Jim Sloan's TAA Toolset Bigger and Better than Ever
by Alex Woodie
Life is good for Jim Sloan these days. The retired IBMer is able to work when he wants, on whatever he wants, and he's able to get away from Rochester, Minnesota, and spend time in warmer climes, like Aruba, where he recently vacationed. He also enjoys continued success with his business and product, TAA Tools, an ever-growing collection of OS/400 utilities that has helped thousands of OS/400 shops, and which now boasts more commands than OS/400 itself.
The history of TAA Productivity Tools holds a unique piece of AS/400 and COMMON lore. During the early days of the S/38, Sloan was the lead developer for that operating system. He was also on COMMON's requirements committee., It was at that time when he started writing small CL and RPG commands to solve problems faced by programmers and operators in the daily grind, like how to delete spool files en masse, or include help text in lines of RPG.
As Sloan's History of TAA Tools Web page reveals, he started a series of presentations at COMMON, called "S/38 Tips and Techniques." In those sessions he presented the code for his CL and RPG programs. While Sloan was deeply involved in Rochester development, IBM had more urgent needs, and did not officially implement Sloan's utilities and commands into the operating system. In 1986, these programs were combined into the TIPTECH library, which IBM shipped, informally, on diskettes.
Sloan continued to write the tools and commands as he started working on OS/400 in the late 1980s. However, as IBM was focused on more pressing needs, the requirements that Sloan was addressing in his utilities were still not officially incorporated into the operating system, and were labeled by IBM as "future objectives." Just the same, beginning with OS/400 V1R1, Sloan's utilities were reworked for OS/400, and combined into a library called QUSRTOOL, which provided a location "where IBM could place function that was created outside of the normal development process," according to Sloan's Web site. The name "TAA" was picked to identify the tools in the QUSRTOOL library that were developed by Sloan, which was most of them.
In 1991, Sloan retired from IBM, but returned later that year, on a part-time basis, to continue developing the QUSRTOOL library. When he retired from IBM for good (in either late 1992 or early 1993), he continued to develop QUSRTOOL under the name of his new company, Jim Sloan Inc. This continued until 1994, when Sloan signed a contract to license the tools from IBM. He agreed to pay IBM a royalty on sales of his version of the tools, called TAA Productivity Tools, which included all the QUSRTOOL tools, as well as the newer TAA tools.
Sloan and IBM went their separate ways after that. On April 1, 1995, Sloan started selling his TAA Productivity Tools suite, which contained all the QUSRTOOL tools up to OS/400 V3R1, but not the tools developed up to OS/400 V3R6. Although IBM continues to include the QUSRTOOL library with each new release of OS/400 (or i5/OS as the case may be), the library hasn't been enhanced in years, and isn't supported by IBM.
But QUSRTOOL lives on at Jim Sloan Inc. and at Barsa Consulting, which started distributing the tools after Sloan and Al Barsa met and became friends at COMMON. Sloan has continued writing new utilities, which are added by the hundreds every year. The work is important, Sloan says, because there's still an unmet need for easy-to-use greenscreen tools and commands.
Nearly 1,600 Commands
IBM wanted no part of writing RPG and CL commands to do every-day type of stuff with the system, because IBM does all OS/400 development in an internal language, Sloan says. As a result, that left plenty of business for Sloan, who was eager to fill the need, and tried his best to do so.
As IBM continues to add functionality in its graphical iSeries Navigator software, and expose ever more APIs, Sloan continues to add new easy-to-use tools and commands to his toolset. With February's release of the TAA Productivity Tools, the toolset boasts 1,166 tools, and nearly 1,600 commands (since some tools can have multiple commands).
"We have more commands in the TAA toolset than OS/400," Sloan points out. "It's a reflection that the system stopped adding a lot of commands. There are a lot of APIs and Web stuff, but few commands."
To keep TAA Productivity Tools current, Sloan has implemented a type of requirements program to get feedback on ideas for new tools. If he writes a tool based on the idea, he rewards the person who came up with the idea by giving them $1,000. The winner in 2004 was Mark Dobson of SJI Services in Larose, Louisiana, who came up with the idea for the new CRCLPDCL command. While Sloan accepts input from users for new tool ideas, Sloan does all of the development himself, as the sole employee of Jim Sloan Inc.
Unfortunately, most of the outside ideas that people come up with for new tools have already been implemented in TAA Productivity Tools, Sloan says.
With more commands than OS/400 itself, is there anything left that hasn't been done? There is, Sloan says. "I've not totally exhausted of what I want to do. But it's not a big backlog from me," he says. "It's like ever onward. There's no particular area we'll start focusing on, just more of the same."
For example, Sloan is now working on new tool for controlling message queue authorization. "Believe it or not, any user on the system, including the lowliest grunt, can gain QSYSOPR [authority] and view a message," he says.
One area where Sloan has been able to differentiate his tools--and make it easier for users to find the right tool--is an on-line search capability. "We've got so many tools and categories, we went in arbitrarily and assigned a level, one, two, and three, [to correspond to the tool] most likely what they're looking for." This search capability is available free of charge on Sloan's Web site.
Pricing for the toolset is processor based, and Sloan charges more for more recent OS/400 releases, which support the greatest number of tools. So for example the tools range from $850 to $6,700 if you're going to run it on OS/400 V4R5, but it will range from $1,000 to $8,000 for OS/400 V5R3.
Sloan has sold thousands of licenses over the years, although he has no idea how many users "are still alive" or are still using the product. Nevertheless, Sloan keeps writing new commands, and ships a new release of TAA Productivity Tools every 8 weeks or so. He even does his best to back-cast new tools to older releases of OS/400, something not even IBM does.
"I'm still having fun," Sloan says, days after returning from a Caribbean vacation. "I'm not killing myself."