Despite difficult times from the world economy, the spirit of IBM i endures.
The financial crisis ravaging state and local education budgets in the U.S. could have far-reaching effects on the next generation of information technology workers as students search high and low for instructors who haven't been left in the dark ages due to a lack of staff development funds.
"The schools and educators have to keep up on the technology, and that can be challenging," says Linda Grigoleit, worldwide manager of IBM's Academic Initiative (AI). "They don't have any money for staff development--or at least it's very limited." The start of the decline even preceded the current recession. One of the worst examples of a state starving its educators of training when they desperately need to stay current on new technology skills is California. "California has been decimated," says Grigoleit. "We constantly have customers asking for help with skills in California."
IBM has responded to the requests of its customers for more skilled workers trained in today's technologies by knocking on the doors of dozens of educational institutions on the West Coast in an effort to persuade them to offer classes in IBM-supported platforms. It has been an uphill battle but not without its hard-earned successes.
"It's a long process to get started from scratch," says Grigoleit. "It can take years." Knowing how difficult it is to begin to fill the pipeline with students knowledgeable about IBM systems, Grigoleit says it can be disheartening to witness a school drop such a program that was once supported. A retiring professor skilled at teaching Power Systems operations can wipe out years of work when he leaves. Such a situation happened in Long Beach, California, where this writer took AS/400 operations classes that are no longer being offered. Cerritos College and DeVry University, however, both in Southern California, continue to support the platform.
"We usually go to the schools with clients because the schools need to know that there are jobs waiting when the students graduate," says Grigoleit. Getting things rolling in an educational environment can take extraordinary patience. "The education environment is different from the corporate environment," says Grigoleit. Things don't just happen at the snap of someone's fingers. Educators work at a different pace. Working with the community and technical colleges, however, can often be easier than getting a class establised at some of the four-year universities. There is tradition, but there is also competition—competition from other technology companies like Sun and HP, which want schools to teach classes in their brand of operating system, such as HP-UX or Sun Solaris.
Then there is the shrewd school administrator looking to save as much of his meager budget as possible and wanting corporate America to provide unlimited free support. It's a noble thought, but unfortunately there are too many schools and too many students for even the financially successful IBM to pick up the education tab for everyone. The company does provide incentives, however, and gives millions of dollars to educational institutions every year, providing hardware, courseware, and certification testing free or at discounted rates. The company recently donated a POWER7 supercomputer to Houston's Rice University for biomedical and life sciences research. The Linux-based system, dubbed BlueBioU, was valued at more than $7 million.
Last February, IBM launched the Academic Skills Cloud to speed delivery of technology to colleges. It provides key IBM software for teaching purposes through an automated, virtual, and flexible self-service cloud environment. The pilot program involves 20 colleges and universities in the U.S., and plans call for it being offered globally to Academic Initiative members, who will see expanded software offerings beyond the half-dozen currently available to participants. The cloud delivery platform—in which teachers never have to download or install software—is one of the benefits of cloud technology and a way to offset shrinking educational budgets and rising costs. IBM expects faculty members to take advantage of cloud IT courses by integrating them more quickly into their curricula. This plan should also positively affect group and long-distance learning programs.
Prior to the introduction of the Academic Skills Cloud, the Academic Initiative was already offering courses that instructors could download for free as well as computer time online for students to work in a lab environment. The courses were developed both by the IBM Education Team and occasionally by instructors. A series of AIX courses has been developed by an enterprising professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and are being delivered online. Once tested and polished, the courses will be shared with other AI member schools.
The IBM Academic Initiative is an ambitious program by any standard. It operates in more than 44 countries and has a global network of partners that includes some 9,000 faculty members at more than 4,500 worldwide universities. It has support facilitators in different parts of the world who work with colleges and universities on integrating IBM courseware into their curricula. Included in the Academic Initiative are IBM Software Group products, and operating systems supporting Power Systems including AIX, IBM i, and Linux environments. The focus initially was on just BM i. There is no Academic Initiative program for System x or IBM Storage, although Storage is in the process of starting a program, says Grigoleit.
Not only has the Power Systems Academic Initiative expanded the operating systems that it supports, but it is reaching out and working with many different groups and organizations—from the IBM university relations teams, to COMMON, IBM Business Partners, and to IBM customers looking for skilled employees. One of its most promising protégés is the Young i Professionals, or YiPs. Started at COMMON about five years ago as a social organization, YiPs has matured into a nascent worldwide organization of technology professionals with a mission to inspire young computer professionals to use the IBM i platform. The group uses the Academic Initiative Power Systems server to host its ever-evolving Web site, www.youngiprofessionals.com, and the new YiPs Virtual Learning Center.
Brian May, a programmer for Garan Manufacturing Corp. in Starkville, Mississippi, has been diligently building the YiPs Web site one page at a time. One of the goals of the group, he says, was to have a place where anyone could go to learn more about IBM i and Power Systems. "At our meetings, we discussed the fact that for some things, it's hard to find free education," May says. "On other platforms like Windows or Linux, you can get free training. There is no place like that for IBM i. So we decided to just make one."
Justin Porter is another spokesperson for YiPs who can be found promoting the organization and the i platform among young and old alike. A graduate student at California's Santa Clara University, Porter is enrolled in the school's MBA program. When he's not studying, he is working as the technical director at Westside Produce in Firebaugh, California. Porter is becoming known among the IBM i crowd because he is a permanent guest on the COMMON board of directors, sits on the COMMON Americas Advisory Council (CAAC), and is on the steering committee for the COMMON certification exam.
For the past year, Porter has been working to promote the organization, get resources for the Virtual Learning Center, and coordinate with other COMMON and YiPs organizations at home and abroad. He was instrumental in working with Marinus Van Sandwyk to help COMMON Africa get off the ground. Porter also assisted greatly in reaching out to young people who created a YiPs group in South Africa as part of COMMON, and the group now has its own Web site, www.yips.org.za.
One of the featured speakers at the launch of COMMON Africa last November was Richard Ogbechie, chairperson of the YiPs organization and a board member of COMMON Africa. Ogbechie was a student at Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and completed the RPG Developer course sponsored by the IBM Academic Initiative. He is now an intern working on a project with Tembo Technology Lab and Hyphen. Ogbechie was one of the early students in the AI program for RPG programming at VUT. He professes a passion for RPG and the IBM i platform and is actively searching for job opportunities at South African companies for students and graduates of the RPG class. This spring, IBM i publishers, including MC Press and System i Network, as well as industry book authors, assisted COMMON Africa with securing textbooks below cost for students who sometimes had to decide whether to eat or study. Tembo, headed by Van Sandwyk, covered the cost of the books, to be used by VUT students.
Thanks to the efforts and generosity of IBM's Power Systems team, looksoftware, and COMMON board member Trevor Perry, among others, Ogbechie will be flying to Orlando this week to attend COMMON.
Somehow, thanks to organizations like COMMON, YiPs, and the IBM Academic Initiative, the world is getting smaller—and friendlier. Despite a harsh economic climate, the spirit that permeates the IBM i community persists beyond time and across great distance.