Out of the Blue: Midrange Perspectives

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A friend who is an accomplished DP professional and who was having difficulty finding employment remarked to me recently that he longed for the time when you could easily get a job in data processing. His frustration, however personal, may in fact reflect a minimalist trend that finds DP professionals competing in a shrinking job market that requires changing skills.

Not long ago, every self-respecting mid-sized business had a raised-floor computer room, chilled like a vodka gimlet, full of blinking, spinning, clattering equipment. It was a time when you worked-not in monkish isolation- but in a department buzzing with people who performed an endless array of essential tasks. Computer operators (two shifts minimum; a day shift to support interactive users, evenings to run batch processing and backups), applications programmers, systems analysts, schedulers, help desk personnel, hardware installation specialists, communications specialists, database managers, security managers.

When you mastered one skill, you were promoted to another. You had a career path and job security; it took a whole hive to keep that metallic queen bee fed. Now, many AS/400 installations survive with a part-time consultant and an accounting clerk who doubles as a computer operator.

"It's our own fault," my friend explained. "It's all that griping we did over the years." If only we could automate job scheduling. How about an integrated database facility? We need more applications. Let's have some built-in security features. Make it user friendly. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

Trouble was, IBM listened. It discovered, and new technology supported, such customer-pleasers as integration and ease of use. Like the Catholic Church switching from Latin to English, the rituals of data processing became demystified. Entry-level personnel with modest technical skills assumed system management positions in some shops. Starting at the top became possible because, suddenly, no one was selling products; they were offering solutions. Products, in retrospect, at least had the nostalgic virtue of requiring DP personnel to support them. Solutions, decision-makers were told, require only a purchasing decision.

Why pay an applications development staff when you can buy canned software? Why employ maintenance programmers when a business partner will customize your software for you? Why have an operations staff when the users can run jobs and print their own reports? Backup? Why, you don't even have to change tapes anymore. Technical support? Call an 800 number.

As my unemployed friend discovered, automation, software and third-party vendors now perform functions that were previously performed by in-house staff. Paradoxically, however, for those who remain employed, such progress invariably solves some problems but creates others. All of the functions mentioned above (even if not performed directly) must still be managed, and those with their hands on the system console know that automation, business partners and excellent software can only take you so far. The rest of the distance must be bridged by evolving new skills.

Claiming and keeping a job in today's dynamic midrange environment requires a superior blending of technical and managerial skills. And, like the cross- training of an athelete, acquiring a little accounting knowledge can round out your marketability.

Technical Skills

Communications tops the list of required skills because, in spite of the push toward open systems (or arguably because of it), connectivity is still a mystery. Communications is to data processing what okra is to food: few have mastered a taste for it. But those who want to stay employed may have to choke some down. Increasingly, the information crucial to expanding markets in a global economy is not localized on a single machine, but exists in hundreds of potential locations in a national-and in some cases international-information grid. Those companies able to access it will have a competitive advantage into the next century.

MC acknowledged the growing dominance of communications by introducing a new connectivity section in the July issue. Sharon Hoffman, MC's editor, provided some compelling reasons. "A large majority of MC's readers use PC Support to link PCs to their AS/400s. (I suspect a lower percentage actually like PC Support.) Perhaps a third of MC's readers have at least one local area network, and almost everyone runs multivendor hardware. Many support remote sites."

Hoffman cites a number of connectivity issues that today's midrange professionals are likely to contend with, including device configurations, wiring options and performance tuning. Add to that the alphabet soup of communications protocols, and new industry trends such as client/server and cooperative processing, if your communications stew needs additional spice.

Communications provides a solid employment opportunity because connectivity support, particularly in multivendor, multiplatform environments, can be scarce. Communications are not usually the purview of business partners whose focus is typically software. Nor is IBM's shrinking SE force likely to provide as much assistance as has been available in the past. And, unlike questions relating to operating system usage, connectivity issues are of a complexity that does not lend itself to telephone support.

Accounting

Whatever your business, if it is not presently being run by a bean counter, it soon will be. Yet, virtually nonexistent among midrange professionals is a fundamental understanding of accounting. Nonetheless, performing accounting functions is precisely how most AS/400s are used in business environments, thus making accounting departments the midrange professionals' primary customers.

Any community college offers basic accounting classes which should be a part of a DP professional's continuing education. While we would not consider allowing an unskilled mechanic to maintain our automobiles, DP professionals are frequently asked to evaluate, install and maintain complex accounting packages which they do not really understand.

Management Skills

The focus is shifting from managing other DP professionals to managing the activities of vendors and becoming the interface between service providers and the business. (One more reason to know the language of accounting.)

A healthy dose of self-promotion doesn't hurt either because the system itself-and by extension the jobs that support it-is becoming less visible. With system reliability levels high, companies are able to focus not on systems but on outputs. The very technological efficacy that allows a system to be put in the corner and ignored often permits top management to do just that. As exotic computers transmogrify into innocuous office appliances, it becomes vital for DP professionals to keep company management closely apprised of the critical work they do which supports the business.

Finally, as more IS activities are farmed out, project management skills take on importance. The ability to bring vendors, end users and DP professionals together and to successfully manage installation or migration events becomes a crucial part of the job.

Well, my friend eventually got a job with a hospital, though not in this area. During his first week, he determined that hospital employees had discovered the AS/400's fax capabilities, were eschewing E-mail and were happily faxing all over creation. Overnight disk space shrank and phone bills soared. "My first challenge," he said, "is teaching these health-care professionals how to practice safe fax."

Victor Rozek has 17 years of experience in the data processing industry, including seven years with IBM in Operations Management and Systems Engineering.

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