What I Learned at the Spring COMMON Conference 2017

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The best education doesn’t always happen in the session room.

I’m finally sitting down to catch my breath after a very long week at the COMMON Annual Meeting and Exposition in Orlando, Florida. I’m sitting in seat 24C on a flight from Orlando to Newark. I’m not kidding that this is my first opportunity to really relax. The conference was much busier for me than usual for a number of reasons. 

The first reason is that I’m not on the customer side of the spectrum anymore. I started working for iTech Solutions a couple months ago, so my conference schedule included additional time slotted in the exposition. And yes, my perspective shifted a little when I moved into the IBM Business Partner world.

The second reason is that it was my first COMMON Spring Conference as an active member of the Board of Directors. We showed up a few days in advance of the conference for two days of meetings and to help prepare. Again, more of a perspective shift. I was seeing the conference in a different light. I won’t speak on behalf of the Board, but I tended to analyze everything—from the time the coffee is served out in the hallways to not quite being able to see the monitors from the stage at the Meeting of the Members. I was thinking, “How can we do this better next time?” COMMON offerings are always evolving. That’s what makes it so special. We won’t wait until San Antonio in 2018 either. Lessons learned are applied to our webinars, the Virtual Conference, the upcoming fall conference in St. Louis, and everything else we do throughout the year.

With those reasons stated, I’m going to sum up the spring conference with my new perspectives.

But first, I want to give a shout out to the COMMON staff. They’re the ones who make everything happen behind the scenes. They keep everything going while we’re at lunch in the expo or networking in the hallways or doing sessions. They run to the rescue when you need more chairs in your session (thanks, Ian Cartwright!).

One thing that we consciously tried to do this year was to not refer to the spring or fall conferences as going to “COMMON.” I didn’t come home from “COMMON.” I came from the COMMON Spring Conference (or just the COMMON Conference). It’s important that this is reinforced in the minds of our members, even subconsciously. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, it points out that there is both a spring and a fall conference. That may be obvious to many regular attendees but certainly not the first-timers. Second, it separates COMMON as an organization from the educational offerings, services, and events it provides all year round.  

Speaking of first-timers, I have to point out that I felt it was very important to reach as many people on a personal level as possible at the Spring Conference. I think I probably shook about 400 hands in the past week. I did that intentionally. If I saw a conference badge, I shook the hand of the person wearing it. I asked if they were enjoying the conference, inquired for feedback, and made sure that they knew they were part of something special. We have a unique community in that I’m sure 99 percent of people would help you if you needed something. Other communities tend to say that a lot, but I think that we truly walk the walk. I spoke to so many first-time attendees, many more than I thought there would be. I’d say maybe one out of five did not have a First-Time Attendee ribbon, so that’s something we have to work on in terms of identification. I talked to many first-timers who’ve spent 20 years on the IBM i platform, and this was their first COMMON Conference. When I ask why, they usually said that the budgets were opening up for education again and this was their first choice for IBM i education and networking. That’s really good to hear. I met one lady who spent 35 years on IBM midrange platforms, and this was her first conference. I met many people from Europe who also attend COMMON Europe conferences but wanted to come to America just for the networking opportunities.

The Young i Professionals (YiPs) session was also a real eye-opener. This was my second or third year leading the YiPs session, but this group in particular was super engaged. It only took about 20 minutes until they started to really open up and discuss everything from IBM i to business in general, the annual conference, careers, and more. Luckily, it was the last session of the day because we had to extend the session by 30 minutes. Everyone in that room left as a group of new friends bound by our favorite technology. Many thanks to Steve Will, Richie Palma, and Justin Porter for jumping in and offering their time to talk. We got a lot of great feedback about what young people expect from COMMON as an organization and from the COMMON conferences.

As far as technology goes, the big IBM announcement of the conference happened at the Open-Source Roundtable discussion. IBM i will be getting a package manager. The details are hazy at this point, which is why it was brought up at the roundtable, where people could ask questions and provide feedback. Being from the IBM i QSYS world, I didn’t realize the challenges that the open-source community would have with PTFs. While the Open Source Solutions licensed programs and PTFs were a great way to get the traditional IBM i administrator to load open-source options for developers, they aren’t a great long-term solution simply due to the dependencies of open-source packages. Enter the need for a package manager. My concern, and I think it was shared by a few other relatively conservative admins, would be that the care and feeding of those applications could now push them into the PASE world more and more, where developers would generally feel more comfortable. That means either the admins learn PASE and open-source ideals or the developers will be in charge of application updates and patches. A more traditional administrator may not be as comfortable as I am with PASE, so I can empathize. However, I believe that in order to make IBM i more acceptable to the open-source world, we must be willing to explore and understand PASE. This is an education opportunity.

The OSS roundtable got off the rails a few times and digressed into a full-fledged, multi-pronged argument about RDi—specifically, the cost. My argument is that it’s less than a thousand dollars. If your shop paid for IBM i and Power Systems, then buy your developers some damn licenses. I get the other side of the argument. Developers want a free IDE to work with, especially if they’re a very small shop or an independent contractor coding out of their basement. This got a few of us thinking. I spotted Brian May in the hall, and we chewed on the feasibility of Orion as a potential solution for a little while. This, by the way, is the best part of a COMMON Conference. My mind literally went, “I need to talk to a good developer and see what he thinks about RDi. Oh, look. There’s Brian May. I’ll go talk to him.” No big conclusions were made during this hallway banter, but we were thinking that if Orion had some decent support behind it (along with expanded compiler support for IFS objects and a little more ease-of-use polish), then it might be a good solution for developers as an IDE. We figured we’d ask around a little. Who knows? Maybe someone will read this and think it’s a doable idea and enter an RFE on it. Truth be told, I have no real dog in the fight, and I’m not a full-time developer, but I can sympathize with those who are struggling. And when I do want to write an occasional program, I don’t want to download 6 GB of RDi. I don’t write enough code to invest my time in RDi, but I’d like a quick solution that’s not function-limited and old-school like SEU. I know there’s a solution somewhere. Our community has the brightest minds to help find it.

The COMMON Fall Conference is in St. Louis. I hope to see you there.