Microsoft Is Knocking: Should You Let It into Your Career?

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In the world of information technology, the one thing you can always count on is change. Change can either help or hurt your career, depending on how you approach it.

Bob Dylan sang those words in the ’60s, and if sung today to anyone in the computer field, they would still be true yet carry a new meaning. If you have been in information technology (formerly called data processing) for 20 years or more, then you have seen lots of changes and know what I am talking about. The times, they are a- changing. Do you remember 80-column cards? 96-column cards? Keypunch machines? Card readers? How about PL/I or assembly language programming? Do you remember the first transistorized computers, circa IBM 1401? Then came the IBM 360 and 370; and IBM System 3 with a new language, called RPG II; followed by IBM Systems 32, 34, 36, and 38 with another new language, called RPG III. And, finally, came the IBM AS/400.

Somewhere in between the IBM 360 and 370, and the System 3 and System 34, came the PC, the Commodore PC, and a revolutionary personal computer called Apple. As you may recall, the first IBM PC came with an operating system called DOS and was developed for IBM by a small startup company called Microsoft. I wonder what the people at IBM were thinking when they decided to put tremendous resources into developing the first personal computer? Did Big Blue envision what the PC would mean to business or that the industry would become the fastest growing segment of both the United States and world economy? Do you remember the days before you had a mouse on your desk? How about before you had a color monitor? Do you remember when gooey (GUI) was used to describe a really good candy or an ice-cream sundae?

Mainframe people thought that theirs was the only real computer for business; everything else was but a cheap imitation. IBM midrange people were content with the amazing things that the IBM midrange series could do. Even when PCs started becoming popular for home use and for such specialized business applications as financial spreadsheets, most IT professionals shunned the PC as a toy meant only for games or hobbyists. I remember when, only five or six years ago, I would ask programmers if they had PCs at home so they could fax me their resumes. Most would chuckle and say that they

had seen enough of computers at work and that they wouldn’t dare touch one at home. My, how times have changed.

Today, along with owning a TV, VCR, and telephone, it is simply expected that a person has a PC and is online. Today, more than 80 percent of the resumes sent to our search firm are sent by email, less than 3 percent are mailed, and the rest are faxed. Three years ago, I wasn’t online and knew nothing about email. Oh, yes, I had heard of it, but I guess I wasn’t that PC savvy. Now, my business could not survive without email, and access to the Internet for both posting job openings and general information has been a real benefit to our business. Like many companies, our Web page serves as our billboard along the information superhighway.

A Simpler Time

Initially, the first PCs at a company were used by the accounting department or for producing spreadsheets. Next, they were used for word processing, churning out letters, documentation, training materials, etc. Later, the PC was tied into the System 38 and could be used as a terminal or a standalone PC and eventually networked so that information could be passed back and forth between the PC and the midrange computer.

During this evolution of the PC, the inevitable became clear: The PC was here to stay, providing, as it did, unique information through mostly inexpensive off-the-shelf software. As users and executive management became more PC savvy, they made more demands on the IT department to access enterprise systems residing on the System 38 and AS/400. In many cases, the users knew more about the PC software offerings than the AS/400 staff, and these users wanted a way to use information already residing on the AS/400. Realizing the PC’s potential in the marketplace, Microsoft, along with other software developers, dedicated all of its resources to continually upgrading software offerings and either developing new products or acquiring smaller leading-edge companies. PC software companies kept playing leapfrog in an attempt to win a major piece of the IT pie in corporations. And the result? The PC hardware and software industry has grown at rates the likes of which no one has seen since the Industrial Revolution. From the garage to the Fortune 500, the Information Age has arrived, coming to us by the Internet, through a server, accessed by a PC, running on Microsoft Windows.

Gaze into the Crystal Ball

And what role will Microsoft play in your future? I’ll say it briefly: Microsoft will touch you, and, like it or not, you will have to interact, to which you reply, “I am an RPG programmer, and all day long, I work with RPG code, developing or modifying systems for manufacturing or distribution or accounting. I don’t see any need for me to learn Microsoft Access or Microsoft Visual Basic (VB) or Microsoft NT or Microsoft Office.” Well, if you’re retiring in the next two years, you just may be right and you don’t need to learn it. However, if you expect to be in any computer environment for longer than two years, as a recruiter and career counselor, I would say your career will be better off if you know more than just RPG 400. Call it “career insurance,” if you will.

Another thought to ponder is this: If you, as an IT professional, cannot support the necessary Microsoft products your company uses, then who will? Will they be outside consultants or Microsoft-trained staff? Will they be the other AS/400 professionals who understood the importance of being versatile? Oh, yes, and then there are the salary issues. In major-city markets, a good VB programmer/analyst with five years of VB experience is earning in the neighborhood of $65,000 to $80,000. In the AS/400 to PC client-server comparisons that I have seen, many of these VB people don’t have the business or application development skills that most AS/400 programmers have, but they have capitalized on a market in which there is a vacuum of knowledge.

Technology is changing. Computers are faster. Software is more advanced. And, people are looking for better ways to gather information, store it, retrieve it, and share it with others. Years ago, technology seemed to change at a slower pace. If you were COBOL programmer 25 years ago, prospects were good that COBOL would be the only

language you ever needed to know. With RPG programming, we saw RPG on the IBM 360/20, then RPG II on IBM Systems 3, 34, and 36. If you were an RPG II programmer in the ‘70s, your programming skills remained fairly secure for about eight to 10 years, until RPG III in the IBM System 38 arrived on the scene toward the end of that decade. Many RPG II programmers made the transition to RPG III and the System 38. For those who did not, the number of job openings decreased tremendously. For a period of about two or three years, RPG II programmers were able to find jobs in System 38 shops and make that transition. After that period, however, hiring managers and System 38 shops would not accept RPG II skills alone. Those programmers who did not upgrade their skills were locked into the diminishing world of RPG II.

Currently, we are going through another one of those major technology shifts, and you don’t want to be the one to put your head in the sand and ignore what is happening around you. Embrace change because it is what brings about new opportunities and challenges and what makes your skills more valuable.

Reach a Higher Ground

Before the days of software packages for the IBM midrange, a programmer’s coding and analysis skills and personality were generally the hiring criteria. However, as more companies began to use purchased software packages, such as those offered by J.D. Edwards, Computer Associates, System Software Associates (SSA), Infinium Software, and MAPICS, knowledge of these packages became an additional hiring criterion. Being a model employee with excellent stability at one company is no longer enough. Now, you also need specific software knowledge or additional “bells and whistles,” as some would say. Will history repeat itself? Will companies keep raising the bar for what they want in an ideal employee? I think so. After 25 years of doing searches for IBM midrange clients, I’ve seen the bar raised higher and higher. Yes, there are exceptions to every story, and, as recently as six months ago, I placed a veteran RPG II programmer in an AS/400 RPG installation. But, for the most part, companies expect more and more for their money. Today’s senior programmer/analyst must also be a systems analyst and an expert coder, must understand the company’s business (be a business analyst), train users on the software, manage multiple projects, evaluate hardware and software, have good communications skills, and train or manage other programmers. Tomorrow’s senior programmer/analyst will also need to coordinate Internet and intranet services, e-commerce, integrating data between the AS/400 and multiple other platforms from UNIX to NT servers, executive management systems and groupware, not to mention coordinate host strategic-decision-management software and tools from the likes of Microsoft and Lotus.

Now, What Do They Want?

Although most companies are not asking me to find them an RPG programmer with VB as a requirement, several employers have said it would be a plus. Most programmers I have asked are familiar with Microsoft Word and Excel. Hiring managers in today’s AS/400 installations expect every programmer/analyst and project leader to be thoroughly familiar with these programs, along with Windows 95 or Windows 98. Most companies are using Microsoft Office 95 or Office 97 and are beginning to expect the IT staff to be familiar with these products. It can be embarrassing when your users know more about computer solutions involving PC software and hardware than does your programming and technical support staff.

One manager has told me that she would not hire a project leader who wasn’t familiar with Microsoft Project. The same company is currently sending a number of its programmers to classes on VB. VB has become the mainstay language of the PC server. VB is to the PC what COBOL has been to be IBM mainframe computer. While there are other languages, they are not as mainstream. VB is not without its limitations, but it serves its purpose and is the common denominator of the popular Microsoft suite of products. Software developers know that, to have a chance at success, their products must be written

for the Microsoft standard, Windows 95/98. The general consensus of medium to large AS/400 sites is that they are beginning to use VB or plan to use it in the immediate future.

IBM is betting heavily on the success of Java, but Java won’t make Microsoft go away. Even though Java could very well be the language of the future, today’s PC Server language is VB, and Microsoft provides the tools of choice. VB is to client-server applications, what Cobol has been to the IBM mainframe. Both IBM and Microsoft are making sure that the Microsoft products will eventually work seamlessly with one other.

Constant Change

What we’re seeing in the IT field is a changing environment and new dynamics based on rapidly evolving technology. Every five years, you can expect a major change in technology that could affect your career. Some of the technology that we now take for granted wasn’t around five years ago or even 10 years ago. Just about every AS/400 shop I know of has either Novell or NT LANs, or both. Every company has email and most have Internet access. Most companies have a Web site, and, in the next two years, most companies will be doing Internet commerce of some type. Today, the password is Microsoft; tomorrow, it could be Java or Linux. Is such a shift likely? Is it possible? Although most people, including myself, don’t think Microsoft will ever go away, I do think that Microsoft will be challenged as Java continues to evolve as a popular portable language and Linux catches the eye of more major companies as a possible Windows server replacement.

To be able to be better at reading the “crystal ball,” find out what solutions other companies are implementing and what type of software products they are using, including Microsoft products. Good sources for information are your IBM representative, your business partners, your local users group, and technical trade magazines. Also, be aware that IBM is positioning itself as a solution provider. A few years ago, Big Blue realized that, while it competes with Microsoft in certain areas, some Microsoft products and solutions served IBM’s customers well. There are times IBM will recommend and implement a Microsoft solution that works well with the IBM AS/400.

So, What Should You Learn?

While you don’t need to be a certified Microsoft products specialist, I think that you should start out by being proficient in using Microsoft Office 97 suite of products. Recently, IBM announced some new connectivity sockets that will allow a free exchange of information from the AS/400 to the PC server. I highly recommend that you stay on top of any developments in this area and try them out as they become available. That way, you’ll better understand the capabilities of these advances and how they may benefit a solution at your own company.

Imitate IBM and view yourself as a solution provider. In areas where you don’t have the expertise, either jump in and learn it or team up with others who have it. While you may not need to be an expert, acquire enough knowledge about a product or solution so that you can be part of the solution process. If you want to start slowly, I recommend you first get involved with Access programming and take a class in VB later on. Start getting used to the object-oriented world of programming. If you are a project leader or project manager or IS manager, I strongly recommend that you become accustomed to working with Microsoft Project, which has pretty much become the standard project management application at most companies. I would also recommend that you learn PowerPoint, a Microsoft program designed to help develop visual presentations.

An easy way to get involved with Microsoft products is to request that your company send you to the same classes that it sends users to. Some of these classes may be one or two days, and others might be six to eight sessions. Your company would be wise to give you this training so that you can better support users and understand how you might use these products to provide solutions. As an IT manager, sending some of your staff to these classes could provide them with a real incentive to stay with your company. After they’ve completed the classes, give them a project in which they can use their new

knowledge, even if it’s only a minor project. Learning new technology and being able to use it is a real motivating factor in employee retention.

If your career is more on side of operations and technical support, then you probably have already seen the impact of Microsoft products on your shop. Just five or six years ago, it seemed to be good enough for computer operations and support staff to know the AS/400 and remote communications. Today, when I get a call from a client to fill an operations position, that client invariably wants a prospective hire to be familiar with LAN administration on NT servers, and sometimes on Novell. There is a need to know about email and fax servers, firewalls, security issues, etc. This is holding true to all positions on the operations-support side, down to the data center managers. I know of a few smart data center managers and directors who have taken classes and received their Microsoft NT certification. When it comes to job searching, they will have a definite advantage over managers who don’t have these credentials.

A Brave New World

Should you learn about Microsoft products? If you want job security, promotional opportunities, and marketable skills, the answer is yes. If you feel that you don’t have the time to learn on your own or take classes, then make sure that you save up a nice little nest egg for when you are unemployed for two or three months during the next recession. Companies need to support more and more software products, and they are not going to hire a specialist for each and every product. So, the more you know, the more your career will grow to reach your expectations.

Keep up on trends by reading the various trade magazines. Analyze the classifieds to see what skills companies are looking for. If 75 percent of companies are advertising for a certain skill, it’s a good indication of how valuable that skill might be to your career. Attend local users group meetings and regional technical conferences to take a closer look at the up-and-coming technologies that could have an impact your career. Pick up a book on the topic you want to learn more about, or take a class at your local community college or adult education facilities. Start with your own PC at home and upgrade to the latest Microsoft operating system and Office 97 suite.

Invest in yourself. The price of some of these products is minimal compared to the cost of not having the skills. Don’t wait for your company to send you to classes. Invest some of your own time and money in your career. The dividends will be enormous.