What's the best process for IBM to use to select enhancements to add to RPG IV? In the past, they've had high-profile RPG programmers like me and others give them feedback, they've held public voting on features to get the most popular features added to the language, and they've made decisions in a Kremlin-esque fashion behind closed doors.
Lately, IBM has used a number of other methods, including a points or currency system that allocates 100 points to each voter. For example, if you feel strongly about features A, F, and J, and you also like feature Q, you can split your voting by spending 30 points each on items A, F, and J and spending 10 points on item Q. Someone else might feel just as strongly about items F and J but also like items H, K, and L. So while he votes for two of the same items as you did, he could allocate fewer points to those items and more to others. This is probably the worst way to take a public opinion survey.
Other ways to allow multiple items to be selected are to allow X votes (say 5 to 10 percent of the total items). Then, if there are 50 new features IBM is considering, everyone gets to vote for their top five items. If you don't have five, then you don't have to vote for five; this last point needs to be made very clear to the voters.
But there is one other method that has yet to be tried in our marketplace: the Request for Comment, or RFC, process. RFC has been around for nearly 40 years. It was started back in 1969 and continues to be a powerful process for soliciting feedback on proposed features and enhancements to technology.
The RFC process allows IBM to propose a feature to RPG IV and have the public comment on that feature. So rather than IBM implementing feature X as IBM sees fit, IBM proposes feature X as IBM sees fit and solicits feedback. The feedback period lasts for a given number of months and then is closed.
There are other benefits to using an RFC process, but I'm advocating it as an alternative to voting. After all, if you vote for someone for public office who turns out to be not very good, you can (in theory anyway) replace that individual in the next election cycle. Once you vote for and then IBM implements a feature in RPG IV, it is there forever—good, bad, or otherwise.
I think there are at least five categories of enhancements to RPG that IBM can make:
- Features that would be cool to have
- Features that need to be changed or added to make the language more intuitive and consistent
- Features that would make the language more popular
- Features that are needed because 90+ percent of the RPG community would benefit from them
- Features that take the language into new areas of application development
For each of these classes of features, voters react differently and rarely think about what's best for the RPG community or what's best for RPG. Typically, they think about what's best for them as a programmer. Here's how I see it.
Class 1 features (features that would be cool to have) probably receive the most votes and the most attention, but they provide the least amount of value once delivered—for example, adding a second parameter to %TRIM to allow the programmer to specify the characters to be trimmed. This feature is in RPG IV today and was the top vote-getter in the last survey IBM took on RPG IV features. Guess what: People either don't know about it or just don't use it.
Future enhancements that would garner just as many votes and probably result in as little use include increasing the size limit on subfiles to more than 9999 records. (I know; subfiles are not part of RPG, but 75 percent of the programmers I talk to don't separate subfiles from RPG.) Another one would be the pervasive "How can I get the data out of a field when the field name is stored inside another field?"
Class 2 features (features to make the language more intuitive and consistent) are arguably the most important as they help new programmers learn the language; bringing new coders into the RPG world is an important issue today. These features can also reduce the frustration for experienced and novice programmers alike. Examples include allowing comments and slash (/) directives to start in the first non-blank position on the line, instead of in column 7 (for directives) or in column 8 or greater (for comments). New RPG programmers end up hating the language after two hours of trying to get a source member compiled with the /IF or /COPY statement starting in column 6.
Class 3 features (features to make the language more popular) are subjective at best. Certainly some good comes from these types of features. But honestly, wouldn't third-party add-ons or even the ever-popular "steal this code" open-source crowd fulfill this category? There are problems with open source; the people who advocate it most are often those who simply want free code.
Class 4 features (features most of the RPG community would benefit from) are certainly nearly as important as or as important as class 2 features. However, an average "Joe Blow" programmer often thinks his/her most-desired feature is also the rest of the world's most-desired feature. Many programmers talk about writing great code, but in a lot of situations, they write code with at least some "I'll just make it work" rather than "I need to make this maintainable by the programmer who comes after me." Face it, most programmers (but not you, of course) think only about making their code work in the moment; they often code as if they were Scottie trying to get the hyper drive back online so the ship doesn't explode.
Class 5 features (features that take the language into new areas of application development) are similar to class 3 features in their importance. Sure, it would be cool to have integrated CGI/Web built-in functions in RPG IV, but that would have been important in 1998, or 2002, or 2004, or 2006. In 2008 and beyond, it is sort of like adding pointer support to CL in 2006. Why do I care? I've already coded all the CL I'm ever going to write. By 2008 or 2009, I've already written tons of CGI/Web stuff using xTools, CGI DEV2, or the CGI APIs, so why would I care? Having said that, I do think CGI/Web built-ins would be a great addition to RPG IV if they were available today!
So RFC may be a solution. IBM puts out a set of enhancements requests called Design Change Requests, or DCRs. The community comments on them, offering suggestions for improvement. IBM then absorbs those comments and does what it thinks is best.
Bob Cozzi is author of the best-selling The Modern RPG IV Language, Fourth Edition as well as RPG TNT: 101 Dynamite Tips 'n Techniques with RPG IV and is host of the i5 Podcast Network, which provides free video and audio podcasts to the i5 community. You can also see him in person at RPG World in May 2007.