software," said Jenniefer Halverson, director of IBM System i client-partners at Centerfield Technology. "My husband had been working at a university for 25 years. He was privy to all sorts of software, and I thought, 'I wonder if they could use ours.' So we contacted a lot of schools and asked them if they were interested."
Centerfield Technology now donates its technology to any school that wants it. "We're not in it for the money," explained Halverson. "We're not charging the colleges maintenance. If a college wants our tools, they can have them. We want to help in any way we can to increase awareness and help the schools."
When asked about the business justification for Centerfield's contribution to education institutions, Halverson made the point that "it should not be about revenue dollars today. You cannot say that education in general is going to come back to you in dollars today. Education is an investment for the future."
It's All About Jobs ...
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the unmet need for skills at System i customers, Business Partners, and ISVs was an important factor driving the creation of the Academic Initiative. To ensure that the program effectively matches skills development with real-world skills requirements, IBM is targeting it primarily at those geographic areas that already have a large System i community. In those regions, it is also using the program to build "academic networks" that foster widespread, robust interactions among students, faculty, IBM, System i Business Partners, ISVs, and customers.
"Everywhere we go, when IBMers talk about the Academic Initiative in customer events, in partner events, or wherever, we talk about these academic networks and that we really need [partners' and customers'] help to help us with the schools in their communities," stated Grigoleit. "There are lots of ways that they can help. And we're seeing both customers and partners getting involved in all of these ways. For example, they can guest lecture at a college or university. Schools love to have somebody from industry come in and talk to their class about some aspect of the technology, which gives their students a real-world view as opposed to the academic view."
System i Business Partners and customers are also helping by offering projects that students can work on to get actual development experience while they are in school. To the same end, customers and partners are also providing internships to students and sometimes also to faculty, mostly during the summer. Business Partners and customers are also inviting students to visit their data centers to see System i in action.
The businesses involved in the program are also considering college graduates for jobs because, as Grigoleit points out, "It's all about jobs. If students and schools know that there are jobs out there, then they are much more interested in learning about the field."
IBM is also working with COMMON on its online Career Center and encouraging customers and partners to use it. Once the number of job offerings posted on the Career Center grows—it currently sees about one to three postings a day, although that number is growing—IBM plans to start promoting it to the schools as a career search option.
Résumés and job listings can be posted to the COMMON Career Center for free. Employers can also buy a "featured job" listing that gives their posting more prominence. Currently, the price for a 30-day featured listing is $40 for COMMON members and $80 for non-members.
... And a Little Bit of Fun
To inject some fun into the program, this year saw the first of IBM's System i Innovation Challenges. Open to American and Canadian students 18 years of age or older, the contest tested contestants' Web research skills as they discovered the System i platform, encouraged them to set their creative juices flowing to produce a video about System i, and, finally, required that they develop an innovative System i application.
The first-place team members received an all-expenses-paid trip to visit Nintendo in Redmond, Washington, where they were able to see System i in action. As an unannounced bonus, they also toured the facilities of Costco, another major System i user in the Seattle area. Additional prizes included Nintendo Wiis, iPod Nanos, gift certificates, T-shirts, and Zend PHP Certification Training courses and Zend PHP Certification Exam vouchers. The winning team was The A-Team from Marywood University. Its members were Wesley Fagen, Julie Gavin, Michael Jozaitis, and George Zimmerman. Dr. Rex DumDum was the sponsoring professor.
The first Innovation Challenge saw the participation of 110 teams from 50 schools. All of the winners are posted on the IBM Web site. IBM will be launching a similar contest in Europe this autumn.
More to Come
MC Press intends to run another article that will examine the Academic Initiative from the perspective of the students who participated in it. We'll get their impressions of the program, explore the benefits they've received, and discuss any changes they'd like to see. A publication date for this article has not been set yet, but if you are one of those students and would like to make your views—positive, negative, or merely anecdotal—known, please contact the author, Joel Klebanoff, at email@example.com at your earliest convenience.
Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. He is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.