IBM i Skills Shortage A Barrier To Digital Transformation
July 11, 2016 Alex Woodie
Quick–what’s the top barrier to achieving digital transformation in your shop? If you said “IBM i skills,” then you’re in good company. In a recent informal poll conducted by SoftLanding Systems, a majority of IBM i professionals cited a lack of IBM i skills (taken to mean RPG programming expertise in particular) as the number one impediment to implementing projects such as development of Web and mobile interfaces and electronic document management.
SoftLanding operations manager Jim Fisher admitted that he wasn’t expecting a lack of IBM i skills to be the number one answer to a question about barriers to digital transformation. “I have to be honest, exactly the same thought occurred to me,” Fisher said in response to an IT Jungle question about being surprised. “I would have expected it would be PHP or Java or whatever language for Web-based development. For people to say ‘IBM i skills’ was a bit of a stumbling block. That was surprising.”
It’s not the first time that a shortage of IBM i skills and RPG programming expertise have made headlines. Sixteen months ago Computer Sciences Corp CEO Mike Lawrie, a long-time former IBMer familiar with the OS/400 and IBM i, blamed CSC’s quarterly earnings miss on a lack of RPG programmers. “RPG is not a programming language where a lot of people are learning it today, so there is a finite supply,” Lawrie said on a conference call. “We had difficulty recruiting and getting those people on-boarded in time to be able to bill all the work that was under contract in the quarter.”
When seen in this light, fingering the lack of IBM i skills as the top barrier to digital transformation does make sense, according to Fisher. “If you have a lot of core IBM i applications that need to be modified to support modernization initiatives,” Fisher said, “if you’ve lost those IBM i skills over the years with people who have retired or are due to retire, then I guess it could make some sense in that respect.”
The poll conducted by the UNICOM Global subsidiary–which was really more of a focus group involving 52 attendees of two IBM i-focused events in Europe, including International i-Power 2016 and Common Europe Congress, didn’t specify what “IBM i” skills mean. But according to Fisher, it’s clear that a lack of RPG coding skills is posing an impediment to digital progress.
“A lot of companies have core business systems that have been running for a good bit of years with very intricate code and complexity around those systems,” Fisher said. “It could be that over the years the number of RPG developer in each environment has been reduced, so the amount of time developers have to get to know those systems at a detailed level is becoming less and less. They’re just keeping the business running with the day-to-day requirements, but finding time to really study some of the deep complexities of the application might be a challenge for them.”
While some modernization initiatives will require deep RPG skills–namely, Web and modernization initiatives, which tend to be invasive–not every digital project does.
“You can use other solutions, like ECM [enterprise content management] as an example, which will give you those digital capabilities around documents, and in some cases data, without having to modify or change your backend applications,” Fisher said. “But if they’re trying to apply a Web-based interface over existing applications for data input for suppliers, for example, then clearly they’ll need some RPG skills potentially to undertake any modifications required.”
According to the SoftLanding focus group, the top digital transformations are as follows:
The main barriers to digital transformation on IBM i are:
The other poll result that surprised Fisher besides the lack of IBM i skills was the positive outlook on the future of the IBM i platform.
“The thing that really resonated with me just speaking in general with people at the event was the amount of confidence that they have now in the IBM i system and the Power platform,” Fisher said. “That we have a roadmap that goes out to 2027 I think has really given a lot of people confidence. I’ve heard reports of finance execs attending a couple of these shows and gaining confidence from some of the information they’re receiving. That was a real takeaway for me. I was real pleased to hear that.”
While not everybody is convinced that IBM i has a great future, Fisher credits IBM with keeping the IBM i relevant and stabilizing perceptions, if not investing in marketing.
“The events that I’ve attended over the last couple of years, there has been a real emphasis on driving home the fact that it’s an IBM i system and not an iSeries,” he said. “That’s really a key point. There’s been a lot of talk about the capabilities of the system and the operating system, running open source solutions, the number of languages it can support, the built-in support for web and mobile development. So I actually IBM are doing a good job in that respect.”