Bucking the System: Higher Ed, Hold the College
June 12, 2019 Alex Woodie
Jim Buck spent 15 years teaching IBM i and RPG at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Buck achieved great things there, finding hundreds of students good jobs around the country. But ultimately the college experience grew old for Buck, so he ventured out on his own. That’s when he founded his own online IBM i educational company, imPower Technologies.
That was two years ago, in the spring of 2017. After spending almost a year getting imPower Technologies up and running, Buck is teaching students IBM i and RPG once again. Currently he offers two courses: an introduction to IBM i operations and an RPG class.
The content is more or less the same. No matter where you teach it, IBM i and RPG concepts don’t really change. And as the author of several books, Buck has the curriculum down pat. The biggest difficulty was more a matter of translating what he taught from a classroom experience to an online experience.
Buck is chasing a slightly different student profile at imPower than he did at Gateway Technical College, which impacts how he presents the content. At Gateway, students had to take his course if they wanted to graduate from the program with an associate’s degree. You could imagine that some of the students were not thrilled to learn they’d be working with this “legacy” IBM midrange machine. After all, they wanted to be RPG programmers — “role-playing game” programmers, that is.
“They all came in wanting to be game programmers,” said Michelle Lyons, imPower Technologies chief operating officer and a former student of Buck’s at Gateway. “In order to get the degree, you had to take the courses. It wasn’t a choice. That’s what ended up ultimately getting them the jobs.”
Self-motivation should not be a problem for imPower’s students, Lyons said. “You don’t get the kid whose mom wants him to go to school who doesn’t want to do the work,” she said during an interview with IT Jungle at the recent POWERUp conference at Disneyland. “That helps considerably, because you can take them a lot further.”
Most of the students at imPower already have jobs at IBM i shops. And many of them are already working in the IT department. They just don’t interact with the IBM i server – at least not yet.
“Probably the biggest thing is the students in these online classes are already vetted, meaning the company that hired them has paid the bill,” said Buck, who’s a Champion for IBM Power Systems. “These students being vetted, they already know programming, but what they need to do is see what the proper way to write the code is.”
Learning Management System
Buck adopted an open source learning management system (LMS) called Moodle, which provides a framework for serving the educational content. For both courses, there are nine sections, with two chapters per section. For every chapter, students watch a recorded video of Buck lecturing on the topic, which includes PowerPoint presentations.
Students are provided sample code for each chapter, and then must complete a programming assignment that covers both chapters in the section. “If they understand the sample programs and what was in those chapters, they should have no problems writing the programs,” Buck said.
For several hours a week, Buck makes himself available to students and answers their questions via video chat. There is also a quiz that students must pass. Students are given 10 weeks to take the class (they can go beyond 10 weeks, but there’s an additional fee). They can go back and re-watch the lectures as many times as necessary to get the concepts down.
Upon completion of all the quizzes and assignments, the students are granted a certificate that says they passed the course. They’re also entitled to take the equivalent COMMON certification course at no charge. Since Buck wrote the content that COMMON’s certification courses are based on, they should have no trouble passing.
Real World Customers
imPower has been in business for just over a year, and it’s already getting good reviews. Mark Harris, an IT director for Illinois-based Prairie Farms Dairy, said the courses turned out to be “excellent solutions” for training two new employees.
“Because of an unforeseen retirement we were put in a position where we had two new programmers starting at the same time,” Harris says, according to a testimonial on the imPower Technologies website. “They both had programming experience but not on the IBM i platform. We had them both taking the online courses almost immediately. By the time they completed this course they both had a strong starting base in both ILE RPG and RDi.”
Another IBM i shop, Banyan Air, was in a crunch when one of Buck’s graduates from Gateway had to suddenly leave due to an illness in the family. The South Florida company turned to imPower to bring another hire up to speed.
Hot Dogs and RPG
There’s one other aspect of online learning that’s different than the Gateway experience: They can zoom through the courses as fast as they can, if they want. “If you’re a hot dog and you can keep trucking through here, I don’t want to slow you down,” Buck said.
Buck didn’t leave Gateway to retire or cruise around on his sailboat. Anybody who has founded his own company knows that it’s no joy ride, and takes a lot of hard work. “I didn’t leave Gateway because I was old and tired. Trust me,” he said. “I’m working a lot harder now than I was then. But I think I’m filling a business need.”
Many IBM i shops are complaining of shortages of qualified people to fill open positions for programmers, administrators, and operators. After striking out with local recruiters, these companies may think about giving up on the platform, assuming that it’s dead. Bad assumption, Buck said.
“These companies, they say ‘Well, we can’t find RPG programmers so we’re going to leave the platform,'” Buck says. “The problem isn’t RPG programmers, because I can produce an RPG program in 10 weeks. You’ve seen that textbook of mine. I cover that in 10 weeks and they’re good when I’m done with them.”
“My idea with these online classes is they can hire somebody who’s local, maybe with a two-year degree in Web technologies or something, and in a short period of time I can get them up to speed on what they need to be effective on IBM i,” he said. “I maintain the biggest challenge for a company is getting somebody to know their business. So if you have somebody in accounting or marketing or someone who always wanted to get into IT, that’s your best bet, because they already know your business.”
imPower Technologies currently offers just the two courses, but a third course, on PHP, is in the works, according to Buck. The costs for the current courses range from $1,500 to $2,500, with a discount for buying both. You can learn more about the education company at its website: www.imPowertechnologies.com.