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Taking the Initiative on Education

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An article published by MC Press in July described the IBM Academic Initiative for System i. Now, this article looks at the initiative from the perspective of the students and educators who have participated and are participating in it.  

As a very brief recap, the initiative provides education institutions with resources that help them to deliver System i–related courses. System i hubs holding courseware and a wide variety of IBM and Business Partner software are scattered around the world, accessible to participating schools. And colleges and universities that want their own System i servers can take advantage of favorable purchase and lease rates. The program also provides opportunities for educators to network and to upgrade their base of knowledge.

Yes, but Why?

Why are many institutions becoming committed to the Academic Initiative? A part of the answer is that businesses demand the skills that the initiative seeks to develop.

"It's getting to the point where I have more jobs than I have students," noted Jim Buck, an IT instructor at Gateway Technical College, an academic institution with multiple campuses in southeastern Wisconsin. "I was talking to a guy yesterday who said he was looking for a programmer, even an intern, and I had to tell him, 'Well, I'm not going to have any for you until spring.' And that wasn't the case a few years ago. A few years ago, the kids couldn't get jobs. I think IBM is really helping the colleges out—and they didn't pay me to say that. This is a very exciting time to be teaching System i."

Buck added, "I get emails from IBM all the time. An employer out in Montana is looking for interns. I could have sent five interns to Montana for the summer, so it's a national problem. It's not just that I have three jobs in Kenosha that I have to fill; it's all the way across the board."

Revitalizing IT Education

Another reason colleges and universities are jumping on board is that the initiative gives them the tools they need to revitalize their curricula.

Consider Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Enrollment in its Information Systems and Telecommunications program had been declining over the past few years. The faculty faced the choice of either hoping that the business cycle would eventually improve, carrying enrollments up with it, or becoming proactive and refashioning the program into one that would attract more students. They chose the latter.

The program was renamed to Business Information Technology (BIT) because it was felt that the integration of business and technology could be a key differentiator for the university. "One of our major objectives is to provide a skill set that is impervious to outsourcing/offshoring," noted Brian Kelly, assistant professor of business information technology. "Our BBA in BIT and our Masters Program as well are geared to help create knowledgeable business people who use their IT skills for the good of the business."

The Academic Initiative provided important assistance in delivering courses in the new curriculum. "The partnership that we've had with the Academic Initiative has been a godsend," said Uldarico Rex Dumdum, an associate professor in the Business and Managerial Science department at Marywood. "I have some other university folks in there that I can talk to. I have some colleagues that I can work with. And I can bounce ideas around as to how we can really revitalize our programs in a way that would be enticing to help bring back our enrollments in IT."

The redesigned program is still too young to report on its success in boosting enrollment, but the university is definitely doing something right. A team of students from Marywood won the first-ever IBM System i Innovation Challenge.

In addition, Marywood's administration has taken notice of what's going on in the department. In a press release, Dr. Devora Namm, dean of Marywood's College of Creative Arts and Management commented, "Our use of the best computer system in the business, an accomplished information technology faculty, and our collaboration with IBM will result in another innovative program for educating our students as future leaders of organizations in the competitive global environment."

Marywood is not the only institution that has drawn on the resources of the Academic Initiative to make its courses more relevant for students and employers.

"For a long time, my College of Business was not teaching true database design," explained Frank Lazzara, director of technology and instructor of information systems management and business administration at D. Abbott Turner College of Business, a part of Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia. "They were just sort of waving at it and saying that they were. Our stakeholders came back and said, 'We can't hire your students because they don't have any real database skills.' I was able to convince our college to use the DB2 that's on the IBM iSeries and really teach SQL and teach these people how to design a robust business-to-business database.

"We have since decided to move our whole IS curriculum to be supported on the iSeries. We've now done a LANSA class on the iSeries. We're teaching our first RPG class this fall. And we've done numerous introduction and development projects and classes on it. Now we're going to be able to expand that not in just some technical areas, but also in analysis, design, project management, and networking classes.

"So now we have the answer for our stakeholders' question, 'What can your students really do for us?' Our students now have the hard skills and management skills they need to understand not everything on the platform, but enough for them to get out there and utilize the iSeries that are in the marketplace."
The Academic Initiative is also helping Cincinnati State Technical and Community College (CSTCC) in Cincinnati, Ohio, to keep its curriculum up-to-date. "Because of the way the initiative works—with their Web sites, Webinars, white papers, and stuff—we're able to make sure that our curriculum is as current as we feel it can be," said Clark Stull, program chair, advisor, and professor for the System i programming degree at CSTCC. "What we also have from networking with the other institutions is that we know what courses are good to run."

Global Collaboration

The opportunity for networking with other educators was a common theme mentioned by the faculty interviewed for this article. An annual roundtable is now held in Rochester, Minnesota, near the IBM facility. If the participating educators want to focus on a particular topic, IBM makes its experts available to the group.

Talking about the education and networking opportunities available through the initiative, Herb Kronhol, an IT instructor at Mid-State Technical College, a multi-campus institution in Wisconsin, said, "It rejuvenates me. I get some good training. I get to meet other instructors around the United States and network with them. I get to network with IBM. To me, that is such benefit."

A Wealth of Resources

The tangible resources made available through the initiative have been exceptionally valuable as well. Education institutions typically don't have a lot of spare cash lying around. Very low purchase and lease rates mean that a number of colleges and universities that couldn't afford them otherwise now have System i boxes. In addition, the initiative also provides a vast array of free software from both IBM and its System i Business Partners.

Institutions that still can't justify the cost of their own System i as well as ones that have a System i, but for technical or security reasons can't provide access to students when they are off campus, can still offer students access to one of the Academic Initiative's hub servers.

The availability of these resources is having a very positive impact on students' studies. "I benefited from the Academic Initiative by getting access to all of the top-of-the-line stuff," said Nick Arndt, a former student at Gateway Technical College who is now employed full-time in a System i shop. "I was learning the cutting edge. Businesses want new programmers who know the new techniques and who can then implement them to help the business. And that's what I got."

Now out in the work world, Arndt highly recommends System i education to new students. "It's the best platform out there, I think," he said. "It's stable. It doesn't break. It just goes. I encourage people to jump onto it and get involved in System i and all of the things it has to offer."

A Passion for System i

All of the students and the educators interviewed for this article were very enthusiastic about the initiative. Listen, for example, to what Professor Dumdum had to say: "I'm a very passionate professor. I love my students. I want the very best for them. I'm seeing that level of care and passion for excellence in the Academic Initiative."

He was not alone in volunteering the "passion" word.

"My students see I'm passionate about this," offered Kronhol. "If my students see that I'm passionate about it, they're going to start thinking a little differently. If I'm passionate about my training and I'm passionate about the programming language, they're going to follow the lead."

Before they will enter a program with a System i–based curriculum, secondary students, most of whom know little or nothing about System i and business computing, also have to get excited about it. Some post-secondary educators are undertaking evangelizing efforts to that end, and at least one found the experience rewarding.

"I went and taught a System i concepts class at the local high school this past spring," related Buck. "I was really apprehensive about going out there and doing this, but the kids thought it was great. They took right to the System i. They thought it was a cool box. So really the biggest problem I have is getting people to know that there is this program out there and there is real opportunity for them to make a good living at it."

Positively i

The students going through post-secondary System i programs are hearing some of the same negative talk about the alleged imminent demise of System i and RPG that floats around System i–related forums. The students aren't buying it.

James Comer will be graduating from CSTCC soon, but he is already working full-time as a System i programmer and finishing his degree on a part-time basis. "The whole time when we were doing iSeries-based courses, you would hear people in other classes say stuff like, 'Oh, you're going the wrong way. iSeries is dead'," said Comer. "I don't know if I hit a goldmine or if I just got a lucky streak, but I went to apply where I'm at now for a co-op job and they went ahead and hired me with next to no classes whatsoever."

While in the program, any anxiety that Comer might have felt as a result of his fellow students' comments was allayed by his instructors. "The adjunct professor for one of the night courses I was taking owns her own consulting firm," explained Comer. "When I voiced concern, she said, 'You have nothing to worry about. I've been listening to that for over a decade.' And she said that 'there's always going to be work out there because [System i] is stable, it's not hackable, it's safe, and companies dumped a lot of money into developing their entire process systems around this thing, so for people to say this is going to die and be completely replaced with Windows systems or whatever is just not believable.' "

Changing Lives for the Better

A good place to conclude is with Joseph Upright, a former student at Gateway Technical College and now an associate programmer/analyst with CustomCall Data Systems, a Madison, Wisconsin-based supplier of billing, OSS, and business process management solutions for telecommunications service providers. His story is inspiring.

Upright, who recently turned 33, had not been happy with some of the choices he made earlier in life and the consequences of those choices. Because, as he realizes now, in his youth he did too much partying rather than building career skills, he ended up at unexciting jobs. When he became dissatisfied with his work life, he could have meekly accepted his fate. He didn't.

"I made a choice to go back to school so I wouldn't have to continue working the kind of mediocre jobs that I was working at," said Upright. "I took some placement tests, and they pointed in direction of computers."

Upright sang the praises of the faculty and program at Gateway. "What was made available to me definitely impacted my life. Without the resources I had, I'm not sure exactly where I'd be today. I could be out there still working at the job I hated just to make ends meet. The company that hired me is very excited about what is going on at Gateway and the students that are coming out of there."

As Upright was completing his program and beginning to look at moving forward with his new career, he found that there was no shortage of prospective jobs for him to pursue. He applied for 10 open positions and had nine interviews.

Upright's education at Gateway gave him the skills and confidence he needed to perform well in job interviews. "I knew what I was talking about," proclaimed Upright. "I was able to provide examples of the work I had done. I wasn't the slightest bit intimidated, and I didn't feel out of place whatsoever. That came through the education and through being involved with a group called WMCPA, which is a Wisconsin computer user group. From my experience with that, I was involved with business people and saw what kinds of skills they were looking for. What I found out was that what I was learning was exactly what people were looking for in new employees."

Upright is quite clear on what his studies at Gateway have done for him. "The education that I received helped me to turn my life around," he declared proudly. "And one thing I didn't know going in is how cool programming really is and how much fun I'd have doing this kind of work. I get paid for having fun, which is a complete turnaround from what I was doing before. Now, it's more about the career and getting paid for what I like to do."

Oh, and what does Upright, who before entering Gateway knew little about computers, let alone System i, feel about System i today? "I don't think there's a better platform out there, and I didn't have that knowledge entering into the program. I think it is easy to use once you have the mindset for it. And [despite what he had read in articles] I can definitely say that RPG is not dead. We're producing a lot of code where I am. It's the best language out there for processing records."

Joel Klebanoff

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, writer, and formerly president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto-based marketing communications firm. He has 30 years' experience in various IT capacities and now specializes in writing articles, white papers, and case studies for IT vendors and publications across North America. Joel is also the author of BYTE-ing Satire, a compilation of a year's worth of his columns. He holds a BS in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto.


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