System i Skills: Building Bridges Over the Generation Gap
July 16, 2007 Dan Burger
Jim Buck is an IBM AS/400 and RPG veteran. He’s an old school guy with a career timeline that parallels OS/400 development. Five years ago, he was a one-man IT department at a small hospital in Iowa where he minded two 400s. His boss, the hospital’s chief executive officer, saw no reason to invest in upgrading technology or Buck’s education and training. Buck felt differently, so he left. His belief in technology and education are being applied to the System i curriculum at Gateway Technical College.
Gateway Technical College (GTC) is tucked into the northwest corner of Kenosha, Wisconsin, a city on the shoreline of Lake Michigan between Milwaukee and Chicago. Manufacturing and distribution have played a major role in the economic development of this metropolitan area, and, as you might expect, the AS/400, the iSeries, and now the System i have been counted on to run a great many of the corporations in this belt. You get the picture. Buck’s job now is to match the skills of his students to the requirements of the job market.
Factory jobs have always been plentiful in this part of the country and wages were enough to buy a house and raise a family. Now, the factory jobs are not so easy to find, and the take-home pay doesn’t go as far as it once did. Young adults, entering the job market, are more cognizant of the types of skills they need to obtain if they want to be competitive in the job market.
“For a lot of these kids, the idea of getting an IT job is, at times, overwhelming,” Buck says.
For one thing, companies are being much more specific about the skills attached to the graduate with a computer science or management of information systems degree, according to Patrick Staudacher, who operates an employee recruitment company called Talsco in nearby Franklin, Wisconsin. The majority of the companies he works with are in southeast and central Wisconsin, which includes cities such as Milwaukee, Kenosha, Madison, Oshkosh, and Appleton. Nearly 100 percent of his clients are System i shops.
“Companies are having a difficult time finding the AS/400 talent that they need,” Staudacher says. “The key for anyone looking for employment opportunities in the IT field, especially those looking to break into the job market for the first time, is to have an understanding of what IT does for the business side–how it solves business problems.”
Having a broad base of skills will help. Understanding accounting or the supply chain in addition to possessing IT skills makes a person more valuable. “Another area of skill that companies are looking for is integration–getting systems to talk with one another,” Staudacher says. “A lot of companies have custom-built their applications and continue to do that type of development today. They need to get these applications and the data these systems collect into the general flow of business.”
Staudacher sees internship programs as being more important to companies and thinks that, in general, iSeries and System i shops lag behind companies using other operating systems in establishing internships for students. “I see companies getting more value from employees coming out of internship programs,” he says. Mainly this is due to being able to hire people who have some idea of how a particular business operates.”
Coming out of high school and preparing for a career that takes a combination of specialized education and possibly an internship is a lot to put on a young person’s plate. In professional sports, a big deal is made of athletes who make the jump from high school or after one or two years of college to the professional level. Their raw ability is one obvious factor in such jumps, but mental preparedness is just as big of a factor–explaining why such jumps are often disappointing to the player, the team, and the fans. The working world is much different from the academic world. Those with 10, 20, or 30 years on the job aren’t too old to remember the rigors of on the job training. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.
Buck tries to make it easier though.
“I see our students as the bridge to the next generation of IT department personnel,” he says. “There are a lot of green-screeners out there, and if Gateway graduated students that only knew how to write 5250 applications, how could that student compete with someone who has 10 years experience? My students understand RPG and can write reports and applications. But they are also very good with WDSc. They understand Java.”
In addition to the two-year degree in computer science with an emphasis in System i-related subjects, Buck steers some of his students toward advanced certificates in cross-platform, SOA-friendly subjects like WebSphere and Enterprise Generation Language. “It’s important to the System i that we get new kids with new skills into jobs,” he says.
Not many would disagree. The amount of technology in the System i platform, the i5/OS operating system, its related DB2/400 database, and the bolted-on WebSphere application server that is not being used is like walking out of a nice restaurant after only having an appetizer. A very big portion of the underutilization of the technology in the system relates to a lack of skills and a lack of management understanding of how those skills and technologies can be put to use. It is not that these technologies are not useful at all.
Buck makes the point that hiring young workers who come in with a wider skill set is a better fit for companies than retraining older employees–those close to retirement–with the new skills that are needed.
“Older employees usually are not motivated to learn new technologies,” he says. “The kids are more astute. Some have had an introduction to writing programs as early as the third grade. I was 30 years old before I ever wrote a program.”
None of this is to say Buck is a proponent of sweeping aside RPG. On the contrary, he is very keen on promoting RPG ILE and he claims it is quickly learned by the students.
“The big thing companies need to understand is that the students from Gateway Technical College provide something those companies want,” Buck says. “One of my goals is getting employers to come to the school and realize that we have a good program.”
Because OS/400 and i5/OS are so deeply engrained in businesses that form the economic backbone of the upper Midwest, local user groups continue to do well in this area. Buck is an avid supporter–that is to say he takes an active role. He’s in his fourth year as president of the Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association.
As Buck sees it, the WMCPA becomes a valuable industry connection for Gateway students. He has a chance to introduce them to people with IT careers like the ones the students aspire to obtain. He also has the opportunity to show off quality students to area businesses and increase the overall awareness of GTC.
The corporations and the individuals who get involved in local user groups tend to be more progressive. They value education and training and they are open to new ideas and technologies. It’s the other end of the spectrum from when Buck worked for the small Iowa hospital. “When I got into teaching,” Buck recalls, “I thought to myself, ‘This is an opportunity to get into local businesses and let them learn the new stuff.'”
The connection between the companies with investments in System i hardware and software and a college that prepares students with the appropriate skills is one of the goals of the IBM Academic Initiative. GTC is one of the Academic Initiative’s model programs. Buck’s efforts have been rewarded with the COMMON Education Foundation Scholarship Award and the 2007 System i Innovation Award for Education Excellence. “The biggest thing that helps a school succeed is getting involved with local industry,” Buck says. “And the best way of doing that is to get involved with a local user group.”
Involvement at the local user group level doesn’t end with monthly meetings. WMCPA members have direct input into curriculum at GTC. “We have a strong advisory committee that helps formulate the curriculum,” Buck says. “There are 13 advisors on it, each from a different company. The guys on the advisory committee are dedicated. They not only want to establish a general curriculum. They want to help establish the content of each class.” In this way, students are introduced to subjects that local industry (the job market) values for its next generation of employees.
As we’ve been hearing for at least the past couple of years, there’s concern of a shortage of skilled System i workers due, in large part, because of the pending retirement of many AS/400 veterans. IBM’s Academic Initiative has been sparked by this forecast. “We are on the cusp of a time when employers are going to need new employees,” Buck predicts. “It’s happening to some extent now, but I expect the demand for graduates to increase going forward from this point. I think IBM is right to get the Academic Initiative going because in three years there will be a big shortage of entry-level programmers because people will be retiring.”
The goal of the GTC program, Buck says, is to produce entry-level System i programmers. “The bread and butter of this profession has always been RPG. Something like 80 to 85 percent of System i servers run RPG. That is the most important class these students take,” says Buck. At GTC, where there are 60 students currently enrolled in the System i program, RPG is a two-semester class. “RPG is not going away,” Buck says. “There are millions of lines of code that need to be maintained. I try to produce a person who understands the system, understands libraries and jobs and job queues, and is pretty good with RPG.”
This generation of RPG programmer needs to be armed with a wider range of computer skills mixed with business and interpersonal skills, however, if he or she wants job offers. The preparation available at Gateway, along with its strong connection to area companies, seems to be working nicely for both students and business. “By the time these kids are done with college, they have useful skills in WDSc and Java,” Buck says. “Couple them with someone who has been doing 5250 PDM for 20 years and you have people who can share skills. The goal is to produce an employee that is productive in a short period of time.”