The Midrange Manager: Consultants for Hire

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Are consulting and contract programming jobs (aka "programmer for hire") on hold in the iSeries market? Recently, a number of high-profile, long-time AS/400 and iSeries consultants/contract programmers commented that when their current customer assignment is up, they don't have many prospects on the horizon.

This is a niche industry where a good RPG programmer has traditionally had customers lined up for years into the future. What's changed?

Well, the economy for one thing. Somehow, "tech stocks" have been equated to IT jobs. So somehow people who are writing new and maintaining old general-purpose business applications are suffering the fallout that has resulted from everybody and their brother creating a Web site and then doing an IPO. Sort of reminds me of the aftermath of the junk bond fiasco of the 1980s.

But why are good iSeries programmers going into other careers or retiring early? I think it's supply and demand.

When the tech stock thing hit, not only did everybody and their brother start a Web site, they also sent their kids off to college to become computer programmers. Then, the stock market tanked, and all the IT jobs that were paying $10,000 to $100,000 to start (plus sign-on bonuses) evaporated. So now there's a glut of talent in the marketplace.

Of course, it didn't help when marchFIRST (aka Whittman-Hart) laid off nearly 1,500 midrange consultants, effectively flooding the market in the Midwest as well as many other parts of the United States.

While career veterans with 10 or 20 or more years of experience may be able to develop and maintain general-purpose business applications two to four times faster than a two-year newbie, they also charge higher rates. Because of the poor economy and the fact that there are $35,000-$45,000 per year programmers out there, the $85-$150 per hour (Midwest rates) consultants aren't getting new contacts. A company can hire a full-time employee for less than half what they'd have to pay for a seasoned consultant working 20 to 30 hours per week for 40 to 45 weeks per year.

But is this good? Maybe, but maybe not. I suppose it depends on what the goal is for the company. If companies need applications updated or new programs written, they may have trouble finding a low-end or novice developer who can step up to the challenge. On the other hand, a company that has several seasoned professionals already on staff may be able to bring in someone new and get that person up to speed on both their business model and their application model. Then, the only thing left to do is to hone the novice's RPG III or RPG IV skills.

All this leads me to a larger concern. A good friend of mine recently asked, "Why are you porting [application x] to a dead architecture?" Now, this person is a 20+ year veteran of System/38, AS/400, and now iSeries. Another long-time OS/400 veteran, one whose book on CL you may own, recently decided to go into real estate investments.

My concern is that the perception out there is that the iSeries architecture is dying when in fact the entire marketplace is in a downward trend. Granted, some people are frustrated; that happens in this kind of economy. Some people have lost hope and are leaving the market, which also happens. Some people are having difficulty finding their next job, and that is trying on one's spirit. But the fact is things will get better. Hell, IBM already replaced its lead iSeries marketing person, which means change (for the better, we hope) is on the horizon. The IT market and the iSeries market will improve, and people who have made a career on a platform they love will continue to write great applications that continue to perform some 20 years from now. What other operating system can you say that about?

The solution to this bad economy, they say, is for consumers to go out and spend money. Well, we have to have the extra cash first, don't we? But if you are going to go out and spend some money, buy something distributed or manufactured by an iSeries customer. After all, it might just help someone you know keep their job.