Free Format RPG: It’s All About the Jobs
October 29, 2013 Alex Woodie
The upcoming free format enhancements that will debut with IBM i 7.1 Technology Refresh 7 (TR7) are good for the programming language and good for the platform as a whole. But according to IBM i educator Jim Buck, the biggest impact may be helping to attract a new generation of workers who are eager to find jobs.
The free format RPG enhancements unveiled earlier this month will become available on November 15, when IBM ships a database group PTF that contains the free format updates to the RPG compiler. At that time, any developer working inside of Rational Developer for IBM i (RDi), or any development environment for that matter, will be able to drop the brackets and get all free formed with their RPG.
That’s all well and good, according to Buck, who heads the IBM i-related curriculum at Gateway Technical Collegein Wisconsin. “It will help promote the language,” Buck tells IT Jungle via email. “Students like the language once they are introduced to it.”
Buck hasn’t taught fixed format RPG for at least six years, so the switch over to (mostly) free format specs won’t be a major change to Gateway’s curriculum. “We have a very strong college advisors group and I asked them what they wanted me to teach, the old or the new. Every advisor told me not to teach any of the old fixed-format RPG,” Buck says. “I show students enough SEU and SDA that they can compile a program or print file. By the end of the RPG classes, they are experts with RDi.”
Nobody disputes that the IBM i platform desperately needs an infusion of younger people into the North American talent pool. With so many older programmers and administrators on the payrolls at IBM i shops around the country, there’s the real possibility that the continuity of the IBM i platform will be at stake when these people leave their posts in the next five to 10 years. Without a younger IBM i professional to take the reins, it increases the chances that Windows, Linux, or cloud-based systems will absorb the work previously done on IBM i.
The RPG enhancements will help attract new blood to the platform. But what helps even more is the ease at which a qualified graduate can land an IBM i job, Buck says.
“Students are interested in jobs,” he says. “The fact that many of the ‘old timers’ are retiring and companies are looking for new developers gives these people opportunities that weren’t available a few years ago.”
Buck’s work at Gateway is held up as a model for other colleges and universities to follow. Short of cloning Jim Buck, though, there’s no easy path to replicating what he’s done with his two-year technical degrees in Wisconsin.
“Look at any college. They all teach whatever language is ‘sexy,'” Buck says. “Where are the next generation of enterprise programmers coming from? This will become a critical situation in the next few years. I get calls from all over the US wanting my graduates.”
There might be a little bit of eye-candy involved in free-format RPG, insofar as “Modern RPG” now looks more like C++, Java, or PHP. It’s also true that developers can build all sorts of modern front-end interfaces, including HTML5 and mobile apps, on RPG back-ends. But when it comes to actual business programming, nothing can touch the productivity that RPG affords.
“In my mind, RPG is the best business language out there,” Buck says. “RPG allows the programmer to easily access the DB2 database and the front end can be any Web scripting language. If a RPG program is written correctly, it is very easy to change the front-end language. We know that these front-end interfaces/languages are constantly changing.”
A big opportunity is developing for younger IT pros to take over the maintenance of big RPG applications, and bring them into the modern age. “There are millions of lines of solid RPG code in production,” Buck says. “If new people are given the opportunity, they will modernize the RPG code and save companies millions of dollars.”