i5/OS Curriculum Contingent on Job Prospects, Business Community
May 7, 2007 Dan Burger
The experience of learning and the experience of being educated are not the same thing. That’s why the IBM System i Academic Initiative is focused on bringing the business community into the program that is designed to fortify the ranks of college graduates with skills that will pay off for the users of System i. When the initiative got under way, the goal was reaching 20,000 students with a System i-related curriculum. That objective has been reached. Now, IBM wants to shift to building collaboration between students, colleges, and employers.
“We are reorienting our initiative,” says Elaine Lennox, vice president of marketing for the System i vision. “We have made a lot of progress in getting curriculum into the colleges. Now we are focused on getting those 20,000 students trained, and into internships and projects, and eventually getting them jobs in the workforce.”
Lennox and Linda Grigoleit, the Academic Initiative program manager for System i, were in Anaheim, California, last week at the COMMON user group conference. IBM always plays a big role at the COMMON. The top executives from the System i division are always on hand as are most of the front line technical people. It’s one of the factors that makes COMMON a unique experience.
To move the Academic Initiative from phase one, which was primarily involved with creating a new-and-improved i5/OS curriculum, to phase two, which is a job-focused approach, the emphasis is on bringing together the academic administrators and the local businesses. The common denominator is jobs. The administrators want to provide them for their students and the businesses want an employee pool with the skills most applicable to their IT requirements.
“We don’t just go to these schools as IBM,” Grigoleit explains. “We go in with our business partners and customers.”
Going in with business partners and customers means going in with the promise of jobs for graduates. That’s a powerful tool for persuasion. Colleges will make curriculum changes and include System i content when the job market dictates the need. To make this point, IBM has devised what it calls iSummit events. The iSummits are a gathering of System i business partners and end users in meetings that take place at schools where students are working on i5/OS skills. Within the past three weeks, iSummits have been held at colleges in Wisconsin, Texas, and California.
A showcase for successful collaboration is the Academic Initiative’s success at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The hotels and casinos in Vegas have a huge impact on the job market and the region’s economy. They also have been long-time customers of System i, iSeries, and AS/400 iron.
“We had several customers and ISVs with us at a roundtable meeting with faculty and department chairs at UNLV,” Grigoleit says. “They were from the gaming industry and they explained how they used the system and what their requirements were for skills.”
After that case was made, the deal was closed by connecting the dots between the System i, the high technology in place at these businesses, and the link to jobs. A lot of work went into organizing an iSummit, but, as Lennox points out, the important thing that was said is “We have clients here who need students with skills. Would you be interested in training?” The end result was that UNLV saw the jobs for graduating students really existed, so the school put in place new IT classes and curriculum involving the System i platform.
At many of the more than 300 schools involved with the Academic Initiative, there is interest from not only the MIS program but also the business departments where enterprise computing courses are being added to the curriculum.
Grigoleit says there will be more iSummits in Las Vegas to keep this ball rolling. “After the meeting in October, we were back to Las Vegas in March for another meeting with ISVs, and we honed in on what we want courses to cover. We plan to bring some key industry leaders into the school for guest speaker events. We will continue to work on the local relationships between the school and the customers and we continue to help one another.”
One of those industry leaders that Grigoleit alludes to could be System i general manager, Mark Shearer. On numerous occasions, Shearer has noted that the Academic Initiative is one of the most important endeavors that has been undertaken during his time at the System i helm. He backs that up with personal involvement in meetings with the colleges, most recently at the April 19 iSummit at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Although the promise of jobs is a major contributor to the program’s success, it’s not exactly a slam dunk for graduates to walk away from school with the type of knowledge companies eagerly seek. It goes back to the experience of learning and the experience of being educated not being the same thing.
Grigoleit and Lennox both agree that student projects and internships are important pieces in ultimately shaping the best job candidates. They are encouraging System i shops to work with the students by getting them into their businesses before graduation. At an ISV breakfast during COMMON, they worked the crowd to come up with six leads from companies that may be willing to start student intern programs.
“Students come out as graduates and there is a gap between their skills and the skills of the existing workforce,” Lennox says. “The skills of those who have worked years on the platform are based on real-life experiences. The graduates have none of that or comparatively little. What they do have is often based on projects and internships. One way to put students on an accelerated track is with internships and projects.”
Many times, the idea of bringing in students to work on projects goes nowhere because it is deemed to be more hassle than the end result warrants. Comparing internships and student projects, Grigoleit suggests student projects are a little less time consuming. “I tell companies that if you have a really good idea but don’t have the staff time to devote to it, put a team of students on it. Modernizing applications might be a good example.”
From an employer’s view, the skills that are most valuable often relate to fields such as operations and system administration. “They want people who can come in and operate the system,” Grigoleit says. “Other areas we hear a lot about are DB2 and WebSphere. There is a need for developers–the ISVs in particular are looking for developers.”
“People are looking for RPG skills, too,” Lennox says. But not just RPG skills. RPG and Web development is a better combination–someone who can maintain the current RPG apps and also do new Web development. “IBM’s new PHP and MySQL approach with System i can be interesting because we can go into colleges and say, ‘You are already teaching PHP and MySQL and open source applications anyway, so why not do that on System i?’ It gives us an in to get into other areas. Hey, it’s not necessary to make students learn RPG in order to get engaged with the System i.”