Peeking Outside Of The IBM i Bubble
March 14, 2018 Alex Woodie
It can be tempting to continue doing what you’ve done before. After all, there’s safety and security in familiarity. But when it comes to planning your future and reaching your goals as a technology professional, you should not limit your opportunities, whether it’s learning a new technology or even being open to jobs in different states.
That’s the message from Patrick Staudacher, an IBM i recruiter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who has witnessed the evolution of the midrange platform and the professionals who make it run since he started in the unique trade 20 years ago. For many years, the job market was robust, but these days, uncertainty about the future of the platform in many shops — as well as changing technologies that shops need — have combined to create a certain degree of uneasiness in the midrange.
Last year, Staudacher started publishing a newsletter on his company’s website. The idea behind Talsco Weekly was to present a broader view of the platform for IBM i professionals who might be fearful about the changes to the IBM i platform and pessimistic about their professional opportunities working within it.
“There’s just so many folks that I talk to who are heads down, coding in a small environment, frustrated,” Staudacher tells IT Jungle. “They don’t always see what I see in terms of the positives, companies modernizing and moving to PHP. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to put the newsletter together, to just say ‘Hey, here’s what’s going on out there. There are companies doing this. It’s time to jump on board.'”
Staudacher used to work exclusively in the Wisconsin area, which featured a strong base of manufacturers and a number of BPCS and MAPICS shops that turned to him to find good candidates. But since the Great Recession took a bite out of the local IBM i installed base, he has broadened his coverage to the greater Midwest, and now patrols an area that includes Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana.
That involves working both the supply-side and the demand-side of the equation. “The clients pay me to find me somebody,” Staudacher says. “But what I like to do is build a relationship on both the client side and candidate side, and make those matches happen.”
For years Staudacher worked closely with Jim Buck, who led the IBM i program at nearby Gateway Technical College before leaving the position last year. Gateway has arguably the best college-level IBM i educational program in the country, and Staudacher was lucky enough to be in a position to help connect a number of Buck’s students with jobs after they graduated.
That stream of young IBM i professionals — YIPs as it were – is a Wisconsin specialty. “I know a lot of companies absolutely hired directly out of that Gateway program,” says Staudacher, who sits on Gateway’s IT advisory board. “Jim Buck has done a fantastic job with the program.”
While Staudacher works occasionally with college grads, most of his placements involve IBM i professionals who already have some experience under their belts. Getting these folks to consider broadening their abilities beyond the traditional IBM i skills is critical for improving their career trajectory, but he admits that it can sometimes be a challenge.
“It’s tough for people who are working hard and don’t have the resources in their current organizations. But you’ve got to take your career into your own hands,” Staudacher says. “You have to do it.”
Think Outside The (Check)box
Adding things like PHP, Web services, and Node.JS to your resume is a great way to increase your marketability in the IBM i job market. Nobody will deny that. But Staudacher also works the other side of the equation, and tries to get employers to be more open to hiring folks who don’t already have every skill mentioned in a job listing.
“A lot of companies have all these boxes they want to check. They have to have this this and this. It’s almost impossible to check all those boxes,” he says. “That’s one of the things I look for in clients. Sometimes they need to be flexible. They’re stuck on ‘We need this perfect skills fit out of the box.'”
Staudacher ran into this problem when trying to place one of Buck’s graduates, who by definition are entry-level workers who lack the deep technical expertise of a 30-year programmer whose four-page resume is filled with acronyms of all types. They wanted somebody with RPG Free, PHP, and web services skills, and the recruiter wasn’t having any luck filling the bill.
He asked if they would consider an entry-level candidate, and to his surprise, they said they would. “The reason they could do that was they had a good internal onboarding mentorship program in their IT department, so they could be a little more flexible on what boxes had to checked so to speak.”
State Of Mind
It’s not always about specific skills, however. “A lot of it is centered around the whole mindset as well,” Staudacher says. “It’s also ‘Can this person come in and be an effective communicator? Can she work with the business, and take from start to finish?'”
It used to be that Americans wouldn’t think twice about moving to different cities or different states to take a new job. But these days, we’re more hesitant to uproot ourselves and head across state lines, especially for families with young children and two wage-earners. That’s another factor at play in Staudacher’s ongoing quest to match the supply of IBM i skills with its demand.
He recently worked with a company in a remote part of Illinois that was having trouble filling an opening for a programming job. The company wanted somebody familiar with PHP on the IBM i platform, but after six months Staudacher had not found a suitable candidate willing to move to take the job.
While the company was originally unwilling to consider a remote worker who would telecommute from their home, it eventually relented. “The business challenges got to be so big that they opened up and ended up hiring somebody who works five days a week from home,” Staudacher says.
A similar thing happened in Minnesota awhile back, when an IBM i shop was having trouble finding Synon talent in the area. Synon is a 4GL that was very popular 20 years ago, but today the number of practicing Synon developers is quite small.
“They were forced to go down that [telecommuting] path because it’s hard to make people relocate,” Staudacher says. “I see that trend happening a little more. When talking to clients I’m trying to get them to consider that because it opens up a lot more possibilities.”
That’s good news for IBM i professionals, who might not want to take a child out of school to earn more money in a different state. And while IBM i professionals still earn less than their Windows and open systems colleagues, Staudacher sees salaries for IBM i folks starting to creep up, at least in some areas.
“Going into the Illinois market, I’ve seen RPG developers hitting that six-figure mark, maybe $110,000,” he says. “It’s not always the case in Milwaukee. In more remote areas, it’s in the mid-$80s. There are developers who have been around a very long time, and a lot of times their salaries haven’t grown at the rate as the other developers have.”
You can subscribe to Staudacher’s weekly newsletter at www.talscoinc.com/blog/.