Lack Of Available RPG Skills Not A Hard Problem To Fix
September 11, 2017 Dan Burger
Running an IT department can be a grind. The reliability and manageability of your hardware and software certainly influences how hard the grind becomes, but the job becomes so much easier when you have a staff that removes much of your burden. Successfully developing that staff and creating a positive culture while dealing with turnover and “do more with less” imperatives has a huge impact on whether the CIO or IT director manages the grind or gets ground up. And once in a while, a new addition to the staff comes with a surprisingly positive impact. That leads me into the story of the security guard who became an RPG programmer.
Make a note: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Our routines can lock us into a one-dimensional perspective where we only see the surface of people, things, and ideas without making an effort to delve deeper into them.
Sean Corpuz walked into Chinese Laundry because the company needed a part-time, night and weekend security guard and he needed a job. Chinese Laundry is a Los Angeles-based women’s footwear manufacturer and globally recognized fashion footwear distributor.
To my knowledge, security guard experience is not one of the traditional prerequisites to becoming an RPG programmer. But it wasn’t traditional security guard duties and responsibilities that made Corpuz stand out. There’s a long checklist of things security officers must perform and at Chinese Laundry, the guards were notorious for not completing the paperwork or failing to complete it correctly. So, to help the other officers do their jobs correctly, Sean created a 35-page manual with pictures and step-by-step examples. No one asked him to do it. He just took the initiative to do it.
That led to Sean being appointed security guard manager. As a manager, he became noticed by other managers at the company, including CIO David Wright. Chinese Laundry uses internships throughout the company, including the IT department, where an RPG internship was open. Corpuz said he’d like to try it and Wright recognized that Corpuz’s attitude and aptitude (he was in pursuit of a degree in physics) could help him pick up the RPG without any previous programming knowledge.
As part of the internship, Corpuz was enrolled in an online RPG ILE training course. Previous interns completed the course in about six months. Corpuz finished in four weeks. That’s not to say he was a seasoned programmer with a full grasp of RPG, but it is an indication that he’s not a procrastinator.
“The RPG concepts initially were very difficult to grasp,” Corpuz says. “Especially because the course that was provided to me used fixed format RPG. For the first year and a half I was in an abyss of confusion. The learning process hurts. It’s a headache. It gives you restless nights, but I wouldn’t be where I am unless I had managers and a group that that allowed an open forum of ideas.”
Wright includes an RPG programmer mentor training aspect to the internship. It teamed Corpuz with several senior programmers and started him doing code maintenance work and learning the database. Mentoring is part of the programmers’ job description at Chinese Laundry. It should become a standard policy in all IBM i shops.
“Sean is extremely detail oriented. We use SQL and free form RPG and our techniques are pretty modern. I think it’s easier for a new programmer to learn modern RPG than if he had to learn old school RPG where everything is column sensitive and more abstract. Sean immediately impressed the app dev manager, ” Wright says.
Corpuz has moved beyond the internship and is a programmer/analyst now. The shop has three full-time, senior RPG developers and an app dev manager who also codes. All the senior developers and the manager are involved in the mentorship program. It’s where 90 percent of the job skills are learned.
“The RPG intern position is open now, but we have someone in mind to fill that slot. We always try to have an intern on staff,” Wright says. “The older guys learn from the interns who ask a lot of questions and provide a new perspective and keeping it fresh. Mentors learn by sharing their knowledge and teaching others. There’s a lot of doom and gloom about the lack of RPG developers and skills, but it’s not hard to fix that problem. If every shop had an RPG intern program, that problem would go away pretty quick.”
Which of these IBM i scenarios would surprise you the most? To walk into an IBM i shop and find a Power8 server running i 7.3 with the current Technology Refresh PTFs in place, or to find an IT staff with modern skills and using its IBM i on Power to something close to its full potential? It’s easy to assume those two scenarios are found in the same shops, but that’s not the case. Maximizing resources is often overestimated. Just because you have the latest and greatest stuff doesn’t automatically mean a company uses the available technologies.
Most of what the staff at Chinese Laundry gets out of its system is accomplished by a staff that is largely self-taught. They build what they need – most programmers love to build things – and sometimes it’s done on a shoe string budget. The entire team attends the OCEAN Technical Conference each year and one or two people attend COMMON when it takes place locally.
The developer development program at Chinese Laundry is sort of like load balancing for IT staffing.
Corpuz describes the situation as an environment that allows staff to be exposed to the newer technology and use it to make older stuff relevant in a modern world. “We are a community. We shouldn’t be resistant to technology,” he says.