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Vanishing Act?

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There is a shortage of new talent in our profession, and we need to do something about it. This is not news to those of us who have had the privilege of attending the “sound-off” session at COMMON anytime in the last few years. Recently, however, it really hit us close to home, and we decided to share our experience and then do something about it.

We work for a software company in San Diego, California. Our products were originally designed in the early 1980s to run on the IBM System/34 and System/36 midrange systems, but, today, our applications run only on the AS/400.

Our company had never really experienced a shortage of talented RPG programmers; many factors were in our favor. The first reason we seemed to always have a glut of talent was probably our climate: There are places much worse than Southern California in which to spend a winter. The second reason had to be the number of IBM midrange systems in our area of the country: About 10 percent of the AS/400s in the United States were right here in California. The third reason we always had plenty of AS/400 talent was that there were colleges here that taught RPG and the AS/400 to students who were receiving their degrees in information systems. Unfortunately, this last reason led us to write this article.

In April of this year, we received a frantic call from a longtime friend who happened to be a recruiter for AS/400 talent here in San Diego. He informed us that one of the colleges here in town was considering dropping its RPG program in favor of another language that might better prepare prospects for potential employers. People at the college felt RPG was better suited for relics like us and did not necessarily prepare students for the future.

Treating RPG and the AS/400 with such disrespect was nothing new. Any language whose acronym stands for Report Program Generator couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the future of computing. Who needed reports anymore? Everything was online, right? These were the same people who hadn’t noticed that we were chopping down trees at an unprecedented rate and that paper use was at an all-time high. Nevertheless, RPG was never supposed to last.

When we went to computer school in the mid-1970s (yes, we know we are dating ourselves here), we were urged to focus most of our attention on the languages of the future. These “languages of the future” consisted of PL/I, COBOL, and Assembler. RPG was a language designed to aid in writing reports, and we were not likely to get jobs

writing RPG programs, anyway. Two and a half decades later, RPG still looks pretty good to us, and even though COBOL made a big comeback this year with all those Y2K upgrades, we believe that it will probably not do quite as well in the decade to come. As for the others, they seem to have fallen by the wayside.

Other “flavors of the day” followed. For a while, all AS/400 shops were supposed to write GUI front-ends with Visual Basic and use the AS/400 as a server. There were cool code names, such as Thor and Lightning, for new tools that were going to provide these languages with a way to reach data at the record level (something we in the midrange market have taken for granted). Then, there was C and C++, which were the only way to go. We even dabbled in VisualAge for Smalltalk a few years back. (IBM has since “sunset” that product, too.)

We are not trying to be naysayers here. All of these langue du jour options were probably pretty good. However, if they failed to capture the mainstream of the market, they all eventually became irrelevant in the market and next to impossible to support. We like to use IBM’s RPG on the OS/2 platform as our own personal and painful example of failure here.

What about RPG, you ask? Well, RPG is still the dominant language on the AS/400, and the AS/400 is the most dominant business computer in the world (over 600,000 installed systems and counting). In fact, to quote Frank Soltis, “...the AS/400 is the only computer in the world that was designed for business,” and, for those of you who have not been paying attention to the stock market for the last several years, business is good!

“I Get No Respect!”

If business is so good and we work on the premier business computer of our day, why must we feel like Rodney Dangerfield every time we talk about RPG and the AS/400? Talk about no respect! There are RPG applications written on the IBM System/360 and System/3 in the late 1960s and early 1970s that have been updated to be Y2K-compliant just in the last year or two. Who is to say how far into the future these applications will run?

We never expected that the software applications we designed in the late 1970s and early 1980s would still be running today, but they’re going stronger than ever! Sure, they’re running on a different platform today and were converted to RPG III in the late 1980s and converted again to RPG IV in the 1990s. They now have a GUI face on them (we use J Walk by SEAGULL Software) and hardly resemble the applications designed back then. Our clients don’t care what language the application is written in. They just care that it works and that it is stable so they don’t experience downtime. The bottom line is that our applications are still RPG, they are still on the IBM midrange platform, and they are now more competitive than they have ever been.

Why has the AS/400 remained such a well-kept secret? The answer does not lie in any one place. IBM must take some responsibility. After all, it hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to make the AS/400 a household name. Can you imagine where the AS/400 would be if IBM had allocated the same advertising budget for it as it did for OS/2? It boggles the mind!

This apparent lack of support is partly understandable. These days, every AS/400 sale potentially displaces an RS/6000 or IBM mainframe system. Nevertheless, it seems shortsighted. You must give IBM credit for making inroads recently, however. You can actually find advertisements for the AS/400 in national business publications. Now, that is progress!

Despite such progress, IBM has done a miserable job in the educational arena. The AS/400 will be considered an anomaly until it is being taught in computer colleges and public schools. In addition, because the AS/400 is so uniquely proprietary in so many ways, learning the system has become anomalous as well. Where else will you find a

system in which the security, database, and operating systems are so fully integrated? What other system teaches you how important that integration is? What other system teaches students the value of being able to run 99.9 percent of the time without failure? Bill Gates obviously recognizes the importance of these factors. His staff is trained to run all of his AS/400s. Don’t you think he does that because he has the good sense not to trust his mission-critical business applications to NT?

We feel that IBM could greatly increase the install base of the AS/400 if it could lay an inroad to the educational arena. Sure, the process would be costly, but think of the potential gain in the long run, not only in terms of hardware sales for IBM but also in terms of all the new applications that could be produced by the new talent coming out of school.

We realize that many new UNIX applications are being ported from other platforms to the AS/400 and that this will likely replace many of the RPG legacy applications, but demand for RPG programmers continues to exceed supply by a large margin. Salaries continue to increase, and the AS/400 headhunters have worked themselves into a frenzied lather. The supply-and-demand impact on our free-market economy is in full swing. In the short term, this is not bad for those of us with experience in the industry, but we are being shortsighted if we cannot predict the long-term effects. Sustained shortages will likely lead to necessary migration to other systems and languages, which would ultimately be bad for IBM, RPG programmers, and business in general. Shortages would cause customers to settle for less. Settling for less is undesirable, but it is preferable to settling for nothing.

If it is true that RPG will suffer its long-predicted demise, some entrepreneurial spirit must find a way to convert old RPG applications into the language of the day. In any case, the numbers are simply too overwhelming to ignore. IBM continues to develop and enhance RPG IV, making it better and better, and educators and pundits alike still predict its death. It’s like predicting that the stock market will go up or down. Eventually, such a prediction is likely to be right. It’s simply a matter of how long you must wait before it is correct.

And that segue leads us back to the original point of this article. How do we get young talent interested in our market if the press and the educational arena are telling them that UNIX, HTML, and Java are the only things that will be around in the future? We decided to be a little more proactive than we have been in the past. We began hiring students right out of school and implementing a training program of our own.

“Ya Gotta Have Class!”

Our training program is extensive and involves all levels of the technical staff. The program teaches students much more than RPG IV. It teaches them how our systems work from a customer’s perspective. It teaches them basic AS/400 operations and how to perform program maintenance, from change management to CL, DDS, and RPG IV. It teaches them how to use the internal “chain of command” to solve problems rather than flounder in self- imposed confusion. It also teaches them not to be afraid to ask questions. All of these skills are important in today’s software development environment.

We know this training program is not easy and that there are risks. The costs of this type of program are significant and difficult to measure. It will likely be at least six months before we can reasonably expect any return at all on our investment. We are willing to accept the fact that not all of the students hired for this internship will likely work out in the long run. Some of them will probably not fit into our unique corporate culture, and others may decide that programming is not really what they want to do for a living.

Nevertheless, we decided it was time for us to put our money where our mouths have always been. We are nothing if not RPG and AS/400 evangelists. Every time someone has tried to talk us into trying some other language or some other computer, we would indignantly stand fast. Long ago, we accepted the fact that the AS/400 is one of the best-kept secrets in the business world. Whether we are talking to an associate or to a prospective client, we know that defending the AS/400 is simply part of our job.

The Trials and Tribulations of Troglodytes

As for RPG, it remains a language reserved for us programming dinosaurs. Our very existence could be predicated on our ability to “pass the torch.” Should we fail to do so, we could be tacitly scripting our own epitaph, and that surely does not make sense.

As with so many things, the result is ultimately up to us. You remember what happened to the dinosaurs, don’t you?

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