Reality-Based PHP Training on IBM i in Michigan
September 26, 2011 Dan Burger
Some people never lose their natural desire to explore, create, share, and learn. That’s even true for RPG programmers, although it’s widely called into question by folks who have never met any RPG programmers. Imagination is often limited by environment and Laura Ubelhor has an idea that she thinks will foster the imaginations of RPG programmers. She’s leading a project based at the Southeast Michigan iSeries User Group (SEMiUG) that connects programmers willing to learn new a new skill with companies open to innovation.
Here’s the plan: Ubelhor, who is the president of the SEMiUG, put out the call for anyone wanting to learn PHP to sign up for a team that will learn the Web programming language as they progress through a real world application-building project on the IBM i platform. The idea was on the agenda at the local user group’s monthly meeting last week and 18 people signed up. Others have shown interest and it’s likely the team will expand. That’s fine with Ubelhor, who enjoys seeing others match her enthusiasm for learning.
“I believed this project is a way to get as much as possible out of learning for everyone involved,” she says. “And, it will provide an opportunity for one of our member companies to benefit from having some programming done. That’s an attractive thing.”
PHP continues to gather momentum in the IBM i community as Web application development of all kinds rises to the top of the priority lists. Better late than never, I say. Outside of the IBM i community, PHP is absolutely huge. As a new skill to acquire, PHP travels well. Like the well-known energy drink Red Bull, it can give your career wings.
Ubelhor, an IT consultant who also volunteers her time to help COMMON, has been involved with PHP development projects for several years.
“I know it is an extremely good fit for the platform,” she says. “Learning PHP is good for individuals no matter what environment they are in. At the end of a project like this, they will walk away with something valuable to add to their skill list.”
As project manager, Ubelhor will set up PHP development teams. The majority of participants have little or no PHP training or Web skills of any kind, but there are some that do and they will spread around to help the learning process. Just as in real life, there will be a variety of personalities, backgrounds, and experience. The ability to work together as a team will be an advantage and probably a challenge for some. Ubelhor acknowledges that some folks are more productive working on their own and that this project has room for those so inclined.
“Whether it’s RPG or PHP or whatever, if you give different teams the same project you will get different results,” she says. “However many teams we have, it is likely they will each approach the project differently. That’s to be expected. In the end, we will have a review process involving the company that plans to use the code, and the determination of which result works best will be based on how the application best fits the needs of the company.”
Three companies that are corporate members of SEMiUG are in discussions with Ubelhor about potential projects. She’s sure the project selection process is on track. Based on conversations that have taken place, the broad project parameters have been established: It will be a fairly robust application–something with I/O and Excel files, for instance, fits into the plan.
“If it ends up with multiple companies looking for help with multiple projects, we’ll still choose just one project for our initial effort,” she says. “We’ll take the approach of putting a toe in the water before diving in. I want to work out the kinks in this process during the first round. But I hope all three companies I’m talking with will want to pursue projects after the first one is completed.”
Because this type of project–bringing volunteers together to work on applications for a company willing to get involved–is navigating uncharted territory, Ubelhor has goals for it to be controlled, organized, and professional. Attaining those goals means more projects in the future. If it’s done well, there will be more user group members and corporate members wanting to get involved.
Ubelhor called on her good friend Larry Bolhuis to provide a server for the group to work on. Bolhuis’ company, iDevCloud LLC, set it up a three-month deal at a reduced rate.
As part of the learning process, Ubelhor plans to bring in guest speakers–hoping that Mike Pavlak, the well-traveled PHP evangelist and solutions architect at Zend Technologies and Alan Seiden, who develops software for Strategic Business Systems and writes a PHP blog will both be available.
The key to getting this project started, Ubelhor says, was the grant money awarded to the local user group by Maxava through its iFoundation. The grant is being used to rent the server and will pay for bringing in guest speakers.
By the time the next SEMiUG meeting rolls around, the box will be set up–it comes with Zend Server loaded on it–and ready to go. Ubelhor says she’ll be ready to go over the project and the time line. As the project is under way, she plans for the group to physically meet once a month and have GoToMeeting webinars in between to move the project forward.
Between now and the next meeting Ubelhor has recommended some suggested reading for the class. She mentioned The IBM i Programmers Guide to PHP by Jeff Olen and Kevin Schroeder as a good starting place. Other sources that I would add are Alan Seiden’s blog posting “How to learn Zend Server and PHP on i” and a series of article written by Edwin Earley that can be found under the “Related Stories” heading at the end of this article.
In my opinion, the project Ubelhor is putting together is the type of innovative thinking that can keep a local user group relevant. It brings people together for learning in a new way and is tied to both individual memberships and corporate memberships. And I like the team sport, active participation aspects to it. And you can’t overlook the fact that this demonstrates the modern capabilities of the IBM i and the RPG developer.
At the end of my phone conversation with Ubelhor, she said something that I wish more people would take note of and do something about. She said: “There are a lot of people on the i that have been content in their little cocoons where all they had to know was RPG or BPCS or some specific skill that put them on an island. They really need to expand their skill sets these days. It’s not the same world as it used to be and it never will be again. No matter what platform you work on, there’s no cocoon there anymore.”