COMMON’s Curriculum Is OK; It’s IBM that Needs to Change
March 20, 2006 Brian Kelly
The COMMON conference, which gets underway next week, has always been a great place to be–even now in its reduced state of capabilities and offerings. It is still an awesome education deal. It’s just not as much fun anymore, and while that is important, there are other things that are more important. Like RPG and DB2/400.
From my first session, I was in awe of such a wonderful conference for many reasons – not just education. In many ways, other than the respectable dress code, it was very much like a King’s College outing as I recall them from when I was an upper classman and, of course, an under-classman. I would have gone to King’s just for the outings. Other than at the King’s outings, I had never seen education and fun getting along quite so well as at the early COMMON conferences.
The sessions were great and COMMON had this thing called a discussion session (COMMON Users Discussion Session) from 6 p.m. until midnight of the conference from arrival to departure. At the CUDS of 1979, for example, there was no charge for admissions or refreshments. Though I was 31 at the time, I felt like I was 21 and the cost and the merriment really mattered to me. (I also at 31 still had the budget of a 21-year-old.)
You may find this hard to believe, but the “tea” was top shelf, and the pouring was by the attendee. There were no “tea tenders.” In 1979 and for a few more years after that, the best, brightest, and most relevant System/34 and System/38 IBMers (John Sears, Jim Sloan, Al Schmidt, and many others), presented sessions in the daytime and relaxed at CUDS almost every night while engaging in helpful conversations within the upbeat din of their surroundings.
I must repeat that it cost nothing for any attendee (including the IBMers, who when on away business were free to expense only the food part of their meals.) to enjoy the evening. The former all-volunteer COMMON believed that such discussions were often more valuable than the sessions themselves. For IBMers, such as myself, the cost of enjoyment and conversation at CUDS was fully covered in the conference fee, which was in turn fully covered by IBM. There was no reason at all not to be a CUDS regular.
Though IBM encouraged its employees to participate in CUDS, the company cautioned its employees at the pre-conference 7 a.m. Monday morning breakfast to “distinguish yourself; but not at CUDS!” For some IBMers, since CUDS began on Sunday evening, regretfully, the IBM caveat came a bit late.
COMMON Then and Now
My first COMMON was in New Orleans in the fall of 1979. So, I am not sure that I have more COMMON years than Bob Tipton, but I know he definitely has more sessions than I do. After being at COMMON once, I wanted to go every chance I could, but being an IBM branch office systems engineer (SE) with access to all of IBM’s education (from the education budget), it was tough getting approval from certain IBM managers over the years to spend dollars from the marketing budget to send me to COMMON. Never ready to say die, I used two tricks to get to the conference that were pretty clever. I had to come up with the second trick after the first one stopped working.
The first trick was to have one of my customers request that I attend with him so that he could be introduced to the right IBMer to solve the perplexing installation-threatening issue du jour or to request a special product enhancement that would result in much more IBM branch office revenue. This stopped working as the reports of how much fun I was having at COMMON reached local management. I recall my summary comment to my peers on returning from my first COMMON in New Orleans: The conference could have been in Glen Lyon (a small berg near Scranton, Pennsylvania, my hometown) and would have been as much fun. . . and it was fun! Once my 31-year-old cohorts and I got the full impact of the CUDS experience, as hard as it may be to believe, we saw little of Bourbon Street for the rest of the week. For over 10 years, COMMON was my favorite social and technical event.
My second successful trick came after I had been shut out for a few conferences. The old techniques stopped working. Then I got wind that the local offices considered it an honor for an IBM SE to be invited as a speaker to the conference. For such “honors,” IBM funding was always available. So, as I was finishing up my MBA, I took my queuing theory knowledge and built a presentation called, “queuing theory and the effects of waiting lines on response time.” My teaser, as I recall was, “why doesn’t 90 percent utilization mean there is 10 percent left?” COMMON approved my session submission and I was a regular speaker for a few years and always a regular at CUDS–for both the technical enrichment and the merriment.
In 1992, when IBM was changing its distribution model, I found it opportune to accept an early retirement package along with most SEs. When thinking about what I was about to do in my life, I got an uncommon offer from College Misericordia in Dallas, Pennsylvania, and I quickly accepted it. Among other sweet items, part of the offer enabled me to attend the COMMON conference twice a year. I spent five years at the college before I left to spend all of my time running my consulting practice. For those of you doing the math, even after leaving IBM, I found COMMON a conference of enough value to show up at 11 more conferences, which just happened to be during the AS/400’s formative Internet years.
Around this time, some of the COMMON leaders were apparently getting restless about all the funding necessary for CUDS. In these newly politically correct days, COMMON’s leadership acquiesced and embarked on a path to soothe the concerns of those who felt that untaxed “tea” did not belong at COMMON’s party. The majority who felt otherwise were obviously not consulted. COMMON even chose to put on two separate CUDS sessions. How’s that for splitting experts into two camps? There was the “tea” session and the “teetotaler” session. Rumors have it that the teetotaler session was empty of experts, but that has never been confirmed. (Certainly not by me. I wasn’t in the teetotaler half, for sure.)
With concern for the cost of running conferences and the need to reduce expenses, COMMON eventually chose to reduce CUDS hours and institute a charge for “tea” type refreshments. This charge had the unintended effect of chasing cheap IBMers, such as me, from the halls of CUDS. Oh, I did check it out, but it was as if Santa had gifted all parents with Santa suits and it was now their job to get the midnight thing done in less than a second.
If you have seen some of what I have written over the years, you know I do not give COMMON a pass on this decision and I have written several articles about this COMMON phenomenon. I just couldn’t get over how quickly the magic was gone when this decision was implemented. So was the crowd. Yet, COMMON leadership and major influencers at the time had other things on their collective minds.
In addition to my conclusion that it made little sense that COMMON would eliminate or even alter one of its greatest and most successful attractions, it also affected my ability for revelry without being forced to extract funds from my family. It was not to my personal advantage to have to pay out of pocket for a mainstream (not a side event) part of the conference. It also put a bad taste in my mouth that so few were able to change something so wonderful for so many. I feared what the new COMMON had in store for its future.
From this great break in tradition, CUDS has been minimized in COMMON as COMMON attendance continues even now to decrease. This was my fear and this is what has happened. Yet, a vocal minority continued to try to convince the COMMON Board, which ironically did not seem to see a cause-and-effect relationship with CUDS and attendance. Considering the leaders I knew always seemed to have a problem leaving CUDS before the final whistle, it was an even stranger course of events.
As finances got tight with COMMON, the conference fee was increased from as little as $300 in the 1990s to well over $1,000 today. Today’s fee includes fewer days, shorter sessions, and less discussion time. While simultaneously increasing the conference fee and charging for CUDS, COMMON also reduced the impact of CUDS on its budget by, in essence, making it optional, providing less space, and by reducing the hours that it was available. If you compared the “cash refreshments available” in the 2005 fall conference CUDS schedule to the “free refreshments available” 1979 schedule in New Orleans, you can see that COMMON has reduced CUDS from 30 hours of availability in 1979 to six and a half hours in 2005–if you count the four hours of formal “experts” presentations that take place in a forum called CUDS but is really not CUDS.
In other words, assuming that the draw of free refreshments was there in 2005, and that the “experts” continued to attend CUDS without special designated presentation times, one could conclude that 80 percent or more of the value of the CUDS component had been removed from the conference compared with what was available in 1979.
It is clear to me that COMMON recognized that it had done something wrong with CUDS. When there were no longer any experts with whom to discuss matters, short of admitting a big mistake and fixing it by returning CUDS to its former glory, COMMON chose to make two sessions out of CUDS and that actually left just two and a half hours of free, at-will discussion time on just one night of the week. COMMON has been trying to fix this for a long time without considering that maybe it was not broken in 1979. But, trying to fix something that was not broken by continuing to reduce the availability of CUDS and make it more formal has not worked for COMMON and it will never work.
Rather than institute the incentives that the wise founders of their organization built into the format almost 50 years ago, COMMON leaders chose to forget that a well-run CUDS would be a natural people magnet. So the politically correct COMMON chose to impinge on the experts who give of their time during the day to take some time out for “The Gipper.” The organization informally (I think) scheduled the experts and speakers to two sessions called “Ask the Experts” and “Ask the Speakers.” To me, that is a tacit admittance that the natural draw of CUDS was gone and something unnatural had to be done or somebody would have to eat crow. Since crow is not a preferred meal, it is easy to see what happened. It’s still not working, however. Relevant or not, it is not working.
If you read COMMON’s literature for the 2005 fall conference, you will find that the organization continues to sell CUDS as an opportunity to meet the experts. You will see however, that the organization has spent the last 10 years or more reducing the opportunity for attendees to freely meet those experts. It is now a mere two and a half hours–less than 10 percent of the time available in 1979.
Note: I could not find references to 1979 events on the COMMON Web site, and my personal recollection is not that specific (for obvious reasons, since I was learning and having fun). However, my first cousin Joe, who was a very prominent banker in Wilkes-Barre, was attending a banking convention with his wife Cathy at the same time so I know I can get the date from him if it becomes a credibility issue. It was hot, but it’s always hot in New Orleans. Joe never gave away any of my secrets from his personal observations, so my marriage was unaffected by the event per se.
To rehash, about the time that COMMON began to get as expensive as IBM’s customer education, COMMON announced that it was cutting expenses by charging for CUDS. Yet, prices kept going up. COMMON eventually reduced its CUDS space from three ballrooms to one ballroom. Refreshments were no longer included in the price. So, there is lots less for more. For me, it became more and more difficult to afford to go to the conference and it was not as good once I got there. The conference was less valuable, and it was less fun. I have written about COMMON being fun a number of times in the past (see COMMON Should Spell F-U-N, from two years ago, in this newsletter).
What Needs to Change? IBM a Lot More Than COMMON
COMMON is often in the news, but not for its CUDS or its fun. In a December 14, 2005, column in a rival publication, Bob Tipton, one of the best speakers I have ever heard on any topic and a top award speaker at COMMON in just about all, if not all, of his 48 COMMON conferences, offered his thoughts on the relevance of COMMON in today’s iSeries/RPG world.
In his piece, Tipton writes that the payback to the business for sending attendees to COMMON is not so easy to determine because “today, it’s not so simple (or ITs not so simple).” So it is difficult to conclude that COMMON is still relevant. I agree, but I would like to add that the IT people are not clawing at management’s door to let them go.
Tipton continued, “The explicit benefit of attending a COMMON conference is not so easily measured, considering the primary audience is still the RPG programmer. How many businesses in the world are betting their future on new RPG-based applications on the iSeries? Not many.” Now, I also agree that the primary audience of COMMON has been the RPG programmer. After all, don’t the C/C++ programmers and the Java programmers have their own conferences to go to?
Tipton did credit Mark Shearer and IBM’s well invigorated marketing team with some iSeries marketing push that has been missing for some time. Additionally, he astutely noted that none of the good stuff that has happened has had anything to do with RPG. In fact, Tipton said: “Zippo. Nada. Nothing” as the answer to his own question about what all of this has had to do with RPG. Tipton concluded by saying that slowly but surely, “COMMON’s relevance in the market is disappearing. Everyone knows it, but few it seems are taking concrete steps to do anything about it.”
Again, I agree, but I don’t blame the RPG programmers or the notion of RPG in general for the lack of relevance today. In fact, RPG programmers are victims just as COMMON is a victim of IBM choosing to homogenize its product lines. Pardon me for mentioning “homogenization” in the enlightened days following the iSeries management. Even IBM cannot undo 10 years of neglect in one year. So I, too, credit the new team for trying to make the product a profitable, growth engine even if the focus is running all kinds of workloads rather than on the special features of RPG and DB2/400 that make it appropriate for business applications. As I have said before, I want IBM to enliven the OS/400 platform with a Web-only browser interface and it is not about to re-enfranchise its abandoned RPG community with real enhancements that make RPG better in form than Windows, Unix, etc.
Because IBM fails to speak emphatically on this important topic, its ambivalence is cause for concern. Without a statement of direction or an announcement, the RPG programmer continues to see IBM pushing Java and piece-parts Web products from ISVs, as well as its own WebFacing and HATS semi-solutions. Moreover, because there is no evidence to suggest that IBM is not OK with a green-screen console, ironically running on Windows, as its administrative system interface, there are few concrete reasons for the RPG programmer to be optimistic about the product’s future.
COMMON gets caught in the middle of all of this, of course. It has to devote itself to technologies that are foreign to the average iSeries RPG programmer so it can survive. However, if COMMON abandons the traditional RPG programmer, the iSeries may be the big casualty. I can see that if COMMON leaves the RPG fold, and IBM remains dubious in its support, iSeries programmers have reason to give up. If there will never be a day that they can produce work with the appealing form of that produced by the Windows developer without adopting Windows tools such as .NET and even WebSphere (a Windows-based product at its heart), maybe it is time to give up the ghost and follow COMMON’s lead into a new world.
However, it is not COMMON that enhances the capabilities of the iSeries–that’s IBM’s job. So far, IBM’s iSeries management team has chosen to capitalize on ways to increase iSeries revenue without having to address the needs of its only dedicated constituency–the RPG developer community. IBM has plugged the leak, but the boat is not moving forward.
The iSeries community has been disenfranchised from advanced technologies implemented the iSeries way (integrated and easy) for the past 10 years because IBM decided that it should develop one set of these technologies for advanced facilities and then deliver the one product with the same look and feel to all OS personalities. That has not worked with the iSeries culture, just as it did not work with the System/36 culture. The separation of the IBM software division from the iSeries division has exacerbated the problem. Yes, the software division has the answers and the answers are available on the iSeries, but when an iSeries person has to use these facilities on an iSeries, they have to be conversant with the Unix and/or Windows way of implementation. What’s that all about?
COMMON cannot change anything about what IBM wills and is ready to create for its iSeries system, even if it sticks with RPG. Of course, COMMON can choose to push IBM to do the right thing with regard to marketing the platform, as many of us have done over the years. If COMMON leaves the RPG community and tries to have the community chase COMMON, it will not work. Just like a history of things that have not worked when the OS/400 shops are not ready to move, COMMON itself would be taken under.
OS/400 shops have a “do it without fooling around” mentality. If COMMON identifies a series of piece-parts technologies that are the here and now for advancing skills without platform integration, the RPG developer will reject them and COMMON will become relevant only to Windows and Unix and Linux developers. It will lose relevance with its supporting constituency, RPG developers. If COMMON persists in leading the RPG development community on to its vision of better and more modern tools, rather than lobbying IBM to bring those tools naturally to the iSeries, COMMON will be a users group without users.
If advanced capabilities are not integrated into the fabric of the iSeries system so that existing RPG skills can be used, then the iSeries itself will become irrelevant to its own RPG developers. This will in turn make the iSeries itself, in its new all-everything machine form, as irrelevant to all constituencies as COMMON would become relative to the non-RPG world.
But, who would care?
What needs to be done so somebody does care?
If IBM clearly says no to a future system with a Web interface and natural RPG Web development capabilities, then RPG is on its way out, regardless of what happens to the all-everything iSeries. OS/400 native methodologies and facilities will die. To survive, COMMON would need to adjust. But even in this circumstance, I would caution COMMON to go slowly. iSeries shops would look at a quick COMMON defection in much the same manner as an IBM RPG defection. Neither would be looked upon kindly.
The bottom line is that everybody, including COMMON and the entire OS/400-RPG community need not give up unless IBM says to give up. Until last December, when I attended a local user conference in which a portion of the RPG community expressed fear that the iSeries and RPG was going away, I thought IBM had finally started to get it right. I have very soft information that the RPG/Web and the Web/GUI system interface are all going to happen. Because I feel that logic dictates that it would be ridiculous for this not to happen, it will happen. The last thing IBM needs is its biggest users group espousing Oracle and .NET because IBM chose not to share its doings with this important group of people.
The big question for RPG developers is the future of RPG. Just for this question to be valid it is clear that IBM has not been a good caretaker of RPG though it is the only caretaker of which I am aware. At the user’s group conference, the survival question appeared again to be looming. In fact, one participant suggested that iSeries shops should abandon RPG for any new development and the shop should hire easy-to-find .Net developers. The biggest problem, according to some who exchanged ideas in this session, is that there is no RPG talent to hire. The war stories that were exchanged would indicate that the exodus from iSeries to Windows-based, Web-capable systems is already occurring. The fear of this group is that when it gets meteor size, it’s going to blow out the iSeries.
Whatever is happening with RPG, nothing is more important to the iSeries community than natural Web interaction capability with existing Web artifacts. My recommendation to IBM is to find the development dollars for RPG. Stop building more built-in functions (BIFs) that are like C and Java. Spend the money to re-enfranchisement the community by providing RPG Web capabilities. Without form to go along with the iSeries advanced internals, top management in iSeries shops will take the machines away.
In the small- and medium-sized business world, as many of us already know, form (GUI) and cost (cheap) matter much more than function and reliability. The perception is that Windows form and cost leaves a lot of budget room for mistakes. Just buy another PC server. Adding another Windows box is an easy solution but now that the slippery slope to Windows has begun, more and more will fall. Regardless of how bad the experience may be, once the expensive IBM box leaves the room, unless the business absolutely cannot get by, the shops do not ever come back to the iSeries.
IBM must see this as a problem for COMMON and for the RPG development community to continue to live in harmony and for i5/OS to survive. I have been suggesting for some time now that that IBM change its iSeries name to something more meaningful. “System i5” is an improvement over “iSeries,” but I like “International Business System” or “International Business Server.” As long as “business” is the machine’s middle name, that is the marketing happening right there. With RPG as an IBM-invented business language, it is about time for a new language name here also.
I propose the “International Business Language” as its name.
I would also suggest an implementation of RPG across IBM’s other platforms. The lament in the user’s group I recently attended was that since nobody really knows the OS/400 platform other than the OS/400 community, and nobody knows RPG outside of that community, nobody is motivated today to learn RPG. Even at Marywood College, where I teach and where we have an IBM education system, the school has chosen to teach Java and Visual Basic rather than RPG. If RPG were viable on other platforms, this would help iSeries affinity, increase iSeries sales, and it help sell another IBM-unique business language: The “International Business Language,” formerly RPG.
What IBM needs to do is explain why RPG is actually better than Java for real businesses, and start making it a standard. That is the surest way to reinvigorate the OS/400 platform, the COMMON user group, and the entire OS/400 community.