Budget Dollars Can Be Skin Deep

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You won't change user perceptions if the UI stinks.

My company is going through a wholesale ERP migration. At this point, we've gone live with accounts payable and general ledger of a new ERP system that runs side by side with the traditional RPG-based green-screen applications. It's a bit of a process of course, moving it piecemeal. Some things can go easily. Some take a bit more work. With that being said, it's amazing how many times I hear the word “iSeries” in the run of a week.

“We need to be thinking about migrating data from the iSeries to the new system.”

“We didn't have that feature in the iSeries, so going forward we'll take advantage of that in the new system.”

“What will we do with the iSeries data after we migrate?”

I've mentioned a number of times that the “iSeries” term isn't accurate. The traditional legacy applications run on the exact same hardware as the new system. It's importantespecially for us, the technology peoplethat during a migration we have a clear understanding of terminology, considering we'll be shaking the environment up considerably. Do the users get it? Some do. Some don't. For the ones who don't, it's not a battle worth fighting because the “iSeries” will be going away in a few short months.

Never again will I have to hear references to “the 400” or “iSeries” or output queues. I won't have to tell people in my organization that we don't have an AS/400 or an iSeries. I won't have to tell them that their green-screen applications run on the same system that their graphical applications run on. All the web-based applications; IBM Notes, Connections and Sametime; our corporate websiteall of these things run on the same machine as the green-screen applications. They don't call our website the iSeries. They don't call Sametime chat an iSeries. “Let me ping you on iSeries.” It doesn't happen. And it isn't happening for the new ERP system either. From the moment the users logged into their shiny new test environments to get acquainted, they never once referred to the new ERP as an iSeries or an AS/400.

Why is that?

It's perception.

I won't get into vendor specifics, but the new ERP system runs mostly on IBM i. Our vendor has put some components on Windows servers as well, but most of the heavy lifting is done by Power Systems processors. The users don't know what interfaces are Windows and what interfaces are IBM i. They don't know that the emailed PDF reports come from a Windows server that digs into output queues and extracts the report data.

The users just see a graphical interface. They see modern screens. They point and click. They drag and drop. They right-click and download. Just like every other application they have that doesn't have a blinking cursor and green text. Of course, the system does a whole bunch of things our old system doesn't do. There are more features than you can shake a stick at.

User perception is really that simple. The oldest users remember having to log into a Twinax terminal after clunking down the power lever to turn it on. They logged into an AS/400. They called it an AS/400. They then taught new people who logged into the AS/400 via IBM Client Access that it was the AS/400. The new people called it an AS/400. Then it took a few years to get people to call it an iSeries, which they started to do just around the time when the Power Systems technology was created and the iSeries and pSeries workloads were consolidated onto one platform. I spent so much energy trying to convince people that their terminology wasn't correct. It's important, I argued, that we stop using old language. I was right. It is important to stop using old, outdated language. I could take them into the server room and show them the Power Systems machines we've had since 2010. I could tell them that an AS/400 is old technology and it's hard for IT to be questioned by management about old technology when we aren't even using old technology! “Why are we using an AS/400, Steve? That's from the ‘80s!” In my years in IT, I've heard that more than once, and I know you've heard it too.

How many times have you had to justify some sort of upgrade on the “old system” that is not really old but just looks old? You know why you had to justify it? Because it looks old. Nobody wants to invest resources on something that looks old. They want to spend budget dollars on things that not only provide a solution to a problem, but look good as well. It's a hard sell when the applications look like they're from the ‘80s, especially when people in upper management may not understand how current our systems really are. We don't live in a vacuum either. Your boss and his boss and everyone else at an upper management level see what other people are doing. They see other systems. They wonder why we can't have systems like that. They're being pitched whether you know it or not, especially now with the advent of cloud computing. Twenty years ago, it was harder for people to be influenced by the outside technology world. Today, people in corporate positions of power are a quick phone call and a WebEx session away from telling IT that their systems aren't up to standard.

For decades, our users' main interface never changed aesthetically. The hardware changed. Migrations from System/36 to AS/400 and then CISC to RISC happened. Migrations occurred to iSeries, System i, and then finally Power Systems. The operating system was upgraded many times, and oodles of PTFs were applied. Free-form RPG was written to replace fixed-form. DB2 schemas and tables and indexes were built instead of libraries and physical files and logical files. But the user interface, and therefore the user experience, never changed in all that time. In this whole paragraph of summarized progress, the answer is the same for most if not every company: users don't care about that stuff. Users don't really care about security, stability, backup and recovery, uptime, or scalability. They want to do their job and go home at 5:00. If you want to make users happy, show them a new feature or offer a better technology experience to make their job a little easier.

It will take a lot of effort to change people's minds, if at all, if what they perceive is exactly the same as what it was. Until we start modernizing user interfaces, it will be an uphill battle to change the way people think about the technology you provide them. It doesn't matter how current your PTFs are, or whether you use fixed- or free-form RPG, or whether you just purchased a new shiny Power Systems machine if users log into a green-screen. They'll probably call it an iSeries; however, they may tell you it “runs a little faster now.” Until the user experience has been modernized, then they'll always think that the technology is second-rate.

When the last green-screen is logged off at my company, I'll never again have to wince when someone says that they're having trouble finding a spooled file on their iSeries. All it took was changing their experience. Was it easy? No.

But I'll never have to justify spending resources on an “old system” again, partly because of how it looks.