Each of us is an evangelist for the i, a voice heard in the wilderness. But to make that voice heard, we need to get out there where the people who are not part of our "i world" live.
I just got back from ZendCon, the annual conference for Zend, the people who bring you PHP and its interface on the IBM i.
It was a great experience and not just because of the weather. Santa Clara, California, in October. Sunny skies, exceptionally nice temps in the low 70s. Even though the hotel was connected to the convention center, I went out of my way to walk outside coming and going.
It was also a very interesting experience. It is not often that i people (about 15% of the attendees) and web people can mingle (that is, drink together) and attend common sessions, but this event is one of those venues. And I have to admit, I enjoyed it. I have never been to a technical conference before where so many people had tattoos and scrubby beards and wore torn jeans.
But mostly it was an educational experience. This was the first time I had gone to ZendCon, and I guess I didn't know what to expect. The main thing I brought home with me was a solid realization of how very much I don't know. Have you ever had that response to a conference? Without being whatever, I consider myself to be relatively intelligent and I feel I have learned a lot about PHP over the past year. But when I see what some people are doing with the language I realize I have a way to go yet.
So Dave went to a conference. Who cares?
Kind of harsh but understandable. But here's the deal. Zend is mostly a web world. Yes, they did have one day that had an "i track" of sessions, and I attended a few of those, but mostly I tried to immerse myself in the wider web world. And it got me thinking. Thinking about how it would be to live in that environment. Thinking about some of the exciting things going on in "web world." And thinking how really lucky I am to be able to spend most of my time in the i world.
It really started the second morning with the keynote address by the people who run Zend. I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting next to me. He asked me what I do and how I used PHP, and I replied that I was basically an RPG guy on the IBM i who had been getting deeper and deeper into PHP over the last few years. And then he asked me what the IBM i was. He and some co-workers had been talking about it a couple of weeks ago, but they didn't really know other than "it had something to do with the database." Usually, I have some comeback that I can go to quickly when somebody says something to me, even if it's only "Oh yeah?!," but I was so struck by the question that for a moment I hesitated, and then the keynote started and we turned our attention to that.
What Is the IBM i?
The IBM i community is somewhat self-enclosed. We tend to stick to ourselves to a certain extent, and that's not too unusual. After all, our machine is different from your basic laptop (thank goodness), and the language we spend most of our time in isn't really used anywhere else. We have our conferences together, we have websites that cater to our particular needs, we have forums that only we frequent.
And there's nothing wrong with that. But I guess I get used to thinking that everyone is at least passingly familiar with the i. So running into someone who obviously knew nothing about it was a bit of a surprise. Especially so when I thought about it for a moment and realized that the majority of people there were in the same boat that this fellow was.
The other thought that flashed through my mind was the phrase "something to do with the database." Something to do with it? How about it provides one of the most secure and resilient database platforms available? And it's not just a database server, pal; it's a lot more than that. On one hand I felt like I had been back-handedly insulted, but on the other hand I realized that was not this guy's intent. This was just all he knew about the machine I call "home."
So, for the next 45 minutes, in addition to listening to a surprisingly good keynote that featured a couple of pretty sophisticated and impressive demonstrations, I constructed a very comprehensive 75-second description of what the i is and what it is capable of doing—and what it's connection to PHP is. I can't remember all of it now, but it was pretty good, believe me.
Unfortunately, when the keynote was done and I turned to him, it was immediately obvious that he hadn't spent the time hoping I would give him a good answer to his question. But I didn't care. He could shift his eyes toward the door all he wanted to; I was going to have my say. And it was just literally 75 seconds. When I was done, he smiled, thanked me, and then hurried toward the door. Did he hear me? Who knows? Will he think about it later, or does he now think all i people must be dangerous lunatics who will buttonhole you if you're not careful? Could be. Or will he, if someone else ever starts to wonder about the i and what it is, say, "Oh, I was talking to a guy once, and I know a little about that"? Maybe, as long as he remembers the facts correctly.
What Can We Do?
The real question here is, what can we, as i people, do about this? What can be done to make the i more visible to others?
The one thing we know we can't count on is IBM doing any serious or helpful advertising. And maybe it's not their fault. Maybe their money is all tied up in chips or something and there isn't much left over for advertising.
Or maybe they just don't know how to do it. Marketing agencies that are used to dealing with soft drinks and cars and likely-unnecessary medications just aren't set up to deal with techie advertising. It can't be that hard, though.
You get a pretty girl, maybe that blonde with the British accent from the Viagra commercials. Put her in a nice outfit, and get her hair blowing in a slight breeze. She starts out by stating, "There are a lot of things that people don't know. Like which business hardware and software platform is universally regarded as the most secure and reliable in the industry." Then there could be a quick shot of an i with the verbiage "IBM i." Very quick, sort of subliminal.
Then back to her, but this time she is touching her hair, fluffing it out a little and then shyly tucking it back behind her ear while moving slowly closer to the camera and saying, "Or which platform has the lowest TCO of any computer platform—you know, the kind of TCO that saves you money every day you use it." Flash back to the i for a little bit longer this time. A couple more back and forths that talk about its ability to run Windows and Linux partitions, use almost any type of packaged software, develop in almost any language you choose, etc. Finally, with her in close-up, she lowers her eyes for a moment and then looks right at you and says, "And would you believe that you can get into a machine like this for as little as $5,000? Imagine, a paltry $5K gets your business 11 billion gigabytes of memory and the fastest processor speeds on the planet with POWER8 chips." To finish, we flash to the machine once more while she coos the voiceover: "It's the IBM i. And to have one for your business, contact your local IBM representative." And as she says this, she runs her hand softly over a desktop-sized IBM i.
I know that needs a lot of work, but seriously people, how hard is it to get the message out there? Of course, you would need another one with a guy with no shirt chopping wood. But once you got one ready it would be easy to do another. Run those 50 or 100 times during the bowl games and NFL playoffs and see what happens.
But that's not IBM's style, so maybe we should just forget about it. No, my friends! If we're going to make the i more visible to others, we're going to have to do it ourselves.
Good grief, do I have to do everything here? Come on, people. Work with me.
For starters, we need to go to conferences. And not just the ones that are focused on the i. Sure, you can argue there might be limited benefit in going to an Angularj event, but there are events, like the Zend Conference, that are borderline enough that an i presence could be effective.
I know, I know. In many companies, conference funds are a mythical creature like unicorns, and I don't want to minimize the difficulty in terms of getting the money. But we have to push harder, make a stronger case for the need for ongoing education. Plus, there are plenty of local events. Is there a local PHP group where you live? Get involved.
At the same time, we have to stop being receivers at conferences. Let's face it, most of us go to a conference, listen to the sessions, and then come back and write up a trip report that sounds a lot like a show-and-tell session in second grade. We are passive receivers, and if we use anything from the conference, probably no one will ever know it, certainly not someone outside of the IT circle.
We need to do a better job of going to conferences with a purpose: I'm going to learn how to use this technique, and when I get back I'm going to put that into practice in this project. And then we need to document just how using the technique that we learned was able to help. Did it make it possible to do the project (as in, we didn't know how to do this technically before)? Did it save time during the development and testing (if so, how much)? If you can show solid return on the investment, it makes it easier for you to get future investments.
As part of this, we need to really make an effort to expand our skill set. One of the big things about web techies that impresses me is the large number of languages and tools they seem to be familiar with. I could be wrong, but for the most part, I don't see that in the i world. Many times, we almost go the opposite way, taking pride in how few tools we need to get the job done. Granted, the integrated nature of the i really encourages this, and it is a strength, but sometimes your strengths can also be your weakness.
Obviously, our home will always be RPG and the business analysis skills that we have honed. But it's not enough. And that's not just from a job security point of view. It's true from the view of being able to fully participate in the technical revolution going on around us. And being a part of that revolution, making the IBM i a part of that revolution, and allowing others to see the role that it plays is not just critical to our future but to the future of the machine we all love.