A Little Less Talk, A Little More Action, Please
November 16, 2020 Alex Woodie
We can talk until the cows come home about the importance of modernizing the IBM i platform (and we do). But for some of the younger people who call the platform home, all the talk is masking the fact that the window for taking decisive action to take the platform in a bold new direction is shrinking.
You can count Peter Sørensen, the CEO of IBM i output management software vendor InterForm, as one of the frustrated younger guys. At 40, he’s old enough to have spent a decade working with the platform, but still young enough to feel the sting of disappointment that things could be better.
Sørensen was just 27 years old when he started at the Danish software company, which has installed its software on more than 4,000 IBM i systems over the years, thanks in part to an OEM contract with Infor. He didn’t have any magazine profiles celebrating his relative youth. He just excelled at the job, and in 2011, the owner asked him to become its CEO.
“I had absolutely no clue about IT, in particular the AS/400, now IBM i,” Sørensen said. “So I had to start from the bottom. I spent hours every day trying to get my head around the platform, which to me was very different. The business side of things was in that perspective much easier to understand.”
At the tender age of 30, when many IT professionals are still exploring different disciplines and career paths, Sørensen become the took the helm of a software company that was formed when he was seven years old. Some of his friends and colleagues wondered why he was choosing a career on the IBM i server, which had already lost substantial market share compared to its pre-Y2K heyday (it has shrunk even more since).
But Sorensen was resolute that he had chosen the right path.
“When I joined, my network asked instantly ‘Why would you be in a market that is dying or vanishing?'” he tells IT Jungle. “I don’t regret anything. I like what I do.”
Sørensen felt young and inexperienced compared to his colleagues at InterForm and associates at other companies. When he attended tradeshows or sales meetings, he was always the youngest one. However, through hard work and determination, Sørensen excelled at his job, and he eventually grew to appreciate the finer characteristics of the IBM i server.
But somewhere along his journey, Sørensen became dissatisfied with what he was seeing take place in the market. At his previous job, Sørensen learned the value of disruption and shaking up the status quo. It’s become a cliché in Silicon Valley over the past decade, but it was ingrained in him before then.
The drive to innovate helped Sørensen push InterForm to refine its product: output management on IBM i. That desire to continually improve how output management works on IBM i and other supported platforms has been good to Interform, which has grown its revenue and its profit by more than 3x since Sørensen took over.
That success has given him the confidence to speak up a bit more and to share his thoughts on the matter of the future of IBM i. In his view, the IBM i platform is as solid as it ever was, but it’s the community that needs to catch up to the times.
With something to say, Sørensen reached out to IT Jungle, and we listened. The way he tells it, some of the more experienced folks on the platform may want to do a little less talking and maybe do a little more listening and learning.
“I was always the youngest, and every time I hear about new stuff, it’s just the old guys explaining it for me. But it doesn’t really get me going,” he said. “At some point, I figured, I could continue complaining, at least to myself, about why it is always the old guys and why is it always the same type of mindset and limitations. They tend to be more concerned about someone calling the platform something wrong, and that to me, doesn’t really make a difference.”
Sørensen is tired of hearing the naysayers preaching about the decline of the platform while they fail to invest in the skills and failed to breathe new life into their own products or companies. The platform that IBM launched in 1988 has been technological bedrock for hundreds of thousands of businesses for three decades. The core is still solid, but the stuff built on top isn’t looking so hot anymore.
“We built the foundation 30 years ago,” he says. “At some point, we have to realize, if we are to be just as good going forward, can we then keep on building on top of what we designed 30 year ago, or do we have to look at it with a new perspective?”
Clearly, Sørensen falls into the “new perspective” camp, but he doesn’t get the feeling that some of his colleagues on the platform share that perspective. The over/under on this seems to correlate with age, in Sorensen’s experience. As a 40-year-old Dane, he’s simultaneously old enough and young enough to see both sides.
Thirteen years in the industry has taught Sørensen a thing or two about surviving in the software business. He has invested millions of dollars to build a platform-independent output management software product that works just as well on IBM i as it does on any other platform, including the cloud. The software features a GUI that is intuitive to use.
By all accounts, the investment has been a financial success, as it’s allowed Sørensen to continue growing the company. He has made a point of hiring younger developers – his youngest is 24 – but the age is immaterial if they can’t do the work. His oldest employee is 79. Sørensen clearly values having a mix of youth and experience.
“The young guys, we have learned from the old guys that we shouldn’t jump for each new [technological] thing we year about. They have done it themselves,” he says. “I’m not saying that investing in the future is 100 percent spot on, because there are many things that never turn out to be as they thought it would be.”
In Sørensen’s view, IBM i software developers are not keeping up with the times. They develop software that requires too much technical expertise on the part of the user. Few IBM i shops have more than one or two dedicated IBM i technical experts any more. The days of large development and operations teams are over, outside of the largest customers.
InterForm’s focus is output management software, but Sørensen thinks his approach would work no matter what type of software is being developed. If the entire IBM i software ecosystem adopted his approach to modernize not just the look and feel of their software, but how it operates and the level of skill needed to interact with it, then the fortunes of this thing called IBM i could go up dramatically.
“You need to go where the customers are going, and you need to offer them something so they stay,” he says. “That’s why we invested millions here at InterForm in the IBM i platform, because we want the customer to stay. But more importantly, we want the customer to get the best of what we offer.”
If you haven’t invested in your own skills in the last 20 years, then you’re missing out on a whole lot, Sørensen says. You may not be aware of what you’re missing out on, but that matters little. “There are so many customers who are so far behind, because they have not invested in the platform,” he says.
Sørensen could have taken many other paths back in 2008, but he chose a career around the IBM i server. He has no regrets, like many others his age. But at the end of the day, all the talk about the death of the platform is getting under his skin. “Don’t blame the platform for not being up-to-date, blame yourself for not keeping track!” he says.
It’s a feeling that a great songwriter named Elvis Presley once felt. He expressed it better than most:
“A little less conversation, a little more action, please.
All this aggravation ain’t satisfactioning me.
A little more bite and a little less bark.
A little less fight and a little more spark.
Close your mouth and open up your heart and, baby, satisfy me.”