Assignment IBM i: What Makes It Tick?
September 14, 2015 Alex Woodie
Two computer science students in Europe were recently given an unusual assignment: Learn about the IBM i platform and what makes it tick. After talking with a number of IT professionals familiar with IBM i, they gained a greater understanding and respect for it–and most importantly, what IBM i needs to continue being a successful platform in the future.
Victor Wiklund and Veronica Randleff say they felt lost when they were first asked to investigate the IBM i and report on the future of the platform. As second-year students in the computer science and engineering program at KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, they had been exposed to lots of mathematics and technology, and were familiar with mainstream programming languages like Java and C.
As part of their training, the students participated in a trainee program at Handelsbanken, a midsize bank serving the Nordic countries, as well as the United Kingdom and The Netherlands. When their instructors asked them to explore one of the bank’s oldest platforms, IBM i, they were taken aback.
“We had barely heard about System i, RPG, or Power,” the students wrote in a recent blog post on the COMMON Sweden website. It was possible that “we glimpsed an ‘old-fashioned’ green and black screen somewhere, but that was also the only ‘experience’ that we had.”
The IBM i platform and RPG were not on the curriculum at KTH, they say. “So when we started to work at Handelsbanken’s department for card transactions in the beginning of February, and were offered to start a pre-study about this, we accepted with some reservation and respect.”
Like other longtime IBM i shops in North America, Handelsbanken is concerned about the future of the platform and, in particular, where new talent will come from. By putting Wiklund and Randleff on the case, the bank and KTH could explore the state of the platform in Northern Europe, while giving the students some real-world job training at the same time.
The students set out to answer a handful of questions, such as: How big is the IBM i user base in Sweden and around the world? Which companies are investing in IBM i? What’s the future of the platform? What is IBM doing to keep it modern? And how can Handelsbanken attract new IBM i talent directly out of college?
Wiklund and Randleff interviewed about 20 people from the bank and other companies. The students sought out a mix of professionals, including developers, technicians, architects, and managers. As the answers came in, a pattern developed, and a picture of the platform emerged for the budding IT pros.
“What we mainly heard on our interviews were how many advantages the platform has,” the pair write. “Reliability, stability, and handling a very large amount of data were some of these, which most whom work with the platform seems to agree about.”
However, not all of the remarks were that positive. Rumors about the platform being “old and antiquated” seemed fairly prevalent among its users, according to Wiklund and Randleff. “There is a general notion that the platform belongs to the past and that it is not a platform to invest in,” they wrote. “This is something we heard from a majority of the companies and people we talked to.”
But the students judged that those perceptions don’t mesh with reality. “As we see it, the platform has become more and more modern, and the new format of RPG is easy to learn for graduates,” they write. “IBM themselves are investing a lot on the platform. . . . These rumours about the platform being old are only slowing down the progress, both for companies and young programmers.”
Free form RPG, in particular, should do much to help make developing for the platform much more like programming Java or C for other languages. What’s more, there’s nothing to stop IBM i shops from being productive with college grads who may not start a new job with loads of RPG experience.
“They will be productive and important at work without 20 years of experience of RPG and IBM i,” the students wrote. “We saw several examples of this. It is also important to talk about the platform and its future to attract younger employees. We need to leave the rumours about IBM i as finished.”
Any computer platform is only as good as the people who use it and nurture it and help it to grow. That is especially true of IBM i–a proprietary platform that must swim against the tides of Intel standardization, and even IBM itself sometimes. Training new users how to develop and support applications on IBM i is an essential task if the platform is to survive another 10 years.
But making the IBM i attractive to young IT talent isn’t the easiest thing to do. Wiklund and Randleff say that, if they had been asked if they could see themselves working with IBM i, they would have said, “Well, we do not know so much about the platform. Isn’t it quite old?” they write.
But after studying the platform and seeing how it can be modern–and most importantly, hearing how revered it is by real-world IT professionals who work with it on a daily basis–their perceptions have changed.
Would they work with it now? “Absolutely!” they said.