Fresh Faces Offer a Different Perception of IBM i Workforce

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The younger generations are coming into our world, enriching it with new ideas and perspectives.

It’s kind of a funny story. I was in one of my first onsite meetings at iTech Solutions back in the spring of 2017. We had the whole team in the boardroom going over strategies and discussing how we were going to achieve them. Back then, I was 38 years old. I remember coming up with an idea and the room fell silent. The next words from someone were “Wow! From the mouths of babes!”

Back then, I was the youngest person in the company. We’ve added quite a few younger people since. But I found it really interesting that someone like me, with close to 20 years’ worth of IBM i experience and definite strands of gray hair at the time (and many more now), could be a target candidate for that statement.

Generally speaking, many IBM i folks are older than I am. It’s the longevity of the platform that has allowed multi-generations to work with it. My dad was an RPG programmer for most of his career, and I just happened to follow in his footsteps. I remember him verbatim: “If you learn RPG, you’ll always have a job in the ‘400 world.’” To this day (knock on wood), I’ve always had a gig. And I’m not the only one like that. I can point you to at least 20 people my age or younger who have parents who’ve worked on the AS/400, System/36, System/38, or even System/3. They’re steeped in IBM midrange history. They’ve got good pedigree if you will.

The fact that we have generations of people who’ve worked on IBM i is an outstanding thing. I’d argue we probably have more of that than any other platform, mainframe included. My son is thirteen, and if he wants to pursue information technology as a career, you can bet I’ll guide him into this lane as a viable option.

When you go to conferences, and I’ll speak about COMMON specifically, you see the younger generations coming to check out the IBM i platform…and community. COMMON usually brings about 40 to 50 students to each Fall Conference. They come to sessions and network with the rest of us at events. Just being a part of something like that puts a small seed in their minds for when they start looking for jobs and ultimately careers. A percentage of those young people end up making contacts and earning a living for IBM i shops, and we see them come back to COMMON Conferences again, but this time as IBM i community members. The younger generations are coming into our world. enriching it with new ideas and perspectives.

Which brings me to IBM’s Fresh Faces program.

In 2017, IBM started Fresh Faces: a program to highlight new members of the IBM i community. I’m not sure about the overall intention, but breaking the traditional IBM i professional age stereotype is something that it’s certainly done for the better. It shows that young people are choosing IBM i as a career, that there’s value in it. Not just because there are roles available with a paycheck, but because there’s job satisfaction in working on a platform that allows them to do everything they want to and then some. Does IBM having embraced open-source technology help that? Absolutely. But IBM i offers things that we’ve grown accustomed to and maybe take for granted after so long, such as the benefits of single-level storage or not having to recompile a program after upgrading to new processor technologies.

Fresh Faces are nominated, similar to the IBM Champion program but with far less of an application process, by simply reaching out to IBMers. IBM’s Elizabeth Hudson helped lead this process with the initial “class” of Fresh Faces. Nowadays, if you want to nominate a Fresh Face, you can contact IBM i marketing guru Brandon Pederson (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), who had this to say about the program:

“Honestly, we were simply looking to address the perceived skills gap in the community. You hear people talk about their RPG programmers retiring and therefore having to redo everything and move platforms. It's really not the case. There’s plenty of people you’ve never heard of who know RPG, they know IBM i, and they can be trained very quickly. You just don't hear about them. You don't need to hire someone with 30 years of RPG experience. You need to hire someone who has passion for the platform and can adapt! Also, anyone can be a Fresh Face if they're new to the platform, not necessarily young people. We see Fresh Faces in their 40s who made a career shift, and now we want to showcase all the cool stuff they're doing: AI, open source, API integration...we felt like their stories weren't being told.”

There’s no special requirement to being a Fresh Face, other than being “new” to the greater IBM i, AIX, and Power Systems community. Maybe you have a developer who had no experience with IBM i before coming to join your shop and has just picked it up and run with it, or maybe you have someone who’s been doing some neat things with Ansible on a Power Systems machine. They could be Fresh Faces. Of course, if those people do something extraordinary on a daily basis with the platform, they may have a leg up on the competition!

In the last three years, a total of 20 Fresh Faces have been announced: 17 men and 3 women. With the recent focus on women in IT, I’m a little surprised by that fact. I would expect to see more women in the future. Hope you’re listening, IBM! I’ve written about women in STEM before, and evidence suggests that they excel at computer science to a greater degree than their male counterparts, especially if given the opportunity at a young age to do so.

I’m thinking of people like Fresh Face Marina Schwenk. She’s a friend, customer, fellow speaker, and volunteer on the COMMON Americas Advisory Council. She’s also a part of her local Women in IT group at WMCPA. Do you have to do all that to be a Fresh Face? Probably not. But it goes to show what some of the Fresh Faces can accomplish in the community. Marina is a well-respected developer and a budding administrator. Plus, she’s a WebSphere gearhead like I am. When she calls my cell phone, I can guarantee it’s a tough question because she’s already read the manual and half of Google trying to figure something out. The Fresh Faces program is simply IBM’s recognition of “new” community members and their accomplishments. It’s an introduction. It shines a bit of a light on them to say thank you.

Marina said, “When you are named a Fresh Face, you are recognized right away in the IBM i community as someone who is new to the platform and has demonstrated leadership and skills. For me, this is a stepping stone. I’ve been a part of the platform for just shy of six years. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am very much an introvert. I stayed in my comfort zone for quite a while and just helped out with my local user’s group in Wisconsin. When I released my first open-source project, I knew I had to start presenting. Shortly after that, I was named a Fresh face. Being named a Fresh Face helped give me the confidence to continue to step out of my comfort zone so I could continue to grow as a speaker and a very active participant in the IBM i community through my local user’s group Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association (WMCPA) Women in IT (WIT)Committee, leading our student initiatives with Gateway Technical College and now holding the board position of VP. I’m also a part of the COMMON Americas Advisory Council (CAAC) and COMMON’s Young i Professionals (YIPs) committee.”

I also work with a Fresh Face at iTech Solutions: Richie Palma. Richie’s case is a little different because he doesn’t have a technical role; he’s a salesperson. However, he certainly knows technology. Being an IBM Fresh Face has also helped him as well.

Richie said, “Someone asked me what being a Fresh Face of IBM i has meant for my career. Surprisingly, the question isn’t as simple as I would like it to be. Before I was a Fresh Face of IBM i, I had already fallen in love with the IBM i platform and the community. I understood why IBM i was so amazing and unique at its core and why so many of the people I met through the user community spent their whole professional careers with it. I had already found good teachers and mentors, was delivering innovative solutions for my customers, and was building a name for myself in the community through speaking and sharing my knowledge. I was doing the right things, was on a good path, and was having an amazing time doing it. I think when you are a younger person entering a fairly mature market, the hardest thing to acquire is credibility. For me, being honored as both an IBM Champion and a Fresh Face of IBM i in 2017 wasn’t so much an accomplishment but more an opportunity to turn the rocket boosters on in my career. As a Fresh Face of IBM i, I felt like IBM was putting their stamp on me and vouching for me as an innovator on this amazing platform. The Fresh Faces program was my launchpad and ticket to engage with, learn from, and work with some of the greatest IBM i technical resources on the planet. That is a perfect recipe for success.”

So, how do we get the next generation of IBM i professionals? The first step is identifying the ones we already have so that the community understands they’re coming from somewhere. It spawns questions to determine what schools these people attended or what their backgrounds are. It makes you wonder how they got into technology, specifically IBM i. What drew them to the platform? You might be surprised on some of those answers. You might find a college nearby that teaches RPG. You might find more people who are looking for a career using the best operating system out there, people who want to work on technology that has a history and a future.

That’s the value of Fresh Faces. They help change the perception of the community, and they’re part of the future of IBM i.