Volume 8, Number 21 -- May 27, 2008

RPG Programmer Avoids 'Learn Java or Flip Burgers' Pitfall

Published: May 27, 2008

by Dan Burger

Brad Bauer remembers the "Learn Java or Flip Burgers" warning that IBM gave to RPG programmers years ago. It's funny to him. He took several Java classes and created some rudimentary applications, he never became a Java advocate and he didn't abandon his IT career for a job at McDonald's. Instead, he looked for a Java alternative--one that seemed intuitive to him as an RPG programmer. His search eventually led him to ASNA's Visual RPG (AVR) for Microsoft Visual Studio.

What prompted Bauer's dangerous liaison with Java and subsequent search for a less painful programming experience is a familiar story. Green-screen applications were becoming a burden for the end users at the company where he worked. Many of you have probably walked a mile (or more) in his shoes. You may even have retraced his footprints after a becoming disenchanted with Java and found yourself coding green-screen applications again. At some point it would seem that escape is futile. Almost, but not quite.

Bauer's IT career started out when he took a job as a swing shift operator on a System 38. He was 19 years old, but he showed some initiative by reading technical books and trying to learn the System 38 on his own. Eventually the company invested in some IBM training and he learn how to program. That was 20 years-plus years ago and now he's 42--still not too old to learn something new.

In his current job, Bauer is a senior systems analyst and application developer for First Look Studios, a film distribution and production company in Century City, California. He works alongside two other RPG developers. All three develop in RPG IV, and Bauer has experience with free format RPG. He's the only programmer at First Look who uses AVR for .NET.

During the product search process, a variety of third-party vendors were considered including LANSA, BCD, and Profound Logic. "All the products that I looked at were fairly comparable," Bauer said, "but ASNA, to me, made more sense. It seemed more intuitive to me. What really drove it home to me was that development is in Visual Studio--something that is standard and everyone recognizes.

The First Look data center is a mix of SQL Server and an iSeries. Bauer said ASNA is a perfect fit because ASNA's DataGate product has the capability to talk to both databases using RPG syntax that is familiar to the staff. Because he got up to speed quickly with AVR for .NET, he's confident the others on his staff will do the same.

Bauer purchased the AVR.NET product (on his own and with his own money rather than on the company's dime) and began learning how to use it on his own time. As in most IT departments, he and his staff had plenty of work to do without an additional project, so he experimented with AVR for .NET a couple hours each night for about a month. Because of his RPG IV and free format RPG skills, he found AVR for .NET "intuitive," but the leap from earlier versions of RPG may not be so graceful.

"I spent some late nights learning by trial and error," he admitted. And although the home schooling went well enough, apparently learning from some experienced teachers made a big difference. "When I went to the ASNA office (in San Antonio, Texas) for training, it really brought things to light and I felt that I was able to create viable Web applications for production environments instead of just experimenting. The learning curve for AVR was not nearly as steep as the curve for learning Java, but I should mention that AVR is definitely different than the RPG of yore."

To get a picture of the application used by the accounting and operations departments at First Look, imagine a green-screen interface that allowed users to see the shipment-and-returns information that is used to update inventory, invoice orders, and process credits. Bauer described the application's capabilities as "limited at best." He also said the green-screen application was difficult for new employees to master and they would find excuses for not using it. Information avoidance is not usually found in anyone's best practices list.

"I took it upon myself to develop a Web application that would be flexible and allow users to research shipment and credit information more efficiently," he said. After completing what he called "a beta version" of the application, Bauer asked the end users for feedback on what he had developed. "They were all pleasantly surprised and asked me to roll it out as soon as possible," he said.

Although specific metrics on application use and time saved due new efficiencies are not being tabulated (Bauer says the current IT workload makes that a luxury and not a necessity), it is widely believed that users are able to more quickly locate pertinent information and worker efficiency has been raised.

"What used to take hours and sometimes days, can now be accomplished in a matter of minutes," he said. "The users like the interface and have been asking for more, and the Web application has changed the attitude of the users toward the system. They have gone from an application they felt they must use to an application they actually want to use."

Modifications to the application are ongoing as feedback and new suggestions flow like a river right past the IT department door. "The project is ongoing," Bauer said, "and may be expanded to modernize our antiquated EDI interface."

What has happened here is not an application conversion process. This application is newly written from the ground up. It was completely independent of existing green-screen applications. Bauer described it as being "free of any green-screen functionality."

"Those green-screen applications are still out there," he said, "but they are being used less and less. Soon they will be gone."


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