Midrange LUGs Are Changing the Way They Operate
February 26, 2007 Dan Burger
Adapt or die. The words represent the harsh reality of local user group (LUG) existence in the IBM System i community, which still often refers to itself with the collective moniker “the IBM midrange.” Since the later part of 2006, LUGs in two major metropolitan areas–Denver and Phoenix–have discontinued their operations. In other locations, LUGS are struggling to survive. There are strongholds, however, and they are doing relatively well with membership totals in the hundreds, regular meetings that are well attended, and annual tech conferences that are successful endeavors.
The difference between success and failure can be attributed to a combination on factors that have come into play during the past several years.
“I think user apathy was responsible for discontinuing the Front Range IBM User Group,” says Lonnie Kendall, the president of the Denver-area group when the decision was made to pull the plug in December. “We were having the same eight people show up for each meeting. Nobody was interested in joining. We went from monthly meetings to quarterly meetings to closing the doors.”
People don’t realize the value of networking, Kendall says. “They don’t want to take four hours out of their evening or afternoon to go to a meeting. If they need education they go out and do a Webcast or a search on Google or they go to IT Jungle.” One of the problems LUGs face, according to Kendall, is that other avenues to networking are being chosen over face-to-face meetings, and the same goes for education and training. These were hallmarks of the local user groups before problem solving went electronic.
Kendall’s frustration with the indifference shown by System i, iSeries, and AS/400 professionals boils over into anger due to the lack of interest by IBM in its OS/400 community. “I agree that a relatively small percentage of people in any profession are interested in being actively involved in LUGs or their equivalent networking organizations,” he says. “But when your overall group is small to begin with and you don’t have the backing of the corporation behind the product, it doesn’t matter how big of group you had, it’s going to die.”
The absence of IBM support for the Front Range LUG is more than a bit embarrassing. Kendall points out that IBM has a sizeable presence in Denver, with a disaster recovery center, a large tech center, and an office in Boulder. No local IBMers were involved until the last year, Kendall says. “Before that, we never even heard from them. Toward the end, IBM was willing to bring in speakers free of charge, but by then it was too little, too late.” Kendall served as president of the local user group for three years and was a member of the group for two years before that.
There’s a two-edged sword aspect to IBM’s involvement with local user groups. It’s needed to some degree, but it is also pushed away when it begins to feel like influence pedaling. The LUGs strive to maintain a level of autonomy and are sensitive to being served the Big Blue Kool-Aid without a break.
One of the most often cited recipes for success is to present interesting and entertaining speakers at the LUG meetings. IBM has several people with reputations for packing the house whenever they speak. Top on this list is Frank Soltis, chief scientist for the System i. Another is John Sears, IBM’s top database guru. George Farr, from the System i Toronto Labs, is another big draw. When IBM makes available speakers of this caliber, it is almost a guarantee that the normal attendance will be doubled, tripled, or often more. If there’s no speaker fee or expenses that need to be paid by the LUG, it obviously eases the burden on the user group while attracting more members and even nonmembers to an event.
Like the Front Range experience in Colorado, the PHUN/400 local user group in Phoenix got very little support from the System i division at IBM in trying to reinvigorate a once strong community. Bob Groom served as program director at PHUN/400 for more than six years. The meetings at this LUG were attracting 60 to 70 attendees just four or five years ago, but as it staggered toward extinction, the meetings were only bringing out four or five people. Groom says the group tried scheduling the meetings at different times of the day and eventually reduced the frequency from six times per year to four, all to no avail.
“Most of the members were on corporate memberships,” Groom says. “But I heard a lot of people say the companies they worked for would deduct time away from the office to attend afternoon meetings from allotted vacation days. Managers wanted their people to stay and work on projects. It’s the result of less people doing more work in a lot of instances.”
Bob Langieri, the vice president of publicity for the OCEAN user group in Orange County, California, says it’s his observation that companies are not encouraging employees to learn new skills. “Those people who learn new skills are taking it on themselves,” he says. This is true despite the fact that the companies they work for are not necessarily making use of the skills. “A lot of people are asking themselves ‘Why should I obtain these skills if my company isn’t going to contribute to my education and not going to use my new skills?'” Langieri says.
You might get the idea that many companies are unwilling or unable to invest in new technology and the skills of those people who can put it to use. That may be true, but there are companies that still make that investment, but with a closer watch on their return on investment.
The OCEAN user group is one of the LUGs that is doing well. It has more than 300 members and brings together 65 to 75 attendees at its monthly meetings. The universe of System i, iSeries, and AS/400 professionals is large in the Los Angeles area, which is a big help, but OCEAN has also done a good job of keeping the vitality of the organization high. Still, the membership today can’t match the numbers from six or seven years ago, when the LUG membership totaled more than 500.
Away from his volunteered commitments at OCEAN, Langieri runs an employment agency that specializes in filling job positions for companies that use the i5/OS and OS/400 platform. He understands the career development of the i5/OS and OS/400 professional and the job market. There’s no doubt in his mind that companies are not investing in IT skills like they used to do.
“Whenever a speaker asks for a show of hands to indicate how many people are using a new technology like a Web server or Java, and there are 50 people in the room, there will only be two or three hands raised,” he says. “If there is anything new being discussed, only about 5 percent of the attendees are using it.”
Although companies may be slow to adopt new technologies and the skill sets that accompany them, employers are still looking for skills that go beyond RPG programming and new skills always put individuals in a better position career wise.
Is the relationship between the job market and the health of LUGs tied? “The number of job openings has fallen off by at least one-half since the last boom days that occurred around the Y2K time frame,” Langieri says. “Business is off. I’m not seeing a lot of hiring at iSeries shops. I think the reduced number of jobs in the OS/400 universe plays a part in the demise of the LUGs.”
Another factor in declining attendance at LUG meetings has to do with people becoming more specialized and less interested in strictly the System i and i5/OS. They may be more focused on a specific type of software, like the J.D. Edwards ERP suite or middleware like WebSphere. Those specialists sometimes find new homes with specific user groups–and their monthly and annual conferences–rather than the more general System i and iSeries user groups. Often, those groups consist of users from a mixture of System i and iSeries platforms and other platforms, such as various Windows, Unix, or mainframe platforms.
In Tampa, Florida, the LUG, known as DEBUG, has recently gone from being devoted solely to the System i and iSeries platform to having a multiplatform agenda in an attempt to keep the membership and the interest levels up.
One thing that helps OCEAN keep its agenda fresh and interesting, Langieri says, is a program called “An Afternoon with the Experts.” Last year, the LUG organized five of these expanded topic sessions. “Because we have an expert coming from out of town, we figure why just do an hour and fifteen minutes of lecture if we can schedule two or three of those,” Langieri says. “None of the sessions are repeats of the same session. They are an intro to a topic and then a session or two of related topics. This is not at an additional charge. It’s part of a regular meeting and there is no meeting charge for our members.” The sessions typically begin in the middle of the afternoon and continue, with breaks in between, through early evening. Attendees have to take some time away from work to participate in all the sessions, but the concept is judged as successful for OCEAN, where an annual tech conference has also become an important and well-attended educational and training event for the membership.
Randy Dufault is the current president of the COMMON user group, which is not local in nature but rather international in scope; it is also the largest organization of System i professionals. The mission of COMMON and the local user groups is the same, with training, education, and networking opportunities high on the list of priorities. However, COMMON does not have any direct involvement with LUGs. Each LUG is operated independently, but collectively, along with COMMON, they are an important part of the System i community despite a best-guess estimation that overall the LUGs and COMMON represent less than 10 percent of all professionals who work in System i, iSeries, and AS/400 environments.
COMMON, which made the decision in 2006 to hold one national conference per year rather than two, has learned that fewer people can make it to large national gatherings because of travel restrictions, reduced training budgets, and the inability of many members to be away from the office for a week of training.
That realization has COMMON on a course to deliver educational opportunities in smaller packages–one-day or two-day events with specific topics–and on a more localized level. Particularly in areas where the local user groups have disappeared or do not have a locally run tech conference, Dufault says COMMON hopes to fill a need for education and maybe even help strengthen the LUGs in those areas.
Dufault is also a member of the Minneapolis-St. Paul User Group known as QUSER, although he is not a board member of that organization. By his description, QUSER was a LUG that ” languished for a while, but is picking up again with a full schedule. At a recent meeting with Dr. Frank we must have had 100 people show up.” He says support from IBM and the local System i vendor community, along with some new volunteerism, has brought it back. “The core group of volunteers is what makes COMMON fly,” Dufault says. “I think the same is true with the LUGs. But in any volunteer organizations you run the danger of people burning out. You have to work constantly to keep new people involved.” From Dufault’s perspective, “the marketplace has caused COMMON and the LUGs to change the way they operate.”
There’s no doubt about that, and it seems likely that more changes are ahead for the user group community, local and otherwise.