Volume 15, Number 24 -- June 12, 2006

The Dollars and Sense of Training Newbie RPG Programmers

Published: June 12, 2006

by Mary Lou Roberts

Look around at your fellow workers in IT. If you're in a typical AS/400 shop (yes, I said "AS/400" on purpose), you might notice one thing about your cohorts that constitutes a significant difference from those whippersnapper Windows folks. No, I don't mean that you're working on a stable, reliable platform and they aren't; I'm hinting at the fact that you probably have more gray hair then they do--and perhaps a little more paunch as well. You also are more likely to spend weekends with the kids (or grandkids?), to remember the days when no one had personal computers, to have personal recollections of Watergate, and to be giving at least some preliminary thought to retirement.

No one knows for sure just how many platform stalwarts are over the age of 45, but there's one thing we're certain of: it's significant. In the next decade, we can expect to see a fair number of them trade in their green screens for golf greens, and their treks to COMMON for cruises or trips abroad.

This trend is already leaving some OS/400 shops with a bit of a problem. Those legacy RPG apps aren't going anywhere fast. (Why should they? They still run more reliably and get the job done better than the stuff that runs in other operating environments.) Companies still need RPG programmers to maintain and even to build new RPG applications. But the community colleges just aren't turning out the new blood that's needed to continue to support the platform. In fact, many colleges have pulled their programs for lack of enrollment. The new kids, it seems, simply aren't interested in learning RPG, and most of them have never heard of the System i. And if, by some chance, they are aware of any of the numerous predecessor names for the platform, they consider it "old technology."

The impact of the decline in well-trained people coming to the platform was complicated when the 1990's bubble burst with layoffs and hiring freezes. Some experienced OS/400 people hit the streets, and many of them exercised one of several options: they retooled their skills and got jobs working on other platforms; they changed careers entirely; or they simply dropped out of the workforce, taking early retirement.

But times are better now. Companies are beginning to hire again--and wise managers are looking at the aging workforce and thinking that they'd better find a way to train new blood. Those who are looking to back up their RPG and system administrator resources have several options. You can do it in-house with training courses delivered face-to-face, over the Internet, or on CD-ROM. You can send trainees to courses offered in local/regional settings. And then, of course, there's always COMMON.

There are several companies around that specialize in providing training for the iSeries. While most of them have, in recent years, been doing more and more training for the newer capabilities of the platform (WebSphere, Java, and logical partitioning, for example), it seems that demand for RPG programming and iSeries/System i system administrator courses is on the upswing, giving testament to the need many shops are experiencing for replacement staff.

Bill Hansen, president of Manta Technologies, a firm that offers computer-based courses that can be taken over the Internet or delivered on CD for local installation, reports that all sales have been going up, and he anticipates that his company's current year (ending June 2006) sales will beat 2005 by 25 percent, with the largest growth in online delivery. "Our RPG and system administration courses reflect these trends," he says. He is not sure if these numbers are attributable to increased activity in traditional iSeries shops, new iSeries sales, or decline in competition. He does note, however, that Manta is "seeing a wide mixture of customers, from shops finally moving to RPG ILE to those implementing Web-based solutions."

Larry Vermillion, president and owner of Automated Training Systems, who has been in the business of offering training for the IBM midrange for more than 30 years, agrees that the need for RPG training is on the rise. "There really is a shortage of people right now in the AS/400 marketplace. I don't know how some of the people in these companies are doing it; they have fewer people now than they did several years ago, and they are getting more work done. But they need more help. There's been a tightening of staff, and for some of them, it's retirement time."

Vermillion maintains that his company is getting a lot of business now from companies whose staffs are retiring. He also observes that for a few years, people were just looking for training on topics like WebSphere and "the more leading-edge stuff." That has changed, he contends, in just the last six months with a return in demand for RPG training. "A lot of companies are looking for people to do maintenance on the older systems. What we tend to get is a lot of people who come from the mainframe side or who come right out of college knowing the PC. Companies want to put them through RPG training to support the applications on the AS/400."

It's a given, of course, that no two situations are exactly alike. The IT experience level, even of those fresh out of college, can differ. The amount of time that others within the company can devote to mentoring the learning process will vary. Some folks do quite well learning by themselves with a CD; others excel in face-to-face settings. Some are disciplined in self-taught situations; others prefer the structure of a regulated pace. And it's not unusual for people who are trying to concentrate on the learning process to be distracted (either self-imposed or by managers and co-workers) by the day-to-day pressures of immediate business needs. We don't all learn in the same ways or in the same settings. Companies seeking to "build their own" RPG programmers need to take all of these factors into consideration.

Having said that, let's look at some of the options for training new RPG programmers and, for the sake of argument, let's assume we're talking about training a recent computer science graduate who has taken programming courses (but not RPG) and who has no experience with the System i. Please note that the numbers offered below do not represent an apples-to-apples comparison. The course offerings/series differ by vendor. Potential discounts have not been taken into consideration. And different delivery models are presented. The dollars and person-hours given should be viewed through that prism, and companies looking for RPG training should evaluate the particular needs of the organization and of the students, which will be different in every instance.

With Manta's course offerings, the first step would be to take the series of courses entitled "Introduction to the iSeries Environment." Manta estimates the approximate study time for the entire series to be seven to 10 hours. The next step in the Manta offering is the "RPG Programming Series." The approximate study time for this series is 18 to 24 hours. Overall, then, Hansen estimates 25 to 34 person hours for completion of the full course.

The price will vary, depending on the delivery method and the number of concurrent users, says Hansen. But the base price is $110 for a single course that is taken online, or $179 for the CD version. The Manta Web site compares these costs with that of in-house class offerings from companies such as IBM and concludes that the total cost using Manta courses is less than half. "While the base cost for the course was somewhat less for Manta, the greatest savings were due to two other factors. The most obvious is the cost of transportation, lodging, and meals, which can exceed the course cost by a large amount," he says. But Hansen also points out that, with a classroom-based course, a large part of the day is spent on logistics (coffee breaks, bathroom directions, etc.). Another large part, he says, is spent bringing the slower learners in the room up to speed. Still another part is waiting for the instructor to finish his or her sentence. He contends that most programmers are visual learners who read and comprehend at much faster speeds than an instructor can talk, with the result that student-led training goes faster than instructor-led training. "For computer-based training on highly technical subjects, this industry average 'compression ratio' is 2 to 1. As a result, one Manta course of 2 to 3 hours typically covers the same material as a full day of classroom training. When you are paying the salary of the student, this is a major cost savings."

RPG courses over at ATS are offered almost exclusively via self-paced, audio-directed, Internet computer-assisted training classes. They too are bundled into several different series that include iSeries-AS/400 Programming Training and iSeries-AS/400 Operations Training.

The prices of the individual courses vary, ranging from about $295 to $1,000. Typically, the RPG bundle sells for about $7,000, but Vermillion says it's on special right now for $3,500. Once purchased, the company can train as many people as it wants. If asked to budget a number for training an RPG programmer right out of college, he suggests $3,500 and approximately one month of time.

Despite the advantages of the CBT and WBT training models, some people still learn better and are more comfortable in the face-to-face setting. For these folks, there are resources like instructor Bryan Meyers who offers several series of classes (an introductory series, a series for current RPG III programmers, and a series for current RPG IV programmers). These are all offered as private, onsite lab workshops at the client site. In addition, his RPG for RPG Programmers series of classes and RPG Modules, Procedures and Service Programs classes are available as live, online scheduled classes or on DVD.

Meyers charges from $300 to $800 for the DVD/online classes. Client-site classes are quoted individually, but Meyers estimates these costs as running between $4,800 to $9,000, depending on the length. "A typical track would take three days for a concepts class; five days for the Introduction to RPG IV class; and another five days for the more intermediate RPG IV and ILE class, for a total of 13 days of instruction.

The face-to-face setting is especially good, Meyers believes, in what he calls a "boot camp" for multiple new hires. "Depending upon the experience level of the programmers, this intensive training can last anywhere from three days to three weeks of onsite lecture/lab combination." When asked to recommend a budget number for training new RPG programmers, Meyers responds, "I don't usually present individual training. But for training a group of people, this schedule would typically cost about $24,000 for RPG." This would represent approximately 100 person-hours for the programmer.

In addition to the training companies, of course one can always look at what IBM and COMMON have to offer.

"IBM recommends courses via specific training paths, which include IBM System i Programmers," explains Susan Levy, director of skills enablement for IBM's Systems and Technology Group. "These courses are available in both traditional, face-to-face classroom format and via distance learning. IBM also offers public classes via a schedule, or private classes via the custom service team." IBM also offers RPG training at the Spring and Fall Technical conferences.

Classroom training costs for the System i RPG Programming series are available on IBM's Web site, and range approximately $2,500 per class. (I haven't been able to verify this, but presumably this is just the cost for the public class and would not cover any custom training onsite or travel costs.)

And then there's COMMON, which, of course, bills itself as providing ". . . the latest innovative and successful IT education to iSeries and OS/400 users worldwide." There will, of course, be RPG classes offered at the Fall conference. But COMMON is not necessarily the best place to train a newbie RPG programmer; it is perhaps best for broadening the skill set of an existing one.

"COMMON does offer something for the training experience, but it can't do it all," explains Vermillion. "At COMMON, you have only a short period of time. It gets you introduced to the new stuff--for where the industry is going and for new techniques--but then you have to go back to a more organization training model to become proficient. In a week's time, you can't take someone from square one to an accomplished programmer. COMMON is a good place to find out what other people are doing and to talk with your peers." About IBM, he says, "IBM doesn't seem to do much of the basic training anymore. They prefer to do the more esoteric stuff."

Hansen agrees with this assessment. "While IBM and COMMON concentrate on what's new, our major strength has always been entry-level training for new employees," he says. "We take a curriculum approach to every subject, looking to supply what a typical employee needs to do the job."

So, if you find yourself in a position of concern over where the resources to support your RPG applications may be coming from in the future, the answer is likely to be, grow your own. The good news is, it's quite doable. "My feeling is that too many companies discount the value of their existing employees, both the older workers and the new hires," says Hansen. "With quality training, a mentoring program, and decent management, the necessary skills can be grown internally."

Next week we'll examine the RPG training experiences of several end users and find out what worked-and what didn't. If you have a training story to share (positive or negative) and have advice you believe can benefit others, please contact me at the IT Jungle contacts page.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Shannon O'Donnell,
Mary Lou Roberts, Victor Rozek, Kevin Vandever, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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