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So Many Languages, So Little Time

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Believe it or not, there are programming languages on IBM i other than RPG and CL. So which one do you learn next?

Written by Brian May

My last article addressed investing in yourself and your career. That included adding new skills to your toolbelt. Many IBM i developers have yet to venture outside of the world of RPG. In fact, some haven’t even fully explored the world of RPG! As with many things, one of the biggest obstacles that prevents developers from learning is simply indecision.

I am often asked, “What language should I learn in addition to RPG?” In true ISV/consultant form, the answer is, “It depends.” That shouldn’t be shocking to you. Skills should be developed based on your desired career objectives. However, it wouldn’t be much of an article if we ended here, so I will give my recommendations and opinions of a few IBM i language options to consider for bettering yourself.

ILE Languages

So you want to learn a new language. First, ask yourself this question: How well do you know your current programming language? If you have been developing RPG for years and have never written a subprocedure, maybe you should spend some time actually learning modern RPG.

RPG is a powerful language for building business applications. It can do everything from complex calculations to web services. Are you writing RPGIII style code in RPGLE source members? Does your new code contain Z-ADD, CABxx, or GOTO? If it does, it shouldn’t. Many RPG developers fall into this trap of coding the way we always have. RPG has changed over the years. It’s time your RPG code changed with it.

Spend some time learning about free-format RPG. Create your first service program. Learn to use built-in functions (BIFs) like %FOUND and %EOF instead of using numeric indicators. There is very little that RPG cannot do if you are well versed in all its features. Modern RPG has many similarities with other programming languages. Having a solid foundation in the newest syntax will make learning other languages much easier.

Don’t forget; there are other ILE languages. You find many RPG and COBOL developers, but there are also ILE versions of C and C++. The ILE C languages are not widely used outside of the software developer community, but they can be very useful for certain types of tasks and are easily integrated into your RPG and COBOL applications.

So what language should you learn next?

JavaScript

I almost always recommend learning JavaScript (JS) as the next step for IBM i developers. No matter what back-end language you use, you will need JavaScript. We live in a web and mobile world. Your applications will need a web-based UI at some point. The days of static HTML interfaces are long gone. You will need JavaScript to implement dynamic UI content.

You don’t have to become an expert in all the JS frameworks out there. Start by learning the basics of the language itself. If you have a better understanding of browser events, JS syntax, callback functions, and JS objects, you will be much more successful when learning a framework. Yes, you should learn a framework. There are many to choose from, so once you have a basic understanding of JS in general, research several frameworks and find the one that you like.

The other interesting part of learning JS is the introduction of Node.js to IBM i. Node.js is an open-source platform to run JS on the server side. It is based on the JS engine from Google’s Chrome browser. Node.js has gathered momentum on all platforms, because development is simplified by having the same programming language on the server and client sides. Node.js on IBM i is a hot topic now, and there are many articles available on the subject, including plenty on this site.

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS)

While on the subject of web-based interfaces, take some time to learn CSS. While JavaScript can be used to control the functionality of your interface, CSS controls the how the interface looks. CSS is not complicated, but many developers avoid it because they don’t consider themselves artists. While I am a proponent of having a professional involved to design the overall styling of your interface, you should still have a working knowledge of CSS.

Spend some time learning the commonly used attributes in CSS. Then, read up on using CSS classes, selectors, and media queries. Also, learn to use the developer tools in each of the web browsers. These tools will allow you to see not only what attributes are applied to the elements in your interface, but also where in the CSS those attributes were defined. This knowledge will be indispensable when troubleshooting your styling.

The rest of the language suggestions are in no particular order. They are simply options that should be considered.

Python

Python has been available on IBM i for some time, thanks to the iSeries Python project. In 2015, IBM introduced its own build of Python running in PASE. But why would you want to learn Python?

Python is actually on my to-do list of languages to learn. I have not yet had the time to dive into it, but it intrigues me. Why am I so interested in it, and why should you be? The simple answer is young developers.

At my day job, one of my responsibilities is heading up an intern program. I have built relationships with local community colleges and universities. I have also interacted with educators from many different parts of the country. In my dealings with them, I have learned that almost all of them teach Python in their intro-level courses. Having some knowledge of this language has a twofold advantage to us RPG developers. It gives us common ground with new developers coming in from college, and it gives us the opportunity to use Python on IBM i for tasks where it is advantageous.

PHP

IBM’s partnership with Zend years ago brought us a stable and supported PHP environment for IBM i. There is a strong PHP community within the IBM i ecosystem. In fact, I used to be considered one of them. Unfortunately, my work has taken me in other directions, but that does not mean I am not a fan of PHP. I actually like the language a lot.

PHP is a great “bridge” language for RPG developers who may not have ever done object-oriented (OO) programming. Unlike some other languages, such as Java, PHP allows you to code procedurally as well as OO where you see fit. You can create top-down applications similar to RPG but utilize objects that may already exist in your codebase where needed.

PHP has been around for many years and has a very active open-source community, so there is a vast number of prewritten libraries and examples available. This makes learning PHP very easy.

What About Java?

Java is a very widely used language that is available on virtually all platforms, including IBM i. If you have Java applications within your enterprise, or if you are just interested in learning the language, it is a good choice. There are certain types of applications where Java is a perfect fit.

Personally, I have never been a fan of the language. I have a rudimentary knowledge of the language and have used it in a few projects over the years, but I have never felt like I was a Java developer. I have found that many long-time RPG developers have a difficult time transitioning from RPG to Java if they have never used any other OO languages, but if that is the language you want to learn, don’t let me discourage you. While Java is not my favorite language, in learning the language I learned more about OO programming and gained a better understanding of concepts that made me a better developer in other languages, even RPG.

Final Thoughts

I have discussed a few language options available on IBM i for your consideration. This is by no means an exhaustive list. It is just a few of my recommended “next steps.” The important part is that we continue to learn. No developer should learn only one programming language. Do you need to be an expert in every language? Of course not, but a working knowledge of a few different languages will make you a better overall developer.

With that, I challenge you to learn a new language this year. Do some reading on a few different programming languages and see which one gets your mental juices flowing. Developers are inquisitive by nature. We are problem solvers. Find a language that interests you and start learning.

Brian May

Brian May, an IBM Power Systems Champion and Solutions Architect for Profound Logic Software, devotes the majority of his time to assisting customers with their modernization efforts. He frequently writes and speaks on topics related to RPG, JavaScript, and IBM i Modernization. Brian recently contributed his time and expertise to the new IBM i Modernization Redbook.

 

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