Welcome To The ‘Riehl’ World: Live, Hands-On IBM i Training
May 18, 2020 Alex Woodie
IBM i shops don’t have a ton of options available when it comes to online IBM i education these days. If you’re in the market to improve your skills, one of the outfits that should be on your shortlist is The 400 School, which is one of the few places left that offers hands-on IBM i education, according to the company’s founder and president, Dan Riehl.
Riehl has had the kind of IBM midrange career that younger folks arriving on the platform today can only dream of. He has founded companies, written books, worked as a security consultant and auditor, worked a technical editor at AS/400 News, and, of course, trained thousands of students through his educational company.
Riehl started his career back in the early 1980s by helping a school district migrate from an IBM System/360 to a System/38. After a stint at ConAgra Foods, he founded and ran his own consulting company. But the line between consulting and training is thin, and soon Riehl was offering formalized training for companies using the System/38’s successor, the AS/400.
“I started teaching classes in 1988 when AS/400 first came out,” Riehl tells IT Jungle. “I was working with a business partner. We were selling these new AS/400s and didn’t have any training for AS/400. IBM put out a couple of less-than-adequate classes, so we put together our own classes to teach our own customers.”
Those early classes focused on the core principles behind operating and administering the AS/400, including things like the menu system, commands, help functions, interactive versus batch jobs, library lists, and so on. These core AS/400 concepts are largely the same in today’s IBM i server, and that core curriculum, first developed over 30 years ago, forms the basis for much of the operations and administration classes offered by The 400 School today.
A few years later, Riehl started offering programming classes for RPG and CL. Those classes would form the basis for Control Language Programming for the AS/400, the book that Riehl co-wrote with Brian Myers. That book sold quite well, particularly since junior colleges and universities used it as a textbook for their classes. Riehl recalls how his wife used to sit outside by the mailbox, waiting for a royalty check to arrive. “A lot of the time, it was a really hefty check,” Riehl recalls. But not so much anymore.
In 1996, Riehl founded two companies: The 400 School and The PowerTech Group. Riehl had developed a specialty in security and auditing and offered those consulting services to AS/400 shops through PowerTech. After a few years, he invited his friend John Earl to join the company.
“John had the security bug and he wanted to go put together a security company,” Riehl says. “So I invited him over and he came part-owner of PowerTech with his network exit point software.”
Riehl and Earl sold PowerTech to HelpSystems in 2008, and then both went on to work with different companies. Riehl focused his teaching efforts through The 400 School and continued to offer security consulting through a new venture called IT Security and Compliance Group LLC, while Earl would go on to become the CEO of Townsend Security. Earl, as we all know, passed away in 2013.
Today, The 400 School offers nearly 20 individual classes in five main categories: RPG programing; operations and CL programming; security and auditing; Query/400; and COBOL programming. Most of the classes take four to five days to complete, assuming a seven-hour school day. There are a few one- or two-day courses, like Query/400 and QAUDJRN workshop, while the ILE COBOL/400 workshop weighs in at a hefty 10 days.
Riehl prefers to teach his pupils how to use tried and true tools and techniques on the IBM i server. That includes a hefty dose of SEU and PDM as opposed to Rational Developer for i (RDi), which is IBM’s preferred tool for writing ILE code today.
“We give them an overview of RDi, give them some samples and examples of RDi, in case they want to use that,” he says. “But 80 percent of the folks that we’re training in the languages, their companies are using SEU and PDM.”
Riehl brings the same type of real-world practicality to the RPG syntax he teaches at The 400 School. “The classes are taught in fixed and free format,” he says. “We teach them free format, but not free-free-free. I want to teach them so they can read their existing code and at the same time be able to write new code with free format C specs.”
Riehl has strong opinions on free format RPG (which he calls “RPG 5”) and he isn’t shy about sharing them. “The new version of RPG, free format everything, is a rather bizarre little language,” he says. “I guess somebody asked for it. I don’t know who. But it is a totally different language.”
If his students are using free format RPG in their shops, he lets them do their exercises in free format RPG, and the same goes for fixed format. He ensures they can write in both styles, so they’re able to support both.
“If you know fixed RPG or free format RPG, it’s a very short walk from fixed to free or free to fixed. The same thing is true with RDi,” Riehl says. “With RDi and SEU, the commands are so similar that if you’re using RDi you kind of already know how to use SEU. And PDM is so close to Remote System Explorer. They’re both very similar tools. If you know one it’s very easy to pick up the other.”
Riehl conducts The 400 School classes in two ways: remotely over the Internet, or with a live, in-person session. Over the past few years, almost all of the courses have been over the Internet, but Riehl says he’ll still offer the in-person sessions if there’s demand.
What makes The 400 School unique among IBM i educational options, according to Riehl, is that the classes are live (as opposed to pre-recorded) and offer hands-on, personalized attention. Riehl runs the classes live from his home near St. Louis, Missouri, and uses a webcam and WebEx technology to communicate with his students (the students are not required to use a live webcam, however).
“Students just log into the IBM i out on the Internet, and I have a tool that allows me to watch their workstation sessions when they’re working on the programs and working on the system,” he says. “I supervise the lab exercises, so I can watch over everybody’s shoulder. It works out really well, especially in the programming classes.”
Other IBM i training venues offer pre-recorded sessions. But in Riehl’s opinion, the lack of live supervision from an instructor is a less-than-ideal situation.
“Being able to actually look over the shoulder of each of the students during these classes is really critical,” he says. “Plus it’s important that they have the chance to ask questions and have a conversation, rather than just listening to a tape spin.”
To ensure students receive the attention they need, Riehl limits class sizes to seven (although he will run courses with more students if they’re all from the same company). If only one person has signed up for a class, the class will run, which isn’t always the case with some educational outfits, which have developed a reputation for cancelling classes a just a couple of days before they’re scheduled to start because of a lack of enrollment.
“I never want to do that to any student,” he says. “If there’s a class on the schedule, it’s going to run.”
For more information and a course schedule, as well as pricing, check out www.400school.com.