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This is IT. We must be willing to bend.

With a growing emphasis in talking about the state of the current IBM i workforce, also known as the “IBM i skills shortage,” it behooves oneself to keep the noise level to a minimum in order to make even-keeled decisions. In short, don’t necessarily believe all the hype you read.

I’d like to think of this as an extension piece to “The IBM i Skills Shortage Myth.” It’s not necessarily a “part two” per se, but more of a story that runs parallel. I’ve been trying to write this for about six weeks, but some things are just hard to put into words, especially when they involve how you feel as opposed to what you know. Besides, writing what you know is easy. Writing what you feel leaves room for reader interpretation, so you have to be more careful.

The setting of this story is the COMMON User Group Fall Conference in Columbus, Ohio, back in October. Full disclosure: I’m on the Board of Directors for COMMON and the COMMON Education Foundation as well as a number of other related committees. I’m not writing on behalf of COMMON but as an attendee of and a speaker at a recent Power Systems conference. That being said, I’ve been trying to put together some thoughts on the disconnect between what we read and talk about (the IBM i skills shortage) versus the youthful energy currently going through the IBM i user community.

I experienced this energy firsthand in Columbus. Actually, calling it “youthful energy” does it a disservice. Calling it a “vibe” doesn’t capture it either, but that word was certainly mentioned. A lot. I remember standing in the hallway and someone leaned in to me and said, “Do you feel that?” I really did. The place was electric from the opening session to the final airport ride.

The atmosphere in Columbus was probably the best I’ve experienced in a long time at any conference. The number of people in attendance under 30 years old was evident. There were a lot of students and some younger IBM i administrators but based on conversations I had, the bulk were younger developers. Here’s the kicker: Many of the non-students of any age I spoke with did not consider themselves RPG programmers. They considered themselves developers. Not PHP developers or JavaScript developers or Java developers. Developers. That’s it. The tool boxes are wide and deep. From my perspective, they were at the conference to add to their tool boxes, not to just sharpen one tool.

The students in attendance were very eager to learn about the IBM i world. What is this thing anyway? I spent a lot of my time doing that “sell IBM i to the CFO talk” but with students. We got to talk about the history of the operating system and what kind of coding they’ll be doing in the wild. We discussed the kinds of companies that run IBM i and Power Systems, from trucking to manufacturing to finance and so on. We talked about the business world and what to expect outside the classroom. We had conversations about the resiliency of the platform and how it’s low cost of ownership allows for people to wear many hats, so you’re usually not stuck in a rut doing the same monotonous thing every day. Also, I remember talking about how IBM i is a business platform that runs business applications...chances are you’ll be editing somebody’s maintenance program in RPG. It’s a fact of life for an IT person of any discipline: You will inherit many things. It’s your job to push the existing buttons to make things go. You don’t like a process? Invent a better one. For a creative person, developer or admin, IT is an ever-changing canvas if you look at it the right way.

It wasn’t all one-way preaching either. Look, I like to talk. Give me a microphone and you won’t get it back anytime soon. For three days, I had many great conversations that went both ways. I was genuinely interested in what their skills encompassed. What open-source languages were they interested in? What tools did they use for source control? What would they expect from their employer? I mean, in the end I need to ensure that our company’s technologies and attitudes are attractive to the soon-to-be-hired workforce. What do younger developers care about in a job or a career? I wanted to tap fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and yes, energy. I gave away a lot of business cards and took a lot of email addresses. By the end of the first day, I was wiped...but invigorated for the next day. By the end of the conference, I was excited to head back to work with a renewed purpose.

That’s the thing about a youthful atmosphere. It rubs off.

I spent the week before the conference going over my schedule and dreading a 5:00 p.m. session on security. I was talking ciphers and protocols, which can be pretty dry unless you’re a bit of a security gearhead. It’s a good session, but the time of day is a big factor when presenting something relatively complicated. If you’ve spoken at any conference at the last session of the day, then you know what I mean. Every speaker has probably walked into a room at 5:00 p.m. to four attendees. It happens. The people who are there (including the speaker) are a little tired and are wanting to head to dinner. The coffee isn’t that hot, and the crowd is usually not as receptive as they’d be at 10:00 a.m. However, in this session, the attendees were committed. They were asking questions and having fun. At 6:15, I was walking down the hallway with a small group still conversing about the content. You know it’s a great conference atmosphere when your 5:00 p.m. security session is a packed room with an engaged audience. If that overall vibe hadn’t been there, I don’t think my session would’ve gone as well as it did.

That’s the real value of having young people working with you. They bring a curiosity and a natural exuberance to just about any project, especially if they’re aware of the big picture. The key for any decent manager is to harness that as best you can and focus it into project work. Sharing the big picture is a part of it. If any employee understands their role in the big picture, they feel ownership in their part.

And we need to be open. That’s why I think that IBM’s embracing of open-source solutions will be the next big jumping point to talent acquisition for IBM i shops. We are not going to throw away all that legacy business logic. That’s a real value proposition for the IBM i world. What we can do is open the doors a little and change our strategies to include these languages and tools in order to get people in the door with matching skill sets. Then it’s just a matter of applying their logical thinking using modern RPG for when they have to edit a 30-year-old program. The older the RPG, the greater the learning curve, but learning is a part of the job, especially with younger employees. Having some experience coding even fixed-form RPG is a bit of a secret handshake. It will allow you to walk into an IBM i shop and be able to use it as a selling point 10 years down the road. The same goes for COBOL or any other heavily embedded language that will need to be maintained just because it’s what runs businesses. It’s a niche that you can build a career around.

In order to get past this perceived skill shortage, we must bend to the skills of the market. We must be tapping into user groups, local or national. We must be sending our talent, no matter the age but especially our young sponges, to educational offerings of all colors.

Steve Pitcher
Steve Pitcher works with iTech Solutions, an IBM Premier Business Partner. He is a specialist in IBM i and IBM Power Systems solutions since 2001. Feel free to contact him directly atspitcher@itechsol.com.
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