The Job Market in 2006, Part 1: Are iSeries Shops Hiring?
Published: January 23, 2006
by Mary Lou Roberts
Last week, for a brief moment that most of us (except the short-sellers) hope will return soon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke 11,000. In and of itself, the Dow is not necessarily an indicator of employment. To be sure, stocks frequently rise when companies announce major layoffs and restructuring plans. But a steadily increasing stock market can certainly show confidence in the economy, and generally speaking, when the economy does well, hiring goes up.
That seems to be the case now. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the January 2005 report (data for December 2005) on the latest job numbers, showing that unemployment has dropped a tenth to 4.9 percent, and business hiring has increased another 108,000.
Nate Viall, president of iSeries recruiting firm Nate Viall & Associates, reacts to these numbers. "In my opinion, a bigger story is that total business employment is up 1.98 million since January 2005, which was the first time the numbers had been above the old 'Bush high' back in the first quarter of 2001 or the prior 'Clinton high' of first quarter 2000. The even bigger story is in the household survey numbers. Not too many pay attention to those figures. Today's household employment numbers [which include farm workers, the self-employed, and very small businesses] are 142.78 million. Those figures are now 6.9 million higher than their prior peak in March of 2001. That is the reason that it has become so difficult to find multiple quality candidates for positions at most levels and professions. They are all working."
Does this employment increase translate into IT hiring? Yes, say most of the pundits. But does it translate into hiring in iSeries organizations? What are the real people saying--those folks who are actually out there staffing the shops and doing the work? And just how difficult is it to locate and retain qualified iSeries professionals for today's needs?
To answer these questions, I got input from nine end-user shops in various geographies and several different industries, and five different ISVs in several product segments. This week we'll take a look at their responses to see what's really happening out there. Next week, in Part 2, I will drill down into their responses a little bit further.
First, let's look at the end-user shops.
John Matelski, chief security officer and deputy chief information officer for the City of Orlando, Florida, reports that the city has not budgeted for any staff increases and has no new initiatives underway that will necessitate an increase in staffing. This isn't a problem, he says. "We have been blessed to have one iSeries engineer [a former IBM engineer] on staff who has been able to manage all of our iSeries hardware and operating system support needs. About a year ago, recognizing that we needed to have a qualified backup in house, we retooled and trained an existing staff member, in essence doubling our iSeries support." In addition, the city has other people trained on the iSeries whose responsibilities are application specific.
Matelski is pragmatic about hiring people with iSeries experience, should the need arise. "When we were evaluating whether to hire a backup from outside of our organization or retrain from within, it became clear to us that the available resource pool is much smaller than other server solutions." But Matelski is not concerned. "Though the pool of iSeries candidates is typically smaller than that on other platforms, I am confident that we can still attract and retain iSeries staff should the need arise."
Saint-Gobain Containers isn't planning any IT staff increases either, according to Michael Crump, manager of computing services. Because Saint-Gobain is in an industry that is flat to declining, its budget calls for a flat headcount, no matter what the economy does. If and when it's necessary to augment staff, Saint-Gobain will do so with contractors or consultants.
In past years, Crump says that the company has not had too much difficulty locating qualified iSeries staff. He qualifies this, however, by saying that it has typically looked for employees with Domino experience and or WebSphere and Java experience, and these skills, says Crump, are rather transparent across platforms. "We will initially get a pushback about how different the machine is, but for these environments, it is about 99 percent the same, and typically the 1 percent issue is either naming convention or a specific piece of code that will only run on Windows or Linux."
Peggy Dunn, director of information technology for Puget Sound Blood Center reports that it has plenty of projects, but will probably use temporary help. As a non-profit organization, PSBC does not have the budget to bring on additional full-time staff.
Dunn also notes the difficulty she has had in finding qualified iSeries professionals. As a result, PSBC has hired inexperienced staff and trained them in-house to create RPG programmers with HTML or CGI experience as well as experience with WebSphere Development Studio Client and iSeries operations. "Some are willing to learn," she says, "but others prefer the more familiar Microsoft environment."
Richard Bryant, information technologies manager for Pylon Manufacturing says that his shop is not planning to hire additional staff this year, either. As far as ease of hiring iSeries staff, in the past he has done some internal training, but has found some resistance to the green screen. He also believes that "all-around iSeries pros do not exist. Either you're operations or you're programming."
Yet another company--this one in Canada--that is not planning to hire this year is GHY International, according to Nigel Fortlage, vice president of information technology. GHY did add one position last year, however, and Fortlage predicts that the first half of 2006 will continue to be positive, but is less optimistic about the second half. When GHY does hire iSeries staff, he says, it is "difficult but not impossible."
As might be expected, several shops wanted to remain anonymous when asked about their hiring plans. One such user in the travel segment also reports no plans to hire this year. But the MIS manager at this shop says that, in the past, it has been extremely difficult to secure qualified iSeries staff, even as system operators. His company is located in an area of the Northwest where there are no IBM offices nearby, and no IBM staff other than a certified engineer. "All of our sales support, education, training, and so forth involves a minimum 500-mile travel distance," he explains. "Needless to say, we don't see much of IBM in this area. To be fair, there are very few iSeries machines larger than an iSeries 800 or 810 in the area, but it is hard to see how they will sell too many without putting any resources into it." As a result, his company trains internally for system operator positions.
Difficulty in hiring iSeries staff would most likely not cause this organization to move away from the platform. But move away it might. "IBM's pricing for the Enterprise Edition versus Standard Edition will probably see us moving workload away from the iSeries whenever possible. We just had to upgrade our machine, and it was a truly horrible experience from the customer point of view. I expect us to make more use of Linux on satellite servers to avoid having to upgrade our main server again."
A second respondent, who wants to remain anonymous, comes from the manufacturing segment, and his organization isn't hiring either. This company's iSeries programming staff has remained stable for more than seven years. But during that time, its application suite has been evolving, with migrations to newer versions of financial, HR, manufacturing, distribution, Notes, and EDI packages. "This applications growth is mainly in Web-based applications: a data farm, customer order entry (Web in addition to EDI), and inbound logistics for offshore manufacturing. We have totally revamped our networking and telephone systems and went from being stragglers to being very up to date. All these activities involve the iSeries as a data source/destination. Call us 'stable but very busy.'"
Our third anonymous respondent is from city government, and he isn't hiring either. His experience with hiring iSeries staff in the past, however, has been inconsistent--easy to hire when other firms have laid-off good people, and difficult to hire when times are good. "We finally backed off looking for experienced people," he says, "and instead hired fresh out of tech programs, knowing a lot of training was going to be needed." In addition to knowing the iSeries, the MIS manager at this city wants his current staff to know the X64 server and desktop worlds as well, since it is trying to update green-screen applications to have a Web look and feel.
If you're counting, that's eight of eight end-user iSeries shops that are not planning to hire IT staff this year. But I finally found one! Unfortunately, though, the new addition will not be someone to work on the iSeries. Marshall Andrews, vice president and CIO for Station Casinos, reports that when and if its does hire iSeries people, it will be looking for RPG programming, DB2 database design, and business analysis--skills that are not easy to come by, says Andrews. "We should just train them ourselves, as long as they have the other skill sets needed to be a good programmer/analyst. Unfortunately, all that new developers want to do is GUI, .NET, Visual Basic, and Windows-based SQL."
OK. If end-user shops are not hiring iSeries staff, what's happening in the world of the ISVs?
Pete Elliot, director of marketing for Key Information Systems is bullish on IT hiring for 2006. His company is hiring not only in IT, but in sales and technical support functions as well, including staffing for its new offices in Irvine, California. Of this group, there is one new position for someone to install and support the iSeries. But this might not be easy. As Elliot says, "It is always difficult to find great people, and our first priority for hiring is IBM certifications. After that, we measure an individual on good customer relations, the type of relationships the individual has in the field with various customers, reputation, diligence, ability to complete tasks, and ability to collaborate with others and be a team player."
In the past, when necessary, Key has hired staff inexperienced with the iSeries and trained them. Specifically, they have had people with limited technical ability and a few with a Windows background. They then helped them to retool their skills to be proficient on the iSeries.
Steve Rosen, vice president of marketing for EXTOL, also expects to expand his IT shop, including new hires for the iSeries. "Many of our customers are iSeries shops, so we need developers, support, and professional services personnel with iSeries skills." Like others, he has little difficulty finding people with iSeries experience. The difficulty, he says, is in finding people with iSeries new technology skills such as Java and object-oriented programming experience.
Rosen's solution to the problem is to hire people without iSeries experience and train them. "Many of these individuals are recent college graduates, and they initially view the iSeries as 'legacy' technology. After they have some experience with the iSeries, they not only understand that the iSeries supports new technology, but they gain an appreciation for the stability and reliability advantages that the iSeries has over competing platforms. As an ISV, we develop products for multiple platforms. We claim to be 'platform agnostic,' but we consider the iSeries and i5/OS to be the most technically solid, scalable, and dependable platform available."
John Earl, chief technology officer for PowerTech notes that his company is planning to hire several people this year. "Depending on how well we do in the first half of the year, we could add as many of 15 people by year end." Will Earl have trouble finding the right people? Perhaps. "We're not tripping over the right candidates who have some combination of expertise with the iSeries, Java, Eclipse, security, Lotus, and Websphere. I know where to go to find RPG folks--but not necessarily those who have updated their skills."
The vice president of marketing for one well-known ISV wants to remain unnamed, but he's positive on the hiring outlook for 2006, predicting that his organization will more than double its staff this year after having doubled it last year. The new hires will be doing both maintenance work on the iSeries and new Java multi-platform development.
His experience, however, shows that hiring iSeries folks with the skills and experience his company values--ILE RPG and object-oriented development techniques-is very difficult. "iSeries pros are hard to come by, and unfortunately, many haven't kept up with the changes in the marketplace. It's very hard to find an RPG coder who also knows Java." When faced with a need to hire and an absence of experienced candidates, this company will train its own, and has found that candidates without iSeries experience do seem willing to learn and work on the platform.
Bytware will be hiring this year in a number of areas, looking for iSeries, pSeries, Linux, and Domino expertise, says Christine Grant, the company's president. But she describes the process of hiring people with iSeries experience as "challenging." Bytware is based in Reno, Nevada, which complicates the issue. "We look for senior-level programming skills and very few of those who meet the requirements are willing to relocate. To maintain our development standards and quality control, we have concluded that remote developers are not a viable solution for our company. Fortunately, however, Reno is an attractive area to many who are seeking a change, and most recently, we have had an increase in interested candidates."
In particular, what skills are they looking for? Multi-language capabilities (including RPG, C, C++, Java, and HTML), project management skills, an ability to learn and apply new technologies quickly, detailed documentation and testing habits, and an interest in multi-platform development. This might be difficult to find, but Grant avoids the train-your-own approach. "To offer our customers award-winning solutions, we must hire experienced iSeries programmers who require very little training and no hand-holding. We are not interested in training new programmers on the iSeries. As we enhance and expand our product lines to support IBM's initiative to support multiple operating systems on the iSeries, we are investing in cross-platform training for our existing iSeries development staff. New candidates will most likely be hired with fewer iSeries skills and more multi-platform skills."
Another executive for an iSeries ISV, who wishes to remain unnamed, is less optimistic about the increase in hiring for the coming year. In his company at least, net IT staffing numbers are not expected to change, though the company does expect to do some hiring after some employees leave through normal attrition. What will this ISV be looking for? Java skills and a background in working for a commercial software firm as opposed to those whose only experience is with end-user organizations. This company does some training across platforms, he says, but it is rare to move someone with other platform experience to a role exclusively working on the iSeries. "Generally speaking, technical staff prefer training on Java or Linux over more traditional platforms because it enhances their salary prospects," says this ISV executive. "We hope that Java and Linux skills will continue to proliferate as more and more organizations implement on these platforms."
So here's how it all shapes up:
- End user shops are in a hold pattern, with few expectations of hiring, especially for iSeries folks.
- ISVs are definitely optimistic and have iSeries jobs available. But RPG skills alone won't be enough to land one of these positions. Instead, Java skills are hot, and knowledge of multiple operating systems will carry a lot of weight.
What do these findings mean in terms of the future for the iSeries platform? Next week, I'll talk more about that.