IBM i Salaries Drop Vs. Other Platforms, But It’s Not All Bad
September 6, 2017 Alex Woodie
Time was, working on IBM i and its predecessors earned you a premium on your salary compared to other platforms. That’s not the case in 2017, as equivalent jobs on the Linux, Unix, Windows (LUW) front delivers better pay. But the news on the job front is not all doom and gloom, according IBM i staffing expert Bob Langieri, who keeps a close watch on this sort of thing.
Across the board, IBM i professionals earned lower salaries than their LUW colleagues for various IT positions, with a few exceptions. That’s according to an analysis of IBM i salary data that Langieri performed through his Southern California IBM i staffing firm, Excel Technical Services.
Langieri compared IBM i salary data collected by Excel Technical Services and LUW salary data collected by Robert Half, a large national consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The results were not pretty if you’re an IBM i professional looking for a job.
For example, a systems administrators working on LUW systems has an expected salary range of $88,320 to $143,360, while an IBM i administrator can expect a salary from $85,000 to $105,000. Similarly, a senior programmer analyst with eight or more years of experience can expect to be paid $106,240 to $183,360 per year on LUW, while the same job on IBM i gets only $95,000 to $116,000.
In 12 out of 13 IT jobs, LUW professionals can expect a higher upper limit to their salary range than their IBM i colleagues. And in some positions, the salaries were considerably higher for the LUW folks, such as for senior network engineer/administrator, which had an upper salary limit $53,200 more than the IBM i job. The upper limit for the salary of security analysts with six or more years of experience was $60,000 more than on IBM i; for senior programmer analysts with eight or more years of experience it was $70,000 more, and senior programmer analysts who are experts in open source and multi-platform tools the maximum was nearly $95,000 more.
The only exception to that pattern is for “senior PHP developer with other skills,” where the IBM i professional can top out at $140,000, while the LUW professional tops out at $130,000 per year. That alone says a lot about the marketability of PHP skills on the IBM i platform. The writing is on the wall with regard to other open source development languages that are following in PHP’s pioneering footsteps. It’s a good bet that investments in Python, Node.js, etc., will pay off if you’re an IBM i developer.
IBM i professionals fared poorly at the top end of the salary range for specific jobs, but they fared better at the bottom ends of the ranges for some jobs. Langieri’s data shows that there were three IT jobs (project manager, operations supervisor, and IT manager/director with a staff of six to 12) where the lower end of the salary range was higher for the IBM i professional than for the LUW-ites. This could be viewed as vestigial remains of the salary premium that IBM i professionals once enjoyed across the board over their off-platform colleagues.
The reason for the discrepancy in pay between the platforms is easily explained: Demand for IBM i skills continues to decrease. While the economy is humming along nicely and unemployment is as low as it’s been in the past 10 years, the IT sector simply isn’t as interested in hiring people with IBM i or RPG skills compared to those with other types of skills.
“Overall, companies are having a hard time finding IT candidates. But they are looking for the Java, Web developers, C#, .Net, Open Source,” Langieri tells IT Jungle. “In Southern California, at any given time there are fewer than five openings for people with IBM i-RPG skills. It’s been this way for most of the last five to six years. I do not see anything indicating that will improve.”
There might be some growth in IBM i jobs, but much of this is due to the need to replace retiring IBM i developers, as opposed to companies adopting or expanding their use of IBM i, Langieri says. “Most small shops seem to be running without any systems administrators/operators,” he says, “and because of automation tools, what needs to be done in operations is usually done by the IT manager.”
There are a handful of IBM i shops generating a need for higher-skilled employees because they’re modernizing their existing applications or otherwise integrating with other open source tools, Langieri says. However, there are also companies that are actively moving away from the platform precisely because of the perception that there is a lack of new RPG programmers coming into the workforce.
Langieri, who is speaking on the IBM i job market during a September 19 OCEAN User Group meeting in Costa Mesa, California, shared the story of one current client of Excel Services that plans to leave the IBM i platform in five years. The company, a longtime IBM i shop, currently has about 10 developers who are proficient in Java and .NET and two RPG programmers.
“The new management is a non-IBM, 40-year-old project manager who sees the platform as dated [and cites a] lack of future resources as the reason to leave,” he says. “I could not convince them to talk to anyone who might be able to show them how to modernize and extend their investment.”
This pattern – where the IBM i platform is abandoned due to a perceived lack of availability of skilled practitioners or a general demise – is an increasingly common one, according to Langieri.
“Many small shops have no communication or input from IBM or business partners about how to transition their legacy code, or they feel that $10 million to $15 million to modernize is too expensive,” he says. “There are a few advocates of modernization and using the new tools, and they are succeeding, but the majority of developers are overworked, shops are understaffed, underbudgeted, and they are content to keep things the same until they retire.”
This is a sorry state of affairs, to be sure. IBM i salaries are not keeping up with other platforms due in part to a lack of demand, which in turn de-incentivizes the younger crows to learn IBM i skills, which in turn perpetuates the perception of the platform as old, which lowers demand, and so on and so forth, around and around, ad nauseam.
Who’s to blame for this? Langieri has his ideas. “I blame IBM for not creating the demand for the new features and desire to extend the investment companies have in their systems,” he says. “But I also blame the 80 percent of programmers and developers who either don’t want to keep up with the new stuff, or advocate the benefits of modernization.”
The 20 percent of the installed base who champion the value and features of the IBM i, free form RPG, Web services, and open source tools “are fighting a tough battle against the odds and I look up to them as the heroes who are trying to show the rest of the IBM i world that it is still the best system on the planet,” he says. “They need reinforcements.”
In the meantime, Langieri’s advice on how best to shore up your position in the midrange as an IBM i professional is the same as it’s been in recent memory: Diversify your skillset.
Employers will always ask for more than they can get. The ideal employee is as much a figment of the manager’s imagination as it is an unreachable ideal. But it’s also true that employees who can offer more than the next guy are bound to have more opportunities open to him. The adage that you don’t have to outswim the shark, just the guy next to you, is one worth keeping in mind – particularly for those of you in Southern California, which has actually had a rash of shark sightings and at least one attack this summer.
“Employers want every skill in the book,” he says, “and instead of hiring a good RPG programmer who could learn the systems, or ERP or other requirements, in three to six months, they will instead spend six months or more to find the perfect person and sometimes that person leaves within six months to a year for more money and a better job.”
Making yourself indispensable is always good career advice, and it’s still possible to do on the IBM i platform. In fact, with a shrinking talent pool and a large contingent of workers content to rest on their laurels, it may actually be easier to grab the spotlight and ensure steady employment with a widening skillset around the IBM i. “The best people are always working,” Langieri says.
But there’s also a group of folks who have been unlucky enough to work for firms that either went out of business or got eaten up. Link enough of these uncontrolled company events together, and suddenly the job seeker’s resume has some unsightly gaps on it that make prospective employers hesitate. “They may have had to take a short project if lucky, but now there job history looks sketchy,” Langieri says. “Mix this with no younger talent entering the IBM i-RPG world and you further diminish the talent pool.”
There’s no mistaking the gradual downward trend of this platform, which ultimately isn’t good for anybody.