IBM i Job Market: Not All Doom and Gloom
August 11, 2014 Alex Woodie
In early July we ran an article titled The New Normal For The IBM i Job Market, where we explored some of challenges that IBM i professionals are having in finding new jobs, particularly in California, and the structural changes that are impacting the workforce as a whole. There’s no doubt that these are tough times for many people, but those challenges also create opportunities for IBM i pros who have the ability to capitalize on them.
There are many variables that factor into the employment equation and determine whether and how people are matched up with jobs. For starters, what skills are needed for a given job, and how do they map to the pool of applicants? What areas of the country are expanding and which are contracting? How are people being hired, and is it full-time, part-time, or contract work? These variables are in constant flux, and our free market system–combined with Americans’ historical inclination to pick up and move to another part of the country–ensure that supply eventually meets demand.
The market for IBM i-related jobs is currently undergoing big shifts across these geographic, skill-set, and terms-of-employment variables. As Bob Langieri, the CEO of Excel Technical Services explained to us in “The New Normalâ€¦”, the market for traditional IBM i jobs in Southern California is quite slack at the moment. Not as many full-time IBM i jobs are opening these days, and when jobs do pop up, they’re quickly filled in a matter of days, if not hours. What’s more, IBM i jobs are more likely to be temporary positions or be filled by contractors or freelancers than they used to, which mirrors the national trend across industries and geographies.
But there are variations from place to place, and the market for IBM i jobs is arguably better up in Minnesota, the home of the AS/400. According to Tom Huntington, vice president of technical services at Minneapolis-based HelpSystems, the North Star State’s unemployment rate of 4.5 percent means a tighter market and better job opportunities for IBM i pros than in California, which has a 7.4 percent unemployment rate.
“It is tough finding people that know IBM i and Java,” Huntington tells IT Jungle. “Longtime RPG developers will not find a job in this market if they aren’t using Java, .NET or some tool like Look, PHP, LANSA, or SEQUEL to access this data. If an individual has IBM i and .NET, Ruby on Rails, or PHP skills, those guys and ladies are [finding opportunities] available. Some of the people who find themselves in trouble are the management types. It’s not always easy finding the next IT director position, no matter what. But when they have to fall back on their skillset, if it’s RPG, they’re in a world of hurt.”
While it’s true that RPG powers the vast majority of applications on the IBM i platform, it would be unwise to tie your career and future earnings to this aging language, which hails from the days of punch cards and dinosaurs. RPG experienced a surprising surge in popularity in early 2011, when it cracked the TIOBE Index‘s top 20 and claimed a 0.317 percent popularity rating in the number 18 slot. Since then, RPG’s rating has plummeted faster than the San Diego Padres’ team batting average, and today occupies the number 47 spot, right between Prolog and Modula-2, with a .241 percent popularity rating (if only the Padres were hitting .241).
According to Huntington, one of the reasons for RPG’s drop-off is the rise of packaged applications. Companies are no longer hiring RPG programmers to write custom packages anymore, and instead are buying off-the-shelf applications to automate business processes. With that in mind, one way that IBM i professionals can improve their job-market success is by becoming experts in integrating disparate systems and applications.
“Part of why we see longtime IBM i systems administrators or developers on the market so long is because of their skillset,” he says. “But the day of people writing their own applications has gone by the wayside and it is people who are good at integrating additional applications or different technologies [that are in demand]. You don’t need as many RPG types around anymore. If there are changes, it’s more of a maintenance mode. It’s more about business analytics and getting at the data for the applications that have been running for more than two decades.”
It goes without saying that 2014 will not be the IBM i platform’s finest year. We’re not going to see IBM selling multiple billions of dollars of Power Systems hardware to run IBM i workloads, as we did in 1998 and 1999 with the original AS/400 and OS/400.
While the platform’s footprint is definitely shrinking, it’s not dead yet. “IBM i is not going away,” Huntington says. “It certainly has consolidated and smaller systems are moving towards MSP [managed service provider, or cloud] business. But the core applications are just too sticky. We have seen a lot of customers halt their movement from IBM i since it runs so much of their business and projects like SAP have not delivered.”
IBM i professionals have displayed a loyalty to the platform that’s unheard of in the corporate IT world, but that devotion is not reciprocal. Most large corporations would just as soon eliminate your position and outsource it to an offshore location or to an MSP if it weren’t for security and regulatory concerns.
Just don’t confuse the “stickiness” of IBM i servers and IBM i applications with job security. You are a disposable cog in the corporate machine, and you must continually reinvent yourself to maintain relevancy. As American firms increasingly turn to freelancers and contractors to fill jobs that were once done by full-time employees, workers that can quickly adapt their skillsets will have an advantage over those that can’t.
And while HelpSystems has been acquiring companies left and right of late and is now the biggest independent IBM i software vendor in the world, don’t expect the Robot to come to your rescue.
“I’ve been here 26 years and I still go through the thought process of ‘What am I going to do in 2014 to earn value for the company?'” Huntington says. “If I don’t have that in mind, then I start worrying about things that aren’t important. From a job perspective, there is no loyalty anymore. I hate to say it, but that’s corporate America.”