Will Modern, Free-Form RPG Bring New Blood To The Platform?
October 21, 2013 Alex Woodie
Veteran RPG coders around the world are getting in a free format frame of mind in anticipation of the launch of IBM i 7.1 TR7 next month. While getting experienced RPG programmers to write more modern looking syntax is great, the real promise of free format RPG is the potential to get more people–particularly younger coders, but not necessarily students–interested in RPG. The big question is: Will it work?
The IBM i platform could definitely use an RPG-shaped shot in the arm, because the pool of experienced RPG programmers is shrinking every year. Whether it’s shrinking as fast as the customer base is shrinking–or faster or slower–is tough to tell.
While hard figures on the availability of RPG programmers are hard to come by, the situation can be explained with simple math that few would dispute. It comes down to this: More RPG programmers are leaving the workforce due to retirement, death, or changing professions than there are new RPG programmers joining the workforce.
IBM hopes that getting rid of restrictive coding procedures in RPG IV will make the language look more like other current languages, and begin to change the perception of RPG as an old, stale language. “It gives RPG a more modern look and feel,” IBM i product manager Alison Butterill told IT Jungle recently. “We’re waiting to see how it’s going to turn out, but I expect the feedback to be very positive.”
One of IBM’s goals in the “Modern RPG” movement is to make it easier for experienced developers to learn, Butterill says. “If they’re a Java programmer, they say, ‘Wow it looks like Java.’ If they’re a C++ program they say, ‘Oh my, it looks like C++.’ We’re here at ZendCon, and one of the folks said, ‘It looks like PHP,'” she says. “We’ve already heard of clients who have taught Java and C++ programmer how to code in RPG, and they are very excited about this because that task just becomes easier.”
Back To School
IBM also hopes that modern RPG encourages more colleges and universities begin teaching the language. For years, IBM has tried to get schools to participate in its IBM i Academic Initiative. It’s worked well in places like Wisconsin, where Jim Buck has had a big impact with his IBM i and RPG classes at Gateway Community College. But the initiative has not had the same level of results elsewhere. (There are some promising signs, however. Two additional schools in the U.S. have been added to the program since March, bringing to the total number of schools teaching the IBM i curriculums up to 47, according to IBM’s Academic Initiative website. Also, five colleges in Canada are teaching IBM i skills now, up from four earlier this year.)
It is vital to get schools on board the IBM i train, says Susan Gantner, an RPG expert and trainer at System i Developer. “My personal opinion is [free form RPG] is great. To a certain extent, we did need a complete free format RPG,” she says. “But that in and of itself isn’t going to do whole lot to bring new RPG programmers to the platform. We really need to have the schools and other training vehicles” adopt IBM i and RPG curriculums as well.”
Gantner and her colleagues at System i Developer have brainstormed with Butterill and other IBMers on ways to start building momentum. One solution: Clone the Gateway program (if not Jim Buck himself) to as many schools as they can. Gateway consistently puts out students who have good IBM i jobs waiting for them when they graduate, and that can be a powerful motivator for other schools.
“It’s that kind of message we need to get out,” Gantner says, “not just that this is a good platform, because I think that kids in school don’t particularly care that much. They can’t appreciate the difference anyway, because they don’t have any language experience on any platform. The idea is, this is a good platform for business and business is where the jobs are, so in this way it’s an employment theme.”
It can take a while to spool up that kind of academic momentum. In the meantime, IBM i shops with unmet RPG needs can feel better about asking programmers with experience in other languages to learn Modern RPG, says Paul Tuohy, an RPG and IBM i expert who works with Gantner at System i Developer.
“The really important thing is that, for people coming from other languages to modern RPG, it isn’t a big jump,” he says. “To them, it’s just another language. It’s very like a lot of the other languages. It just had a couple of weird little things in it that they had to learn, like the fixed format P specs, D specs, etc. But now with that gone, it makes it truly just another syntax that they have to learn for programing…So if there aren’t RPG programmers from a college in your area, you can take any programmer.”
Hey, At Least It’s Not Java Or EGL
Old time RPG coders may scoff at the idea that good old Report Program Generator needed to be to dressed up to look like Java or C++. RPG programmers are renowned for their relentless focus on business logic, and the combination of RPG, DB2/400, IBM i, and the Power hardware has delivered a business machine like none other. And RPG is like no other language in that regard. It offers a similar level of close-to-the-hardware performance of C or C++ without getting weighed down by worrying about memory management and those sorts of things that Unix and Windows coders worry about. And it doesn’t carry the bloat of Java, which can run anywhere, but not so fast.
The good news for these hard-core RPG devotees is that it’s not about them. Modern RPG isn’t about forcing them to do anything differently. Those who want to continue to do things the old fashioned way can continue to live in the pre-7.1 TR7 world. Besides, free format RPG won’t be supported IBM i 6.1 or newer OSes.
Modern RPG is about the future of the IBM i platform, and bringing the relentless pursuit of efficient execution of business logic to a new generation of coders. RPG has a lot to offer in that regard, and free format RPG will help coders from other platforms to recognize that fact. “Many of them do appreciate the fact that RPG does so much for you,” Gantner says. “They didn’t have a language to do that for them before. It’s not hard for them to learn. And they find they don’t have to write as much code.”
With any luck, the hunt for qualified RPG coders does not begin to resemble the search for unicorns and sasquatches. You can look all over the land for sign of RPG coders, unicorns, and sasquatches with nothing to show for it in the end. The difference between RPG coders and unicorns and sasquatches, however, is that unicorns and sasquatches aren’t real, and therefore can never go extinct. They will always exist in our fertile imaginations. RPG programmers, on the other hand, are subject to the natural laws of this world, and the evidence suggests that their low numbers may be are dangerously close to dropping below a natural viability level.
Even if schools start churning out thousands of RPG-capable graduates tomorrow, there will still be a shortage of job candidates who possess the experience and qualifications that many IBM i shops desire. This creates a negative feedback loop when colleges stop offering RPG because entry-level RPG skills aren’t getting anybody hired. When IBM i shops migrate away from the platform due to the difficulty in getting good RPG help, it chips away at the demand for RPG skills, and so on, and so forth.
The Kids Are Alright
Free format RPG isn’t a panacea, but it may help short-circuit that feedback loop, and get things moving in a more positive direction.
IBM i shops can also do their part being more welcoming of younger, less experienced coders. “I think we need to change the mindset of the people doing the hiring,” Gantner says. “It isn’t necessary for someone to have 15 years of experience with RPG. You can find some of those people, but first of all they’re expensive, because they have so much experience. And secondly, you really want the younger people anyway.”
You don’t need to have mad Scott Klement-like RPG skills to get the job done. “You just need to be a decent programmer who knows what you’re’ doing and has a flair for business applications as opposed to writing Facebook and games,” Gantner says. “You can you teach them RPG. That’s really a no brainer. That’s the easy part.”