Modernizing the RPG Reputation
Published: February 19, 2008
by Dan Burger
RPG development is not what it appears to be. Or maybe it is. There are at least two ways to look at it, and whether the glass is half full or half empty depends on where you sit and perhaps what you are sitting on. For some people it's like sitting on a comfortable old sofa. They don't want to get up. For others, it's more like sitting on a tack. They don't stay seated for very long and they have a lot to say.
What it is and what it isn't is the subject of many truths, half-truths, and fabrications that are freely dished out by those inside and outside the IBM System i user base. Susan Gantner and Jon Paris are well-known for their RPG training and expertise. They are the nucleus, along with Paul Tuohy and Skip Marchesani, of a company called System iDeveloper, which organizes and presents a twice-annual event known as the RPG & DB2 Summit. Because of their RPG knowledge and experience working with RPG programmers, they have insights into this language that differs from most others.
For one thing, they are spending one-on-one time with people who are motivated to upgrade their skills.
As a result you have a higher degree of interest in topics such as graphical development tools and Web environments. WebSphere Development Studio Client and Remote Systems Explorer create a great deal of interest, as does RPG mixed with CGI, PHP, and Java to create Web services. Looking at the entire System i user base, Paris is estimating that, at most, 25 percent of the shops are actively involved in working with the latest development tools and Web environments.
"Talking to people who are attending their first conference or the first one in maybe 10 years, they are amazed at what you can do with RPG," Paris says.
Because many RPG programmers are surprised at the potential capabilities, it shouldn't come as a surprise that people outside the System i have a misconception of what it is and what it can do. Free form RPG doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to its older siblings, but unfortunately it's the reputation of early RPG that paints the picture that most people have in their minds.
"A lot of programmers don't keep up to date with what can be done or how it can be done," Paris says. "So when managers start talking about how things could be done better on a Wintel or Unix box or whatever, the RPG programmers don't have the product awareness to counter that effort and present a case for how easy it would be to do on the existing System i."
This isn't the first time we've heard that the real problem with the System i is a problem of awareness and misconceptions. Some of that is slowly being overcome, says Gantner, who believes people are waking up to the benefits of modern RPG.
"Rather than new languages and new environments, RPG can do the things that most businesses need, or work in conjunction with other pieces," she says. "It does need to be the modern flavor and written in the modern style to take advantage of intermixing with other new technologies.
"What's at stake is that companies don't know that some of their existing people could have the skills to do this or that RPG can do it," she says.
This point of view takes into account that companies are better off keeping personnel that possess business knowledge as well as existing application knowledge, and that replacing existing RPG programmers with Web programmers from outside the company is a mistake. Of course, the existing RPG programmers need to be willing to learn the newest RPG enhancements and bring their company's applications forward.
Many people in the System i community say IBM hasn't done enough to accentuate the thoroughly modern System i and RPG. If you are a regular reader of the IT Jungle newsletters, you have heard this criticism often and loudly.
"I believe that one of the problems we have right now," says Paris, "is that--with the exception of a very small number of people--IBM as a corporate entity has little or no interest in encouraging the user base to do the things they need to do. Part of the reason for that is that they are making so much of their money through Global Services and Global Services can't make money on System i. They would much rather persuade people to have a Microsoft or System p or whatever solution, because they know they will sell more than twice as much in the way of services."
Back on the topic of misconceptions, Gantner makes the point that new skills are not necessarily and exclusively applicable to building new applications and therefore unnecessary in application maintenance mode. Making existing apps easier to maintain by modularizing, for example, or externalizing the database, is reason to invest in RPG.
"Maintenance tasks can be small tweaks, but maintenance can be fairly complex," Gantner says, "especially if you are maintaining pretty old and pretty ugly programs. In some ways it takes more skills to be a maintenance programmer than to write new code."
RPG IV has been around for well over a decade. If you haven't taken the trouble to discover some of the things that it can do, the next RPG & DB2 Summit is scheduled for March 11 through 13 in Orlando, Florida. For a detailed look at the agenda and for registration information, follow this link.
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