The Jobs Of The People Who Make IBM i Platforms Work
February 8, 2016 Timothy Prickett Morgan
We spend a lot of time talking about hardware and software here at IT Jungle, but there is another crucial element to the platform that often gets overlooked: the people who turn the machines into applications and, in turn, money from which they derive their many livings. The systems have evolved on the confluence of Moore’s Law advancement curves for their constituent components, but if people want to advance, they have to work hard to keep pace with new technology while maintaining the old.
The whole point of the System/38, and its follow on, the AS/400 and its successors, was to bring the first commercial relational database to companies in such a manner that they would not need a lot of rocket scientists to make it all work. By integrating the database into the operating system and the file system into the database–it really is not the other way around, if you think about it–IBM was able to insulate midrange companies who did not have those rocket scientists from the underlying technologies and still let them do sophisticated things with their applications. This is precisely the level of abstraction and simplicity that, nearly 40 years later, vendors are promising with platform cloud services.
None of this means that System/38s or AS/400s or Power Systems running IBM i do not need people to program them and make them run. But the level of integration and automation in the platform, as well as remote electronic customer support that debuted with the AS/400 back in 1988 as a true innovation, meant that it took far fewer people to keep the machine running. If IBM could have automated the programming of applications, the world would be wallpapered with AS/400s and Intel might still, if it was lucky, be in the memory business. (OK, that was a joke. Sort of.)
We have no concrete idea of how many people who are still employed as programmers, administrators, and IT managers in shops that use the IBM i platform or its predecessors. But we can make some assumptions based on some historical data and some recent survey results that IT Jungle helped deliver for the most recent 2016 IBM i Marketplace Survey administered by HelpSystems. (And for those of you who read the Four Hundred set of newsletters we put out and participated in the survey, we thank you.) In the survey of 834 IBM i shops, here is what the distribution of administrators and programmers was:
I am not one to just take data like this and let it lay. It has to be useful, and mashed up with other data to be made so. A few years back, IBM said there are maybe 150,000 unique OS/400 and IBM i sites in the world, and a few years earlier than that, IBM was saying at least 100,000 customers had the systems. Assuming some bleed in the IBM i base from mergers, acquisitions, and migrations, I think 125,000 unique customers is probably a better number for the worldwide installed base. So here is what happens if you take that survey data from HelpSystems and apply it across that number:
Let me explain the table above. The HelpSystems survey asked companies how many administrators they had and then how many programmers they had. The data was bracketed, and where there was a range of headcount, I took something in the middle. For the top-end category, I chose a number I thought was appropriate, and it is not much larger than the low-end figure. As you can see, so few sites are in the upper ranges of headcount, it really doesn’t matter much. So I distributed the site counts according to the percentages from the survey and multiplied by the number of people per category to come up with the total number of people in each category band for both administrators and programmers.
If you do that across the total base, as you see above, you get close to 305,000 administrators and over 880,000 programmers involved in the OS/400 and IBM i installed base. While this 1.2 million headcount figure may have been a good number for back in the heyday of the AS/400, which peaked in 1998 at 275,000 unique customers, I think it is too large. As I have said before, I think the HelpSystems survey results are reflective of the active part of the IBM i base, which means the companies that keep relatively current on hardware and software technologies.
I have seen internal IBM data that shows only about 30,000 customers are on Software Maintenance services with Big Blue, and as I have said before, based on the customer bases of software suppliers and resellers, I think this number represents those elite, active customers. So, what happens when you use the HelpSystems data across only 30,000 sites? You get what seems like much more reasonable headcount numbers.
And what of the other 95,000 sites? Well, we all know there are plenty of sites with only one programmer, who also happened to be the system administrator or who uses a third-party support company (usually a reseller or business partner) to provide patches and whatever support is needed for the IBM i box. That gives you a little more than 73,000 system admins on OS/400 and IBM i machines, something like 212,000 programmers, and another 95,000 hybrids or those who have help with administration or programming.
None of these numbers take into account the 2,500 or so key applications maintained by the independent software vendors, who might have tens to hundreds of programmers working on IBM i related products. (I think it is probably way closer to tens.) Call it somewhere around 25,000 to 35,000 programmers in aggregate here. As you can see, it doesn’t shift the programmer installed base by all that much as I am laying it out.
So what languages are most of these programmers using to create applications? My guess is it is very heavy on the RPG and Java with a smattering of COBOL for the truly legacy stuff, and a slew of things for newer applications. Here is what the distribution of languages looks like from the HelpSystems survey:
Those other languages include Node.js, Python, and Ruby and I think will probably include the Go language that is being pushed hard by Google these days, and these are interesting. I am surprised there is C++ mentioned, by why not, there is an ILE C compiler for IBM i. The .NET responses are a bit perplexing, but Windows-based application servers often front end IBM i databases, so this is how survey takers may have been thinking about it. The point here is that however many programmers there are, at least among the active part of the base (if this is what the survey results really reflect), there is a good and healthy diversity of programming going on. This is good, good, good news for the platform.
Next week, we will talk about what programmers and administrators are being paid. The news will not be quite so good, so brace yourself.