Yum, Liam Allan, and the Future of the Platform
June 20, 2018 Alex Woodie
It’s hard to believe, but Liam Allan has become a veteran at these things. He might be only 21 years old, but the young Englishman already has become a sought-after speaker on the IBM i event circuit and a respected voice for open source development. At COMMON’s recent POWERUp18 conference in San Antonio, Texas, Allan elaborated on Yum’s arrival on IBM i, his own open source work, and the future of the platform.
Allan first appeared on the IBM i scene two years ago, when he won the 2016 COMMON Student Innovation Award for his work on the IBM i platform. IBM named him an IBM Champion for Power in March 2017 and two months later IBM Systems Magazine named Allan one of the original Fresh Faces of the platform.
So when IBM chose Allan to shoot a promotional video for the 30th anniversary of the IBM i – the one where he fist-bumps IBM exec Steve Sibley and dances with Pepper the robot – you could say that Allan’s ticket has finally arrived.
While the IBM i public discovered Allan two years ago, he actually started working on the platform two years before that – when he was 17 years old – through a work-study program at the college he was attending (a college in the UK is the equivalent of a high school in the United States). In fact, the young programmer had begun his IT career years before that. When he was just 14, Allan started writing server-side mods for Minecraft using Java. That interest in development carried into his years at college and his apprenticeship at the IBM i shop in England.
Allan’s route from a teen gamer dabbling Minecraft mods into a leading voice for open source on a staid business computer was not a direct one. In fact, Allan initially intended to study music, and possibly turn it into a career. “Before I did the apprenticeship, I did music for a year. That’s what I wanted to do originally,” Allan told IT Jungle in an interview at POWERUp18. “I do still do musical things, but there’s no point in studying it because it wouldn’t have been beneficial long term.”
To be sure, developing IBM i skills was a better route to a paycheck than Allan’s favored musical genre. (“I’m a metal guy,” he admitted. “I like anything that’s screamy – screamy and loud.”) Being a heavy metal musician was probably not the best route to steady income, so he jumped at the chance to learn some tech skills that could support him in the real world.
Allan says his first thought when he started working on IBM i back in 2014 wasn’t about how great the system was. While he has since expressed his amazement at the Technology Independent Machien Interface (TIMI) and other unique attributes of the IBM i architecture, Allan was initially just glad to be earning some money. “I was more excited that I was working more than having an opinion on what it was at the time,” he said.
Allan admits that, as a 17-year-old apprentice, writing business logic in RPG didn’t hold a lot of appeal. But it gradually grew on him, and he grew to appreciate how the combination of RPG and IBM i was so powerful. However, while he found programming in RPG simple enough, he found certain aspects simply baffling, like coding native record-level access calls in RPG.
“That’s not something you see in other languages,” Allan said. “It threw me off big time. I just didn’t like it. I still don’t like it to this day, but I know how to use it now. That’s the big difference.”
Like most good developers today, Allan is fluent in several languages, including RPG, C#, C, Java, and Node.js. “Whatever gets the job done,” he said. Allan’s day job is working as a contractor for Profound Logic, where he has helped build Profound.js, the company’s Node.js product. But during his free time, Allan can be found tinkering with ILEditor, which is a lightweight, open source development environment for IBM i.
Allan clearly enjoys talking about ILEditor, which can be downloaded from Allan’s website, Works of Barry. “Someone whom I’m pretty good friends with . . . has been using it. She was happy, and that makes me extremely happy,” he said. “I did a session [at POWERUp18] today on modern ILE DevOps and I got a good response from that, too. I’ve had a couple of people ask me what’s coming. It’s been nice. I’m really happy.”
ILEditor has caught the eye of IBM executives, too, including Tim Rowe, who heads up development and systems management tools at the IBM lab in Rochester, Minnesota. Rowe is obviously intent on selling license for Rational Developer for i (RDi), but he had good things to say about Allan’s product, too.
“Liam has a great new tool that he’s working on,” Rowe told IT Jungle recently. “It’s free. So if the $1,000 [cost for RDi] is a major inhibitor for you to be able to do new development, go get Liam’s! Is it going to give you great value? Oh heck yeah. Will it ever have everything that RDi has in it? Probably not.”
While the commercial open source business model is thriving in many parts of the IT industry, Allan says he has no plans on turning ILEditor into a business. As it so happens, Allan has strong opinions on the value that open source software can have to IBM i. Specifically, he’s intrigued by Yum and the new RPM open source delivery methodology, which replaces the 5733-OPS product that used the old PTF distribution method.
“In my opinion, it’s probably going to save the operating system,” Allan says of Yum, which is an open source package manager used by RPM. “It’s an easier way to obtain things like Node.js and Git and things like that. That’s probably my favorite thing [about the platform] right now. In my opinion, it has saved the operating system. If we didn’t have something like that probably by the end of next year, I would probably just not bother. But we do, and I’m very, very happy about that.”
The IT world is changing quickly, and the IBM i server sometimes struggles to find its place. It’s refreshing to see younger folks like Allan step up to shine a light on a possible way forward for this venerable platform. For Allan, that path forward is open source. “If you want to attract any more people [to the platform] then you need an easy way to get ahold of these things,” he says of open source. “That’s the way it is, in my opinion.”
Since landing on the IBM i radar two years ago, Allan’s face has become synonymous with the youth movement on IBM i. The platform has surely benefited from Allan’s story, and while there’s no denying Allan’s technical talents, nor his maturity, it doesn’t change the fact that being the face of the future of IBM i brings its share of pressure. “It’s a little weird,” Allan says of all the attention he’s received. “It’s overwhelming. I’m quite a social person, but it’s very different.”
Nonetheless, Allan is grateful for the opportunities that his newfound fame has presented him in the IBM i ecosystem. “I’m very, very fortunate to have this right now,” he said. “I feel very lucky.”