The Job Market For The People Who Make The IBM i Go
February 22, 2016 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Like you, we are trying to understand the current state of the IBM i community. Thus far in 2016, we have taken several looks at the dicing and slicing of the latest IBM i Marketplace Survey compiled by HelpSystems as well as providing our own insight into what industries are represented by the IBM i base and how that compares to historical data. We also did our best to try to case the distribution of system admins and programmers in the IBM i base.
This week, we want to take a look at the job market for the people in the IBM i community. The data is a bit thin, but we are going with the best information that we have, and that comes from Bob Langieri, president of Excel Technical Services and a long-time recruiter in the System/3X, AS/400, iSeries, System i, and IBM i market. And yes, Langieri has been around that long and he probably has as much of a pulse on the IBM i market as any person alive.
Langieri started doing recruiting in 1973, when we could argue that the IT industry as we know it was just starting to evolve. In 1975, he started doing recruiting programmers and admins for IBM‘s System/3 minicomputer, which debuted in 1969 as the first serious computing product of the Rochester Labs. He found 90 companies in southern California that were using the system and started building his database of RPG II programmers and the companies that hire them. That database swelled to around 5,000 companies when it peaked in 2000, and has since dropped back to around 4,500, with about 3,500 of them being in SoCal. His entire database if potential job candidates with IBM i, Windows, Unix, and Linux skills is about 5,000 today, and he has another 400 or so contract programmers that he knows about with all kinds of skills.
Like many people who are reliant on the OS/400 community and its follow-ons (it is still the same community, no matter what IBM calls the operating system), Langieri has seen brisker business than he does now. Back in the heyday of the market in the late 1990s, when the ERP boom and the Y2K crisis were driving everyone crazy, Langieri might have 25 job openings a month he was being asked to fill, up from maybe 12 to 15 openings per month in the late 1980s to early 1990s before that. After the Y2K and ERP booms were over in the early 2000s, the job openings per month rate he was working on fell to maybe eight to nine, and then a few years later it was down to five per month and now he is doing an average of two per month, he estimates.
This might be a reflection of a number of different things. In general, IBM i shops tend to be conservative and while they will spend a premium on their systems, historically they have been able to get by on fewer people than shops that used other platforms. (In a sense, the people costs are embedded in the automation in the systems software and distributed across the base as hardware and software licensing premiums.) The other thing, and we are generalizing here, is that many RPG, COBOL, CL, and SQL programmers who work on the IBM i platform have been around as long as Langieri and they are getting ready to retire themselves and therefore are less inclined to uproot and move to a new job. So there could be less inherent churn in a base that has found a steady state of workers and jobs.
“Companies tend to run understaffed, and anything else or extra is a luxury,” explains Langieri. But the big game changer, and one that he sees lifting IBM i shops, is the desire to get applications interfaced to present their screens to the mobile devices we all carry around. “The attitude of job candidates is that they want to work on the latest-greatest stuff,” he adds. “I feel that the future is PHP, Ruby, and tools like that, and RPG is not a viable future down the road.”
While this may be true, I would argue that just using PHP or Ruby does not tie companies to the platform the same way that RPG, COBOL, and SQL do. Those features enhance IBM i, just like Java did in the late 1990s, and they will increase the longevity of the platform, but only inasmuch as companies still maintain the things that make IBM i, well, IBM i and not Linux or Windows. They increase the longevity of the platform but decrease the stickiness of its applications. It is a tradeoff.
The Impossible Job Candidate
The other thing that keeps companies from hiring, oddly enough, is the impossible jobs they are trying to fill, and in many cases, they just don’t bother trying very hard. “Companies are looking not just for a needle in the haystack, but a golden needle in a haystack,” says Langieri. “And they do not want to pay a lot. And as desperate as some people are for jobs, they just don’t have all of the skills necessary to fill those jobs. So companies sit in the fence when it comes to hiring.”
It is hard to find an RPG programmer with skills in Infor‘s BPCS suite (yes, we know it has a different name these days, but people still say “Bee Picks” when they mean the Infor LX suite) who is also required to be a PC help desk support person and also do it for less money than his or her peers are getting outside of the IBM i community. This focus on skills is a function of the long-term people who learned those very skills on the job, often at the places they just left to create the job opening in the first place. How do you replace someone with 20 or 30 years of experience? The answer, of course, is that you probably can’t.
“IT managers are afraid of failure and therefore they don’t hire anyone unless they have to,” Langieri says. “But they should remember that some of the best hires are based on personality and attitude, not existing skills. They should remember that people that learn on the job stay longer because they are grateful and loyal to you because you gave them an opportunity.”
To be perfectly honest, yours truly is still the editor of The Four Hundred for this very reason. I am grateful for the immense training about technology and business that I received through writing for this newsletter for 25 years and I honor my mentor, Hesh Wiener, who gave me a job in the belly of a recession while also giving me a chance to learn, and the AS/400 community, which taught me. Langieri is absolutely right, and companies would be wise to try to hire some newbies and teach them the ropes while also learning some new tricks from them.
The bottom line, says Langieri, is that “the situation sucks” because companies have unreasonable expectations for high experience and low pay in a market where the IBM i platform, while well regarded in certain circles and certainly a midrange survivor, is not particularly mainstream.
We will get into more precise salary figures in next week’s issue. Stay tuned.
One last thing: If you are a recruiter who is working the IBM i market, please reach out to me for the next set of stories. I would love to get input from you. While I know a few people who dabble in recruiting, I don’t know any current ones who have any data. Nate Viall, we miss you and your data. Luckily Langieri has some data and is willing to share.