As the generation of RPG programmers who built some of the great IBM i application systems that run many SMBs drifts toward retirement, replenishing their ranks poses some urgent problems.
Even as long as 20 years ago, it was fashionable to say that if you didn't keep your technology skills sharp, the only thing you'd need to learn for your next job was how to say, "Do you want fries with that?" While that was clearly some hyperbole designed to shock, the base sentiment remains true. If you work in a technological field, you have to keep up with what goes on with the technology, even if your particular enterprise isn't using all the aspects of the technology that it might.
Not that it's easy for IBM i programmers, operators, and other personnel to keep abreast of a fast-moving industry. Particularly in SMBs using the IBM i, small IT staffs can make it particularly difficult for professionals to find the time and energy to undertake more training when workloads seem impossibly heavy and the skill set required to keep one's present job sometimes doesn't change much.
Once someone's been with the same enterprise for several years, it can also be hard to stay focused on the idea that, for anyone, the day can come on which they're part of the staff that has to be trimmed to keep the company afloat. The possibility that IT pros may need to market themselves in an industry that didn't stand still while they were plying a quiet backwater somewhere is frightening and easy to avoid contemplating.
More Than Just Programmers' Careers in Jeopardy
However, these are merely the major traditional arguments in favor of keeping technical peoples' skills up to snuff. What's changing the equation as we enter the teen years of the 21st century is that education and training issues are starting to become a strategic problem for enterprises themselves, instead of just for their employees. Many enterprises' trusty staff of IBM i programmers and analysts, some of whom have been in the trenches since the early 1980s, are edging toward retirement. The application systems they've built, some encompassing millions of lines of code, can't simply be replaced or rewritten. Where are the programmers who will soon be needed to maintain and extend those mission-critical parts of an enterprise?
The logical solution, which is to hire new programmers coming out of the nation's colleges and universities, is anything but a slam dunk. Many of today's college graduates in computer sciences misperceive RPG and the IBM i as "old technology" and imagine corporate IT work to be dreary tinkering with ERP apps when they could be designing video games instead.
Whether or not a majority of IBM i professionals and their employers clearly understand the scope of the problem is questionable.
"I don't see many current IBM i professionals taking conventional college programming classes," notes Jim Buck, an IBM i programming instructor at Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin. "In many cases, I feel that some professionals on this platform are just waiting to retire, and they don't want to learn anything new."
On the other hand, the problem is far from being as simple as baby boomers looking to coast to retirement. With a U.S. economy that is still struggling to emerge from recession, companies in their fourth or fifth year of belt-tightening are sometimes just trying to stay alive on reduced revenues. Often the first potential corporate outlays to take a hit are "optional" employee benefits such as training, with employers hoping their IT people will take up the slack on the cheap or on their own.
"Employers are cutting education budgets and telling their employees to watch a free webinar. A webinar is a great introduction to a subject but [it doesn't] take the place of a classroom setting, if for no other reason than you have a knowledgeable person to guide you through the learning process and a structured environment with deadlines," Buck observes.
Climbing out of the Hole
This is not to say the situation is hopeless. Some educational institutions have seen the opportunity an aging IBM i workforce represents and are responding. More colleges and universities are offering IBM i-related courses than ever before. These vary widely in subject matter, but there are some institutions of higher learning that provide i-related classes in nearly every state of the U.S. IBM's Academic Initiative program has compiled a list of these, sorted by geographic location. IT professionals can often find classroom training opportunities in their areas, and enterprises looking for new blood can use these schools as recruiting resources.
There are also signs that computer science students can overcome their misconceptions about IBM i technology and embrace it. "This year, I've completed 10 years of teaching IBM classes at Gateway," Buck reports. "Once students are introduced to the IBM i operating system and have an understanding of it, they are very excited about it. Some colleges still only teach SEU, PDM, and fixed-format RPG, [which] students do look at as old technology. Gateway teaches RPG IV/free-format, which students say is easy to work with." Gateway also offers courses in Rational tools, IBM i Access for Windows, and DB2, Java, and VB.net. In the fall, it will be offering mobile device programming and advanced classes in PHP, Java, and VB.net. Similar opportunities are available at select schools across the U.S.
Another aspect of the education picture is also embodied by Gateway, which offers IBM i training in a two-year program. "I'm seeing more companies making the strategic decision to hire younger IT professionals. Previously, companies were only interested in graduates from four-year institutions," Buck offers. He goes on to note that students from the Gateway program often have jobs before graduation, and the hiring companies often help the students finish their four-year degree. "This in itself is beneficial to the companies because they can offer guidance to the employee as to their field of study."
Buck wears another hat, that of President of the Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association. In that role, he advocates for companies looking for future i personnel to get involved with local colleges nationwide and encourage the colleges to start offering i-related courses. "I call it 'Adopt a College.' If companies would approach local colleges and explain the opportunities for their students, colleges will listen. This will also help the colleges understand what technologies are needed by industry. Many college instructors become isolated and start teaching what they perceive as cool and that will attract students. This can result in graduates with skills in technologies that aren't needed," Buck concludes.
Continuing Education Resources
For i professionals already on the job, there are a wealth of resources for extending their technical expertise. In addition to some colleges and universities offering i-related subjects as online courses, there are numerous user groups located around the U.S. that provide educational events of a less formal nature, along with opportunities to network with other IBM i professionals in their local area. IBM maintains a list of these user groups.
Finally, there is a broad middle ground between formal academia and local user groups; it's made up of commercial companies offering learning programs that can help professionals brush up, catch up, or get an edge on technologies and issues that affect the i. These enterprises are listed below. (Please note that these listings do not include training offered by many software vendors for their own specific products.)
Please consult the links provided to get a fuller picture of each company's educational offerings. And as always when looking for products or services, be sure to check the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide.
Educational Service Companies for IBM i Skills
Automated Training Systems (ATS)
ATS provides online video training courses in IBM i operations, programming, database, XML Web services, Webfacing, and WebSphere.
Avotus specializes in training for management of wireless mobile devices and networks in business settings. Topics include mobile-device provisioning, optimization, accounting and expenses, and use management.
CBT offers online video training in many IT-related areas. Courses specific to IBM i include Web programming with PHP and .NET.
CertFX offers training and tutorials for students planning to take certification tests in AIX, DB2, IBM, Lotus, WebSphere, WebSphere Portal, and other topics. Help includes sample tests and a "don't pass/don't pay" guarantee program.
Champion Solutions Group
Champion offers a variety of conferences and webinars on changing issues in IT.
COMMON, the user group for IBM i, presents an ongoing schedule of conferences, events, webinars, and virtual labs on IBM i-relevant topics.
The COMMON Education Foundation is a committee of COMMON that fosters expansion of midrange education in colleges and universities. It also fundraises to provide scholarships that enable IT professionals selected by a lottery to attend COMMON conferences and events if prospective students' enterprises can't afford to send them.
Cosaint specializes in training employees about information security awareness, although not limited to any particular computer platform.
DMC Technology Group
DMC offers training at its Toledo, Ohio, training site or onsite at your location by special arrangement. Course topics include operations, security, work management, and CL and RPG programming.
GEMKO Information Group
GEMKO's 21st Century IBM i Training subsidiary offers courses in topics such as RPG, ILE, SQL, PHP, Rational Developer, DB2 Web Query, and extending apps to the Web.
GFM offers online and onsite seminars in security and auditing issues affecting the IBM i.
IBM offers professional certification, onsite and online training, and a worldwide schedule of conferences and events that offer training in all of the company's products and in issues related to using its platforms in IT settings.
Intelligo provides end-user training in several major ERP applications for IBM i, including Lawson, JD Edwards/PeopleSoft, and SAP.
iProDeveloper offers online and in-person learning events and conferences in such topics as RPG, PHP, systems management, and Web services use.
Interskill Learning Pty. Ltd.
The main thrust of Datatrain's course offerings is for IBM mainframes, but the company offers training in WebSphere MQ and WebSphere Application Server.
Manta offers a wide range of IBM i-related training courses that are self-paced and run on any PC equipped with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Courses maybe purchased individually or on a library basis.
MC Press Online
MC Press Online provides books, e-books, textbooks, seminars, events, newsletters, e-learning, webcasts, and videos on virtually any IBM i-related topic, as well as topics such as career development and general IT issues.
The Rochester Initiative provides multiple online courses for IBM i programmers and end users. Popular topics include SQL for RPG programmers, MS Excel and the iSeries, .NET for RPG programmers, Turbo Query, system operations, and CL programming.