What’s Old Is New Again: The IBM i Means Business
August 11, 2017 Dan Burger
It seems like a lot of companies are simply dumbfounded when it comes to IT staffing. Maybe it’s the inability to cope with the accelerated evolution of information technology. Determining how much upgrading is necessary for a given business model is not a follow the leader game. And an IT strategy based on “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has led to trouble for many businesses where IT is broken and in need of repair. Too often there’s a rush to save business with technology without taking care of the business first.
“The biggest challenge of business is learning to harness IT power for making profitable business decisions,” says Hassan Farooqi, who began training for a career in IT in 1978. Almost 40 years later, he’s a senior IBM i developer at Alfa Insurance. “Businesses are not making the best business decisions. It’s often because they are not getting the reports – based on useful data – on which good decisions are made.”
Good decisions do not require having massive amounts information, as much as they require having good information. And having good information relies heavily on having good IT people in key positions.
A company is only as good as its IT people. (I hope this isn’t the first time you heard that.) Businesses with the right people, possessing the right skills, hold a significant advantage. Although the focus is often on recruiting, employee retention is just as important. Those with the knowledge of your business and your industry, have a value that new technology cannot replace.
And although management and IT staff will largely agree that businesses cannot afford to carry any additional weight that doesn’t help them succeed, there are often disagreements regarding how that applies to staffing and the implementation of new technologies.
That brings us back to the point of retaining and recruiting staff and the value of those who know a business versus those who know the latest technology. Younger employees have an edge in technical savvy, but lack business experience. They have energy, often without direction. While the older employees are familiar with the direction, but sometimes lack the energy.
In traditional workplace environments, the more experienced workers pass down knowledge to the new employees. Generally referred to as mentoring, although mentoring often takes a more personal interest than the short and sweet: “This is the way it works, kid.”
A “fit” often becomes a misfit when considering a potential hire or retaining a current employee. Fit does not mean an employee who is a clone of existing staff. A fit is someone who meshes with the staff while also contributing what is otherwise missing. Different points of view should stimulate creativity and collaboration. Those are two worthy pursuits that are too often ignored.
Different backgrounds and perspectives lead to a variety of ideas, knowledge, and ways of doing things. The converse is often true as well: team members from the same background may take actions based on a narrow range of experiences.
“The biggest challenge the IBM i professionals are facing is becoming obsolete,” Farooqi warns. “And the biggest reason professionals become obsolete is because an IT shop has become obsolete. The reason the shop is obsolete is because the C-level management institutes a policy of don’t fix it until it is broken. Executives need to learn, and IT management needs to promote, the concept of preventive maintenance, which simply means fix it before it is broken. The IT management needs to learn how to convince executives that this is the best strategy and demonstrate the return on investment. IT software is a multi-million-dollar asset that needs periodic maintenance. A policy of temporary patches means IT will soon be beyond economic repair and must be tossed out one day.”
Tossing an IT system is an expensive consequence of the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” theory. The loss of investment in the current system, the expense of the new system, the business disruption of the migration process, and the acquisition of new skills that match the new system add up to a heavy financial load.
Primitive IT systems are not only defined by their out of date hardware and software, but also by a lack of investment in staff. Veteran staff have skills tied to obsolete systems and new hires with modern IT skills are inexperienced and often lack understanding business processes and key business indicators. That, once again, takes us back to retaining and training staff with proven abilities.
Farooqi, when he graduated from college with a degree in business and a major in accounting, found the door to opportunity was open in IT if he could demonstrate programming aptitude. At that time, IBM would train its customers’ employees if the employee could pass an IT aptitude test. After passing the aptitude test, Farooqi went on to obtain certificates in IBM/360, COBOL and DOS/VS. Those certifications led to an internship. (There are far fewer internships today than there were 35 years ago. If the IBM i community could build enthusiasm for internships, it would benefit individual IBM i shops and the entire community through a greater understanding of IBM i value. I’ve also heard more than a few IT and HR leaders discuss the value of hiring business majors and teaching them to program.)
A combination of his own efforts and learning skills from friends and mentors led Farooqi from programmer trainee to programmer to systems analyst to head of the systems department. The rise through the ranks taught him an important lesson.
“Never lose your IT career roots,” he advises. “The management responsibilities robbed me of my technical skills and it took me a while get them back.”
His advice to IT managers and programmers is: “Read the technical blogs and magazines, and learn to program the modern way. Nobody can afford to be obsolete, not doctors, engineers or accountants. IT professionals are no different.”