OS/400 Shops Share Their Training Experiences
June 19, 2006 Mary Lou Roberts
Last week, I explained that many OS/400 shops are preparing for (if not already experiencing) a shortage of trained resources on the platform. As AS/400 and iSeries stalwarts head toward retirement, and colleges are turning out fewer and fewer students who have experience with much other than Windows or Linux systems, users are looking to build their own RPG programmers and system administrators.
In the prior article I examined some of the alternatives that users have for training new programmers to support those business critical legacy systems. This week, I’ll look at what a few users have to say about their training approaches and experiences.
John Matelski, chief security officer and deputy chief information officer for the City of Orlando, says that his organization recognized some time back that its iSeries support staff needed to be bolstered for a number of reasons. With that in mind, the city redirected and retooled other staff to ensure that it had “bench depth,” minimizing the impact that the loss of any single person would have, whether it was due to retirement, promotion, or people moving on to greener pastures.
As a result, Matelski does not divide the City of Orlando’s staff of 84 technology professionals into iSeries, Windows, or Linux niches. Having said that, however, he does report that the city currently has one iSeries engineer, one “protégé” who is learning the ins and outs of supporting the iSeries, one security officer who has extensive iSeries administration experience, and a computer operations manager (also with extensive iSeries experience) who can support the platform as needed. From a software support standpoint, a four-person team supports an iSeries-based law enforcement application, a two-person team supports the Lotus Notes/Domino iSeries implementation, and a two-person team supports the iSeries-based HRMS application. As backup, there are four or five additional staff members with excellent iSeries administration background who, although they have moved on to other technologies, could be brought back into the mix should the need arise.
In order to maintain the bench depth, the organization did, however, train one system administrator recently, using the IBM Education Center in Tampa, Florida, though Matelski adds that the training included “exceptional mentoring from in-house staff.” For Orlando, this approach appears to work well, and the MIS staff would definitely repeat this process again. But Matelski cautions that this approach may not be for everyone in every situation. “What I can tell you is that our mentor and ‘mentoree’ are both extremely talented individuals who have a tremendous work ethic and a willingness to train and learn.”
The total amount that City of Orlando has spent on platform training in the last two years is $8,000, says Matelski. “In addition, on average, approximately 15 percent of our iSeries engineer’s time has been focused on mentoring over the same time frame.” People from Matelski’s organization sometimes attend COMMON and take advantage of the training available at the conferences. “I consider COMMON to be a wonderful complement to our training, and would encourage organizations to take advantage of the full COMMON value proposition,” he says.
Puget Sound Blood Center (PSBC) is an independent, volunteer, nonprofit organization that provides blood and tissue research and education. Peggy Dunn, IT director, reports that most of her organization’s staff of 10 RPG programmers and three operations staff have 10 to 15 years until retirement. “I am very concerned about training new staff to take over.”
In the past, PSBC has relied on in-house training and community colleges for its iSeries training needs. Currently, the organization is using a highly experienced system administrator and a book to train a new system administrator. In addition, Dunn says that, because the organization has three iSeries servers, it wanted to train its Windows desktop support and help desk staff to have an understanding of i5/OS as well. To accomplish that, PSBC holds bi-weekly, in-house training sessions, led by a “seasoned iSeries veteran,” for 10 people, though she comments that finding the time to hold the classes on a regular basis is a challenge.
PSBC also has its staff participate in Webinars, the cost for which Dunn considers reasonable at about $300. “We also send two staff members to iSeries Technical Conferences, COMMON, or other iSeries conferences each year, which usually costs $2,000 to $2,500 per person. We do not send people to IBM training because they do no offer anything in our city and it is too expensive to send someone out of town for a week of training.”
Dunn has not experienced any trouble–at least not yet–in finding RPG programmers, mainly because the organization has experienced little turnover and hasn’t had much need to search. System administrators are another story.
“We have not had much luck finding system administrators and have had to bring in inexperienced people and train them.” That’s not easy, Dunn says. “It is very difficult to find anyone familiar with the iSeries and also very difficult to train Windows staff on the iSeries. My theory is that back in the day when most of us were learning the AS/400, Windows didn’t exist. Because Windows is so dominant on home computers today, that is what most people know, and it seems to be difficult for them to understand another OS when they have Windows experience and nothing else.”
Dunn’s main concern is attracting new people to the platform. She says that many people see the iSeries as old and outdated, and they have no desire to learn it because they think it won’t be around much longer. “The iSeries community has been slow to adopt GUI applications, making the character-based applications seem old and outdated. It doesn’t seem to matter to the end users that an application is functionally sound. If it doesn’t have a GUI interface, they don’t want it.”
The Way, a worldwide, non-denominational Biblical research and fellowship ministry based in Ohio, faces an interesting training challenge, since most of its applications are currently written in COBOL. However, Michael Quigley, programming coordinator, has begun an internal campaign to do more of its development work in RPG. “IBM has given RPG more attention than COBOL, and I believe it would open a lot of training options for us,” he says.
As an aside, Quigley notes that he also wants to begin exploring EGL, short for Enterprise Generation Language. He says, “I personally find that somewhat paradoxical since IBM is so adamant these days in teaching ‘standards-based’ and not providing something different from the rest of the world. COBOL is a standard language. RPG is an IBM language. Yet IBM won’t provide a direct and simple browser-based interface that will let you read and write directly to a browser just like a 5250 screen.”
At any rate, Quigley is quite concerned about staffing and training. The organization has four full-time and one part-time programmers and one system administrator, and one of the programmers is already nearing retirement. “But we have a shortage of staff even without that retirement,” Quigley says.
In the past, The Way has done its COBOL training in-house using vendor-supplied, online courses and expects to use that approach in the future, regardless of the language, “unless we find a suitable alternative.” But Quigley laments that it is difficult to find new hires who are “ready to roll” on the platform.
The City of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, currently has a staff of four programmers and one systems operations person. The organization outsources system administration. According to Ed Castle, IT manager, staff ages range from the late 20s to the early 50s. He anticipates the retirement of one IT management staff person in the next several years.
In recent years, all training provided to his staff has been in the area of building Web-facing RPG applications using BCD’s WebSmart tool. For that, the organization brought in the vendor to train staff on-site, and being on-site had its advantages, says Castle. “The cost was about the same as sending staff out of town, but being on-site, we had all of our staff available in case they were needed to assist with problems. The training went very well, and the 4.5 days cost approximately $10,000.” While Castle doubts that Sioux Falls will need full staff training again any time in the near future, if it did, he would not hesitate to bring in a trainer.
Castle reports that, to supplement their training needs, his organization tries to send someone to COMMON every other year. He describes COMMON’s training as “okay.”
For these users (admittedly a small sampling), the in-house model–whether using vendor-supplied courseware or a live trainer–seems to work the best, complemented periodically by what is available at COMMON. But most of them agree that COMMON can’t do it all–nor was it designed to.
Mike Crump, IT manager for Saint-Gobain a construction, materials, and packing company with headquarters in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, believes that “COMMON is not good for detailed training. I am a huge believer in COMMON and it’s a great vehicle for creating partnerships and getting a 50,000-foot view on a subject. But COMMON has its limits.”
Any single training model, of course, has its limits, and no one model will work best for all companies or even all situations within one company. Perhaps Crump sums it up best in predicting what the future holds for training System i professionals: “I think it will take a combination of training vehicles–college courses, vendor off-site/on-site training, technology transfers, and online training–to accomplish our goals.”