Thoroughly Modern: Giving IBM i Developers A Helping Hand
March 9, 2020 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The good thing about the Moore’s Law improvements in compute, storage, and networking capacity is that the cost of a complete IT system more accurately reflects where the real value of that system was always really derived.
In decades gone by, the AS/400 hardware cost represented somewhere on the order of 85 percent of the cost of a server and its storage and the OS/400 systems software accounted for the remaining 15 percent or so. Over time, the hardware costs have dropped to about a third of the overall system cost as systems have also gotten incredibly more powerful. But this is not where the real money gets spent. If you added in the cost of creating and maintaining applications and running the system on top of these fundamental system costs, it’s a big number and it dwarfs these other two factors – and always has. Whether customers build their applications or buy them from third parties, this application software is the true big investment. And it has gotten more expensive over time because people don’t have a Moore’s Law; they get more expensive over time, not less so.
Therefore, getting the most productivity out of those investments in people and the software they create is paramount. This is something that Fresche Solutions understands full well, and that is why it doesn’t just create application development tools, but application services that help IBM i shops get the most done with the least effort and spending the least amount of dough over time. To get a sense of those application services, we had a chat with Leo Lymberopoulos, director of application services at Fresche Solutions, something that he lives and breathes every day.
Timothy Prickett Morgan: Can you start by sharing a little bit about yourself and your role at Fresche Solutions?
Leo Lymberopoulos: I head up Fresche’s Application Services department and our goal is to ensure that organizations who run IBM i applications are in a great position to take advantage of their existing technology while preparing for the future. That means that we provide resources who can speed up time to delivery in the development process, mitigate risks with any kind of change that they bring to their production systems, and make application modernization and staffing affordable for everyone.
TPM: Can you tell us a little bit more about precisely how your group is helping IBM i organizations deal with some of the challenges they are experiencing? And what are some of those challenges?
Leo Lymberopoulos: Many of our clients come to us looking for help addressing staffing and skill shortages. This is a challenge that a lot of IBM i shops experience because, let’s face it, there aren’t many junior RPG or COBOL developers graduating from university these days.
JF Fabrics is a long-time client who initially engaged Fresche to address the pending retirement of key IT resources. As the company grew, so did the backlog of maintenance and feature requests, but they struggled to find skilled resources to replace their retiring programmers. Fresche is now an integral part of JF Fabrics’ IT team, supporting existing IBM i applications and new development while ensuring business continuity.
While a lack of resources is a challenge, engaging the services of an organization like Fresche is also a strategic decision. Some of our clients need to free up resources who can work on new projects while someone keeps the business running day-to-day. Instead of fixing bugs and maintaining your backlog, you’re able to focus on projects that will help move your organization forward.
MedAxiom is a great example of this. They partner with our web application development team to deliver innovative projects, such as MedAxcess, which was recently redesigned to better support mobile devices and improve the user experience for members. I really like this quote from MedAxiom’s IT Director, who said: “Throughout the entire process, Fresche made us feel more like a team member than a client. When we picked up the phone, there was always someone to answer our questions, whether it was tech support or the developer who was doing the work.”
TPM: What are some of the biggest drivers that are pushing companies to engage the services of an organization like Fresche, and what might that relationship look like?
Leo Lymberopoulos: For the most part, our clients’ overarching motivator is risk mitigation. IBM i applications typically lack documentation because the business rules and related knowledge exists in the head of one or a handful of key programmers. When that programmer, who has been with a company for decades, walks out the door due to retirement or attrition, most of that knowledge leaves with them. That exposes the company to significant risk.
Clients engage with us because of our talent, our tools and our methodology, so I’ll break those three differentiators down in a little more detail. With regard to talent, almost everyone who works at Fresche is a permanent employee. We know their strengths and their weaknesses, and we know who to pair with which client. We stand by our people because they’re been highly trained and they’ve had long careers on the IBM i.
This brings me to our tools. New employees are always trained on our application understanding solution, X-Analysis. This is key because X-Analysis saves significant onboarding time with automated documentation, impact analysis and so much more. This adds a lot of value compared to other consultants who might have to spend time manually getting up to speed with a client’s application.
Finally, you couple our talent and tools with our methodology. We have a methodical onboarding process when a company engages Fresche’s application services team. The last thing we want to do is show up and say, “What do you want us to do?” Our onboarding starts before we even go on site.
We will often begin with a list of items that we need to take care of and align with the customer to ensure success. This typically starts with documentation. If documentation exists, it’s often at the bottom of a filing cabinet that no one’s touched in a decade, and it’s completely out of date. That’s where X-Analysis comes in. We’ll document the entire technical side of the application, including the database and how the information flows in and out. This is pretty straightforward thanks to our tooling.
While we capture the technical aspect of the application with X-Analysis, we also make it a priority to learn the business side of the applications. Regardless of which vertical you’re in, every organization is different so it’s important to understand how these applications work for your business. We interview the business users, we record the screens they use every day, we ask them to show us a typical day in your life, and we’ll go through the entire process. If it’s a supply chain, for example, we’ll ask them to put in an order and we’ll follow it through.
By having these two pieces as part of our onboarding process, we’re able to gather a clear snapshot of the reality of what the business and the application do today, and that’s one aspect of our methodology that makes us unique.
TPM: You mentioned before that clients are coming to Fresche with different challenges. Sometimes it is with missing skills or they have projects they want to move forward with. It could be something net new. What are the different models and approaches that customers are engaging you with?
Leo Lymberopoulos: At the end of the day, the client is the driver and we offer flexible options to fulfill their needs. For the most part, a client’s needs will fall within our small, medium or large packages.
- Application Support: Some clients have been running IBM i applications for decades and they work great. There are very few bugs and very few enhancements need to be made, but the client might need someone on call when they need them, like when an error message comes up and nobody at the company knows what to do with it. We offer retainers of senior developers who are available with a very small monthly footprint of 16, 40, or 80 hours per month. That’s a small package, which we call application support.
- Staff Augmentation: A client might choose a staff augmentation approach if they need a full-time senior developer to help with the daily business of fixing bugs, making enhancements or working on new projects. That senior developer will work with the client’s development team, coupled with our tools and our methodologies. This enables us to help the client fulfill any of their application support needs on a permanent, full-time basis.
- Managed Services: Managed Services is a larger package where we would provide and manage an entire IT department. That project would have a manager who runs the department, prioritizes the work packages, liaises with the business and ensures the success of the development team.
By offering multiple approaches that we’re able to fine-tune, we’re able to cover whatever the client’s needs are, end-to-end.
TPM: How do customers mitigate the risk of changing and running their applications? Is there a model that addresses that specifically?
Leo Lymberopoulos: Absolutely. Clients rely heavily on IT to do their job and when critical applications are unavailable, that can have a serious impact on the business. That’s why it’s important to have what we consider “insurance” for your critical applications and databases.
One of our newer services ensures that key applications are always running for your employees, customers and partners. The service provides a senior developer and a backup, both trained on your systems and business processes, who are ready to step in and keep critical systems available.
Thinking about risk mitigation from another perspective, I mentioned that we always document the current state of the application and the business rules, right? This provides so much value because that documentation is available to the customer regardless of whether they continue to partner with us or not. If something comes up four months down the line, developers review the recordings and quickly figure out how to proceed.
Clients also mitigate risk by dealing with a company instead of a single consultant. While we do have a primary person on every account, we always back them up with someone else and have a very high retention rate. Our clients have peace of mind knowing that they don’t have to worry about onboarding or turnover.
TPM: What advice would you give to someone who is unsure about engaging outside resources?
Leo Lymberopoulos: First, I would encourage any organization to be proactive. Make a plan before resources retire, or before you need to retire and suddenly it’s a problem. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
It’s also important to learn about the business value that can come from engaging application services. My colleague Roger Betancourt wrote a great blog post, which you can read here, about the benefits of hiring outside resources.
Finally, I’d recommend starting a conversation. See what we can offer and if application services might be a fit for you, now or down the road. We’ve worked with many organizations, we know IBM i, and we have the talent, the tools and the methodologies to meet any need. Having someone to call could be just what you need to sleep better at night.
I’m always happy to chat. You can reach me at Leo.Lymberopoulos@freschesolutions.com or 514-747-7007 ext. 8733.
This content is sponsored by Fresche Solutions.