IBM i, RPG, And Inaccurate Assumptions
September 28, 2015 Dan Burger
Anyone who says RPG is a dead-end career is dead wrong. It’s the door to opportunity. People are walking through that door with an education that costs less than $1,000 and a time investment of about six months. They have a certificate in hand and more than half of them have an entry-level RPG programmer job at an IBM midrange shop. Some would say this is the beginning of the end, but is an old-fashioned Midwestern success story.
“Most of the students are hard-working adults who are feeding a family and have committed to making a career change,” says Gregory Simmons, an instructor at Scott Regional Tech Center in Monett, Missouri. “My last class included a student with a wife and three kids. He was suddenly laid off at a company that was being reorganized and was highly motivated to learn.
“I’ve heard great stories about people that have come through my classes and were hired. More than a few have quickly evolved out of their beginning RPG positions because their skills sets took off like a rocket. They are doing much greater things that what the original position called for.”
It’s not a coincidence when you mix skills and an aptitude for learning with motivation that the result is success. A new programmer has to learn about the applications, but also has to learn about the organization and how people work. The most important skill is the skill to learn new things. When competition for jobs intensifies, managers with positions to fill often differentiate candidates by those who demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow. It’s the most difficult requirement to find, I’ve been told by numerous IT managers.
Simmons teaches an introduction to the IBM i course and a beginning RPG programming course. The first course is a requirement before taking the second. Each course spans 14 weeks and involves four hours of class time per week.
“Folks like a class like this because a $700 investment, readies them for a level one RPG programmer position,” Simmons says. “This isn’t a multi-year time commitment with a big cost attached to it. It’s non-accredited adult education. They take the two classes and are done.”
What’s included is a pretty good shot at a job offer. The word is getting around about that.
A normal class size is from eight to 12 students. This semester Simmons has 22 students. In his previous class, he had 10 students. Eight of those received job offers. The normal success rate for connecting students with jobs is between 60 percent and 70 percent. With the jump in attendance this time around, Simmons is uncertain whether the ratio of students to job offers will remain in those high percentiles.
Many of the job offers come from Jack Henry & Associates, the financial services software company with a large IBM i (AS/400) customer base and a consistent need for entry level RPG programmers. JHA offers more than 300 products and services that process financial transactions and automate business processes.
It has a reputation as a good work environment and is located in Monett, a town of less than 9,000 residents located 260 miles southwest of St. Louis and 150 miles northeast of Tulsa, Oklahoma, not far from Interstate 44, which connects those two cities.
“There are managers at Jack Henry almost always looking for RPGers,” Simmons says. “The entry-level programmers get experience and move up in the company in a variety of positions. That creates more entry-level RPG programming positions.”
Simmons works as a programmer at JHA. The instructor position at the technical school is a side job.
Other companies in the area also hire from Simmons’ students. “They want someone cross-trained in RPG or they already employ someone who needs to increase his or her RPG knowledge. One of the things I enjoy about teaching this class is working with companies and being asked about student recommendations. I enjoy helping them hire good workers.”
The curriculum Simmons uses for his classes is derived from the book “Mastering the AS/400: A Practical Hands-On Guide” by Jerry Fottral.
Internet access to a Power Systems box running IBM i comes through the IBM Academic Initiative.
“The book provides students with book knowledge. I give them the on-the-job knowledge,” Simmons says. “I programmed in RPG for 15 years. Then one day, seven years ago, my boss at Jack Henry asked me to start writing Web pages. So I learned .NET and C#. I don’t write in RPG anymore, but I can hold my own with the beginning RPG material. I teach free-form RPG, but we don’t do ILE. Although our developers at JHA are using the latest and greatest RPG techniques, those hiring say we don’t need someone who knows everything about RPG. They say we need someone who knows the basics and has proved that he or she can learn the language.”
Here’s a program that successfully tapped into the IBM i and RPG skills pipeline for a specific region. It’s doing exactly what technical schools are supposed to be doing. You’d think there would be dozens or maybe hundreds of these regional programs feeding IBM i shops around the world, but aside from a few areas, that’s not happening. All it takes is a handful of IBM i shops in a region to build their own skills pipelines. And as the Monett, Missouri, program points out, this isn’t strictly an IBM i and RPG skills focus. When done correctly, this is an avenue for bringing in quality people that can help companies beyond their RPG programming needs.