Is Corporate Tunnel Vision Blocking the Next Generation of RPG Programmers?

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Efforts by Young i Professionals to find affordable access to the IBM i platform may bear fruit too late to engage today's young programmers and entrepreneurs.


I wrote back in 2007 that, after a 10-year absence from covering COMMON, it was like returning to a gathering of Vietnam War veterans because of all the gray heads in the crowd. Whether it was that column or just the sudden self-conscious industry realization that this generation of IBM i developers and RPG programmers would soon retire with relatively few people to follow in their footsteps, there was an awakening to the challenge. The point hit home with the shocking death of industry legend Al Barsa at none other venue than the Nashville COMMON conference. People in the IBM i community were witnessing the thinning herd right before their very eyes.


Groups, including COMMON, and IBM management started to come together and make a significant effort to reach out and attract young people to the platform. Then the recession hit, and jobs were evaporating faster than tears falling onto a hot Las Vegas sidewalk. The younger generation was hit far harder by the recession than even their parents, and it was common knowledge among students that you might as well just stay in school because there were no jobs on the outside. Marry the tough economy with yet another reassignment of IBM midrange management that silenced several enthusiastic champions of young people, and nervous vendors felt compelled to do something—witness the birth of i Manifest to promote the platform independently.


Economic conditions have eased up a bit, but jobs are still scarce. When there is one advertised for, say, an RPG programmer, the experience required by the employer is so broad and deep that most young people don't even bother to apply.


"Everywhere we go, we hear there are no jobs. We also hear that there is no work force," proclaims Brian May, a founding member with Aaron Bartell and Justin Porter of the Young i Professionals, or YiPs. "Well…both conditions can't be true," he says.


At a roundtable last week hosted by OCEAN in concert with the user group's annual Technical Conference, the YiPs attracted a small but concerned following interested in learning more about efforts to bring young people into the IBM i platform. May and Bartell shared their successes, but a picture gradually emerged of an industry that is apparently insensitive and out of touch when thinking about the next generation of IBM i professionals—if there even is going to be a next generation.


While a few bright stars shine, including people like Jim Buck, IT instructor  at Gateway Technical College, Kenosha, Wisconsin, (and MC Press Online author of several books, including his latest, Mastering IBM i ) known for his efforts to train young people and then find them good jobs afterward, he apparently is the exception rather than the rule. Junior colleges one after another in California have dropped courses in both IBM i operations and RPG programming, according to OCEAN board member Carole Comeau, a staffing professional. The absence of jobs for students after they graduate is generally cited as the main reason, though difficulty finding instructors to teach such classes is also killing some programs.


May says he has a second career going on the road speaking and working with businesses trying to get them to understand the needs of younger IT professionals and help create a more supportive—and realistic—set of expectations. "Some employers get it, and a light goes on, but others simply get mad and will even get up and walk out of the room," says May. "The question that really gets them hopping is, 'How many of you block social media in the workplace?' "


May contends that if employees want to waste time, they don't need access to Facebook to do it. On the other hand, it is how many young people today network and find quick answers to technical questions. "For the majority of the younger workforce, that is their lifeline," says May, who is a strong believer in giving young people all the tools that they want and need to do development work. That means providing them with a full-function IDE—not just SEU, which, while popular with older programmers, is not one you want to hand down to your protégé and isn't even supported after IBM i 6.1. And while Rational tools may be a bit pricey, they allow a developer to do everything she needs in order to be innovative.


The ads for RPG programmers are so wildly inclusive these days that it isn't surprising companies claim they can't find people to fill them. "Most of the ads online for RPG programmers say you have to be proficient in JD Edwards, WebSphere, Java, and RPG. Really? First, if you are proficient in JD Edwards—I've seen their code base—you have never seen Java," quips May. "What you end up with is an impossible list of requirements." A better approach, he says, is to find a competent developer, one who likes to learn new things and has experience with several different languages. "Any good developer can pick up a new language," he says. "Also, figure out what the person is actually going to be doing and come up with a short list. The other things are nice to have, but they're not requirements."


Apart from the generation and skills gap that seems to exist between industry and RPG programmers today, the single overriding inhibition to young people learning RPG and the IBM i platform is a lack of access, says Aaron Bartell, a YiPs founder and developer with Krengel Technology, Inc.


"Our goal is to get the next generation involved in this platform," says Bartell. "The question is, how do we get the smart, older person to pass on his knowledge to the next generation so our businesses don't have to jump ship to another platform?"


As a consultant, Bartell says he sees many companies moving off the IBM i platform because they simply can't easily find workers. "They can't hire more people," he says. The reasons for platform abandonment are more complex than a single cause, but that is a leading one, he says. "The question is, how can we engage the next generation, those who are young at heart doing cool, modern things on the machine? How do we get colleges to teach the material and businesses to hire interns?"


Having just created an open-source toolset for running Twitter on the IBM i, TweetMe4i, Bartell sees an infinite number of opportunities for young people to take the platform to the next level. The main problem, however, is that younger programmers can't get on the machine—at least affordably. There are several avenues to improve skills by practicing on an IBM i machine, including on the YiPs Web site (membership is required, but there is no age limit; site is hosted by the IBM Academic Initiative) and, sponsored by vendors Zend Technologies and ProData, as well as Larry Bolhuis at Frankeni Technology and Jim Oberholtzer of Agile Technology Architects. There's also the somewhat restricted PartnerWorld Virtual Loaner Program. However, there are no affordable sites on which to develop real, income-generating, commercial applications, according to Bartell. You can rent a partition from a time-share vendor, but it's going to cost you—a lot.


"The problem is, you can't use what's available to develop production code or commercial software," says Bartell. "Well, who is going to pursue IBM i for the fun of it? When people pursue technology, we want to make money at it. All the people coming out of college building Android applications aren't doing it because they want to show their girlfriends," says Bartell with a note of frustration. "They want to make a dollar an app, but trying to get that through to IBM is almost impossible. However, there are believers."


Bartell says there is a mix of views inside IBM about how liberal the company can afford to be with its licensing fees for IBM i in the cloud. There are evangelists inside the company, however, who are steadily working on ways to allow developers to learn the platform while developing commercial software. The financial incentive would, the thinking goes, drive more young developers onto it and thus further the interests of everyone in the industry, including IBM. In theory, you could log on within a few minutes to a server in the cloud and get a lesson while watching YouTube. That's the goal, but getting there seems to be taking forever.


"They're incrementally changing; they've got some new offerings coming out," says Bartell about IBM. "But the whole thing could be too little, too late when it eventually happens."

Figure 1: Attending the YiPs roundtable at the OCEAN Technical Conference July 22 in Costa Mesa, Calif., were, from left: Roman Chloupek, Kevin Mohondro, Anders Roede, Brian May, Joseph Wright, David Wright, and Aaron Bartell.




















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