AS/400 Career Strategies

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Planning a career move requires an understanding of the job market, of your own strengths and of factors which can improve your chances for success. This brief overview should get you started on your journey toward a management position.

For many years, the IBM midrange world was a quiet backwater where fishing for a promotion was easy. All you had to do was know your system well and clock in every day. Then, like a patient angler, you waited. You knew your growing experience would eventually reel in a better job with bigger pay.

When the AS/400 came on the scene, catching a promotion became even easier. The new system created a demand for thousands of midrange professionals, and workers with S/3X experience could pick the job they wanted. As Rex Ford, president of Rex Ford Personnel Agency in San Diego, California, says, "Back then, you could get a job if you could only spell AS/400."

Those days are over, according to Ford and other AS/400 recruiters. While demand for AS/400 talent is still high, companies are much more particular about the kind of bait they will take. However, many midrange professionals have not yet realized that times have changed. As a result, AS/400 professionals have some work to do if they want to keep advancing in the increasingly rough waters of the job market.

There are several reasons why the midrange career environment is rapidly changing. First, the AS/400 is going into much larger corporations than in the past. These companies have a very different IS culture than the one in which most midrange professionals grew up. Second, the AS/400 platform is changing quickly to meet the demands of an open, distributed computing model. Finally, the demand for AS/400 professionals no longer exceeds the supply of qualified candidates. Taken together, these three factors make career advancement more challenging than in the past. However, if you are willing to update your skills and keep pace with the job market, you can advance more rapidly than ever before.

New Jobs in Bigger Ponds

First, let's look at the environments the AS/400 is entering today. While IBM's premier midrange system is still a hot item with small businesses, its growing power has also made it the platform of choice for many larger organizations. Often, they are downsizing from mainframes and looking for highly experienced midrange professionals. This makes large shops the primary source of better jobs for the AS/400 community.

However, it takes a lot more than RPG and CL expertise to get your resume noticed in the corporate world. Large companies have a variety of host systems, thousands of PCs, scores of LANs and a strong interest in distributed client/server computing. Their programmers work in large teams on highly organized projects.

This is a much different IS culture than the one in which many AS/400 programmers gained their experience. 1 ranks the most important skills and attributes for technical midrange professionals. It is based on a nationwide survey conducted by Midrange Computing. To make it in the corporate environment, you need to develop as many of these skills as possible. The more you know about communications, PC applications, LANs, UNIX and various database management systems, the better. In addition, you should learn about the industry your company is part of, and be able to communicate with end users about their needs. It also helps to have experience working as a team player in a multiple-developer environment.

This is a much different IS culture than the one in which many AS/400 programmers gained their experience. Figure 1 ranks the most important skills and attributes for technical midrange professionals. It is based on a nationwide survey conducted by Midrange Computing. To make it in the corporate environment, you need to develop as many of these skills as possible. The more you know about communications, PC applications, LANs, UNIX and various database management systems, the better. In addition, you should learn about the industry your company is part of, and be able to communicate with end users about their needs. It also helps to have experience working as a team player in a multiple-developer environment.

Unfortunately, many AS/400 programmers have never developed the skills to compete in large data centers. "A lot of people let themselves become big fish in small ponds-that is, in shops that are not growing," says Steve McMahon of Source EDP in Boston, Massachusetts. "As a result, they become complacent and never push themselves."

The situation is just as demanding for AS/400 managers. Those who seek better jobs at bigger companies need skills in systems integration, networking and the management of projects involving scores or even hundreds of programmers. They also need strong business backgrounds and an ability to communicate with corporate managers in their own language. 2 shows the top seven attributes required of AS/400 managers, as reported by personnel recruiters in a Midrange Computing survey. The attributes are ranked in order of importance.

The situation is just as demanding for AS/400 managers. Those who seek better jobs at bigger companies need skills in systems integration, networking and the management of projects involving scores or even hundreds of programmers. They also need strong business backgrounds and an ability to communicate with corporate managers in their own language. Figure 2 shows the top seven attributes required of AS/400 managers, as reported by personnel recruiters in a Midrange Computing survey. The attributes are ranked in order of importance.

Because the AS/400 is now entering bigger companies, midrange programmers and managers must grow along with the system they have staked their careers upon. To advance your career, you should seek an environment that constantly challenges you to acquire new skills. If your environment is not challenging you, it may be time to move to a bigger pond.

The New Computing Model

The AS/400 is not only moving into larger corporations. It is also migrating to a new computing model that is rapidly replacing the proprietary, host-based architecture of years past. Midrange professionals who fail to keep pace with this change will lose any chance of advancing their careers.

The new computing model entirely changes the way that users build applications, manage systems and access information. In the future, developers will build systems with reusable modules of object-oriented code. Operators will manage networks of open, heterogeneous systems that act as both clients and servers to each other. Applications will transparently access data that is generated by hundreds of systems and distributed across the network on a variety of databases.

IBM fully intends to make the AS/400 a part of this new computing model. In its February 16 announcement, it announced an Integrated Language Environment (ILE) that takes AS/400 programming one step closer to object-oriented computing. It also strengthened its client/server development tools as well as its support for POSIX standards. These and other developments (covered in detail in "Software Announcements: Client/Server Strategies," MC, March 1993) will entirely change the role of the AS/400 over the next two to three years.

Many firms with AS/400s have anticipated this change and are evolving along with it. A recent study by Computer Intelligence of La Jolla, California reveals what they are doing. For the first time, the majority of AS/400 establishments that are planning new applications will run those applications over LANs rather than the AS/400 itself (see 3). In other words, the move to distributed client/server computing at AS/400 sites has begun.

Many firms with AS/400s have anticipated this change and are evolving along with it. A recent study by Computer Intelligence of La Jolla, California reveals what they are doing. For the first time, the majority of AS/400 establishments that are planning new applications will run those applications over LANs rather than the AS/400 itself (see Figure 3). In other words, the move to distributed client/server computing at AS/400 sites has begun.

While these changes are becoming increasingly obvious, a lot of AS/400 professionals still act as if they live in a steady-state world. As Ford says, "The biggest mistake I see people making is not staying abreast of technological change. It is as if they are wearing blinders, when instead they should be using their foresight to anticipate what's going to happen." As Ford sees it, the AS/400 community is in a period where it is pushing the technological envelope. Those who participate by pushing themselves to grow will reap all the career benefits. Those who are complacent will find themselves stuck in dead-end positions.

Job Competition Heats Up

The AS/400 job market has witnessed a fundamental shift over the last couple of years. Until recently, requests for qualified midrange personnel outnumbered the candidates who could fill the positions. While some regions and industries still experience employee shortages, supply and demand are now in relative balance with each other. As a result, there is much more competition for the better jobs than ever before.

Both supply and demand changes are responsible for this more competitive environment. Demand for fresh talent started declining a few years ago when the rate of AS/400 migration began to slow down. At the same time, many new candidates entered the midrange job market. This included former mainframe professionals who had lost their jobs to downsizing and outsourcing, as well as recent college graduates.

As a result of these changes, employers now have more opportunities to pick from a number of candidates. This means there is a good chance you are competing with other people when you ask for a promotion or interview at another company. How well you compare is vital to your career advancement plans.

The Characteristics of a Winner

All of these changes have turned the AS/400 job market into a place where being good is no longer good enough. If you want to advance your career, you need to plan for it and do the things that advancing professionals do in other fields.

First, anticipate the changes occurring in your industry. How are other AS/400 establishments in your line of business using their information systems? What systems are they building? How will your company respond? By thinking ahead, you can be ready with the skills employers need to stay competitive.

Second, always look for opportunities to gain new skills. If your company decides to automate warehouse operations, volunteer to learn about barcoding systems. If your programming manager wants to experiment with CASE tools, ask if you can be part of the pilot project. As McMahon comments, "The advancing AS/400 professional is someone with four years' experience, not two years' experience twice."

Sometimes, your organization may be unable to provide you with the particular work experience you need. In such cases, consider gaining the skill through formal training. In other cases, your company may refuse to invest in its IS employees. If so, staying put could endanger your career. Consider moving to a company that offers you new challenges before you become stagnant.

Third, approach every project with a creative attitude. Ask yourself how you can push your information systems to do a job better, or faster, or with fewer steps. Instead of automating the old way of doing things, suggest new systems that could cut unnecessary overhead. As Ford says, "In every department, there are those who say 'just get it done' and those who say 'what if we try something new?' Nowadays, AS/400 managers are looking for more people who think 'what if?'"

The Importance of Career Planning

Finally, take the time to develop a career advancement plan. To get where you want to go, you need a map. A well-designed career plan is the best map you can have.

To create your career map, start by assessing yourself. Consider what level of authority and responsibility you want to achieve in the AS/400 community. In addition, ask yourself if you will get genuine satisfaction from the work you want to do. Some midrange professionals rise to higher management levels only to discover they prefer a more technical job. It is better to avoid such mistakes by understanding yourself and knowing your preferences.

Second, take an honest inventory of your present skills and experiences. At the same time, find out which skills and experiences you will need to meet your career objectives. Then, make a list of the resources you can use to enhance your skills. Your first resource is the company you work for, but you will also need help from outside resources such as workshops and technical books. In addition, look for a mentor that will take an interest in your development and be your advocate in management meetings. Finally, put together a detailed plan of action. Write down your career objectives as well as the intermediate steps you are likely to take while getting there. Then, write down each skill you need to develop, how you will develop it and when you will acquire it. Review your plan regularly to see if you are meeting your objectives or need to take corrective action.

In conclusion, the midrange world has changed a lot over the last couple of years. Those who think they can still land a promotion by just dropping their line in the pond are in for an unpleasant surprise. However, you can still catch the job of your dreams if you're willing to offer those big ones the kind of skills they like.

Lee Kroon is an industry analyst at Midrange Computing.


AS/400 Career Strategies

Figure 1 Top Attributes Needed by AS/400 Programmers

 1. Strong RPG skills. 2. The ability to communicate well with end users. 3. Previous experience in the same industry. 4. AS/400 PC Support experience. 5. Experience with communications software. 6. A Computer Science degree. 7. Experience in using CASE. 8. College-level business courses. 9. Experience supporting PC applications. 10. Strong DOS/Windows skills. 
AS/400 Career Strategies

Figure 2 Top Attributes Needed by AS/400 Managers

 1. Previous experience managing AS/400 systems. 2. Previous experience managing development projects and programmers. 3. A background in the specific industry of the company seeking a manager. 4. Previous corporate management experience. 5. Previous experience developing company-wide standards for the use of information technology. 6. A bachelor's or master's degree in Business Administration. 7. Previous experience integrating diverse systems. 
AS/400 Career Strategies

Figure 3 Planned New Application Activity by Hardware Platf

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