Building A Positive Culture of Learning On IBM i
February 18, 2019 Alex Woodie
How do you motivate IBM i programmers to keep learning new technologies, long after they have mastered the RPG skills they use the most? There’s no simple answer to that question, which was the topic of a recent conversation IT Jungle had with PHP on IBM i guru Alan Seiden and Heidi Schmidt, the head of PKS Software.
IBM i shops face several interrelated problems when it comes to their personnel, which traditionally is one of the biggest line items in the IT budget. These challenges include: the aging of IBM i professionals; the retirements of baby boomer-aged personnel; the difficulty in finding suitable replacements; the lack of IBM i-related training in colleges and universities; and the need to unwind and modernize monolithic applications.
You can add one more to the list: Building a positive culture of continual learning among IBM i developers and the managers who manage them.
At too many IBM i shops, there is a crisis of stagnation of skills among the developers, says Schmidt, the managing partner of PKS Software GmbH, which is based in Ravensburg in southern Germany.
“I’m very surprised that some people have not done any training for 25 or so years,” Schmidt says. “This is crazy because you must still be training or learning something new. Otherwise, you’re stuck in your area.”
Courage To Change
Taking the first step to breaking free from that bubble of stagnation and learn something new can be difficult – and scary.
“RPG and COBOL developers are used to perfect knowledge of their world, total mastery of that domain,” says Seiden, the principal of Seiden Group. “They’re being asked to go beyond into areas where they don’t have perfect knowledge, and it’s okay. The answer might not be in the IBM manual. It may be on Google or finding help from peers or user groups.”
Fear of the unknown can also lead developers to reject requests from management to spruce up their skills. That’s a natural human reaction, even if it runs counter to a goal that many companies strive to meet, which is to keep their IT professionals’ skills fresh and their application code modern.
“If you have not learned anything in 15 years, it’s very hard to do the first training and learn something new. Maybe I’m a little bit afraid of doing it for the first time,” Schmidt says. “This is also an issue for RPG programmers who are saying ‘I don’t want to go to training.’ I have several customers who say ‘We would like to spend money for training my RPG team but they don’t want to go.'”
IBM i developers don’t do themselves any favors when they push back against management’s attempts to widen their technological horizons. While they may feel safer in their RPG or COBOL comfort zone, it hurts their company’s efforts to refresh its technology and remain agile in the face of changing business dynamics.
“It is very important to make them understand that it’s important to be more accepting of new technologies,” Schmidt says. “What we are typically seeing, at least in Germany, is a lot of very experienced and also good RPG and COBOL developers are really very restrictive [about having] contact with new technology. And so they are setting up an image around their team that looks not very attractive for management.”
That’s human nature, Seiden says. “Sometimes we want to preserve stability at all costs, whereas business people may need to think about future changes the market is going to bring,” he says. “You can’t preserve stability at all costs.”
Faced with the reality that IBM i developers are often reluctant to learn new technologies, it falls to management to create a work environment that is more accepting of change – that is, to create a culture of learning.
More Carrot, Less Stick
It may be tempting for management to try to force a cultural change in their IT shop. But management needs to tread carefully with their approaches and avoid the temptation to dictate exact terms to their team.
Managers should leverage affirmative approaches to organically grow a positive culture of learning among developers, as opposed to negative reinforcement, or punishing developers when they fail to meet training goals, Schmidt and Seiden advise.
“We would prefer to keep things positive,” Seiden admits. “I don’t really believe you can motivate somebody in a creative field. People have to be self-motivated. But the manager has to be able to create an atmosphere where people want to be better and want to improve.”
One relatively easy way to encourage a positive learning environment is to tie bonuses to the completion of training. “In Germany, several newer software companies, in their end-of-year contract, they have paragraphs where they’re [required] to complete two weeks of training every year to get a bonus,” Schmidt says.
“Some of the most successful companies I’ve seen have implemented a cross-training program so that all developers, no matter what technologies they use, are conversant and somewhat capable in all the languages in use to do basic troubleshooting and to talk about it, even if they’re not the expert,” Seiden says. “They’ll know something about all of them so they can have comfortable conversations and not retreat into their own silo.”
The biggest challenge is to create an atmosphere of mutual acceptance, and not to foster divisions about which technology or programming language is superior, Schmidt says.
“For example, we are doing training for developers, and we see more and more mixed teams,” she says. “We have several customers in the last year, when they sent us younger people – Java people who needs to learn RPG. They also decided to send us their [older] RPG developer and do the same training with them from day one.”
The results were very interesting, Schmidt says. “I asked the 63 year old man after the first week ‘How do you feel? Do you have the feeling that you’ve learned anything?'” she says. “He told me this was the first week in 20 years where I really programmed a program from scratch, because I always copied.”
Mind The Limbic
Another approach to fostering an atmosphere of technical exploration and continual learning is to recognize that people view rewards and punishments in different ways. Management can keep things moving forward by recognizing that each of our limbic systems – the part of the brain that governs punishment and reward – are wired in slightly different ways.
For example, Schmidt says, the limbic system may be programmed to reward an RPG developer for recognizing the long-term value of the RPG language, and the inherent stability that the language can bring to the company. On the other hand, the manager’s limbic system may tell her that the long-term stability of RPG is actually a negative thing, and that it gets in the way of innovation.
“There’s a lot of research material available that says, for example, that managers are typically more interested in profit and future-driven things, like new technology and things like that,” she explains. “And developers – especially the RPG or COBOL people, who are already older – are more security-driven and they want not to change too much. So we try to fit this knowledge of limbic issues to get much clearer picture of why people are reacting in the way they are.”
Recognizing how different stakeholders in the IT department view these big challenges is a step toward creating a culture of inclusion, where people aren’t afraid to go out on a limb. Managers should recognize that RPG and COBOL programmers are often prone to resist attempts to get them to evolve their skills and try new technologies. And the IBM i pros should also realize that management may not be impressed with an IBM i application that has successfully run the business with great reliability, security, and stability for 30-plus years, since it’s her job to ensure the next 30 years of success.
Honesty is key, Schmidt says, but compassion is also important. Never lie, but don’t be overly blunt either, she says.
“It’s very important to have transparency in the teams, to make small steps to get further on,” she says. “But we also see that RPG and COBOL developers feel a little bit stuck, and they’re afraid of more transparency and the threat of coming into contact with technology they do not know perfectly. It’s the job of the manager to be able to set up a team-cherishing and team-valuing atmosphere in the team, so people do not feel attacked.”