Thoroughly Modern: Augmenting Your Programming Today, Solving Staffing Issues Tomorrow
July 12, 2021 Leo Lymberopoulos
Do you have a back-up for when your programmers are on vacation? If not, where would you look to fill the decades of knowledge that is needed to support your RPG or COBOL applications? Who are you going to turn to when your star IBM i programmer – your only programmer – announces plans to retire at the end of this year?
Organizations that run IBM i applications have found themselves in some tricky situations. IBM i is a robust platform and your programmers have spent decades building and maintaining your applications to fit your business. However, as skilled RPG and COBOL programmers retire, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find resources who can replace them.
In my role as Fresche’s director of Application Services, I speak to IT leaders every day who tell me that the impending retirement of key IBM i programmers is the main thing that keeps them up at night. They simply don’t have anyone to step in if the resource suddenly left the company, retired, or got sick.
One solution to this problem is partnering with a company like Fresche to bridge the resource gap and maintain business continuity while protecting your investment in your IBM i applications. In this article, I’ll profile four clients who have chosen Fresche for IBM i application services. Read on to learn about their business challenges, why they chose external resources, and how it’s all going.
Mitigating Resource Risks In A Pandemic
For a large US-based grocery chain, the pandemic shone a spotlight on the risks associated with having a lone RPG programmer who was responsible for its critical business applications. My colleague Roger Betancourt, Fresche’s Application Services Manager, shared with me that the client’s key programmer had announced plans to retire in five years. The client felt that it was important to protect the business by proactively backfilling his role.
The client engaged Fresche to provide them with an experienced RPG programmer under a full-time, one-year renewable contract. Using our automated IBM i analysis and documentation tool, X-Analysis, the Fresche programmer spent the first two weeks following our methodical onboarding process to work with the in-house developer, interview the business users and create documentation that encapsulates both the technical aspects of the application and the critical business processes.
Jeff Talley, an IT consultant who works with the $700 million company, says: “Our entire company is running on a custom-built RPG application that’s been written over a period of decades by a dozen different programmers. The heartbeat of our entire system is a daily billing and inventory run, an incredibly large and complex program that typically takes any programmer years to understand. Our existing RPG programmers estimated at least a year or two for someone new to understand and document it.
“Fresche’s resource joined our team, utilized their X-Analysis product and he was able to fully understand and document the applications in about two months. And he didn’t just document them, he created a very detailed sheet that maps out all the processes. We were able to give him some test questions at the end of the process and say, ‘Okay, if this situation occurred, how would you fix it?’ He was able to look back at his own documentation, outline the process and what needed to be done. We were so impressed because it proved that he really did understand our applications. The bottom line is that he was able to document, understand and be productive with our applications in two months when it should have taken two years.
“I also would add that Fresche’s resource has become a real part of the team. He has been able to step in and provide support for our guys when they’ve gone on vacation as well. That’s something we’ve never been able to do before.”
This long-term relationship is typical of the relationships that Fresche builds with its clients. While we are hired to provide RPG or COBOL skills, it’s about more than technology. We’re also there to learn the business so we can best support our clients and their clients as an extension of their team.
We understand that each business is unique, and our offerings are flexible to accommodate those needs. Our most popular offering is our staff augmentation service, which includes a full-time programmer who works exclusively with that client on a one-year renewable contract, similar to the situation that I’ve outlined here.
External Resources Support New Development
A California-based waste management company partnered with Fresche because they needed multiple RPG programmers to support their growing organization. They currently run 80-90% of the operation on IBM i and tasked Fresche with supporting daily operations and new development.
Our first programmer quickly ramped up and learned the client’s internal processes – not a small feat when the company has more than 10 departments and many clients. Today, three years into our relationship with the client, they have three US-based programmers and two programmers who are in India. This allows our team to work 24/7 for the client and provide a stable working relationship.
Our team takes a lot of pride in building trust with the clients by matching them with the best programmer for their needs. This is important from the client perspective because they want the relationship to last. We have over 50 senior IBM i developers who have worked across many industries, so we’re able to put people together that we feel will thrive and be successful.
Clearing Backlog with Part-Time Resources
A leading provider of Business Process Outsourcing solutions found that they couldn’t keep up with their backlog with their current staffing levels. They contacted Fresche to assist on a part-time basis, allowing them to fill a staffing gap while respecting current budget constraints.
Hiring a part-time resource can be an effective strategy for companies that want to try outsourcing to see if it’s right for them. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that because that resource is only dedicated to your organization 50% of the time, a mission-critical task might be better suited for a full-time programmer who can be available any time you need assistance.
Outsource Day-to-Day Operations to Focus on Growth
After over 50 years in business, a US-based paving product manufacturer has a long-term IT strategy that involves transforming their RPG applications to Java. With one key IBM i programmer who is expected to retire soon, the company needed help to move this multi-year project forward.
The client aligned with Fresche to contract a full-time programmer to meet these needs. The Fresche programmer first used X-Analysis to get up to speed on the company’s existing applications and now supports the day-to-day operations. This frees up their key internal resource to support the code transformation project.
In this case, the benefits are two-fold: Not only is Fresche de-risking the retiring programmer, but they’re also freeing up customer resources to work on strategic projects. This provides valuable peace of mind because they know they can rely on Fresche to ensure that the application is running and their clients are being served.
Outsourcing Versus Hiring
There are a lot of reasons why businesses struggle with hiring new resources:
- Hiring the right programmer is challenging. RPG and COBOL aren’t taught in university anymore and skilled programmers are retiring quickly. For that reason alone, it could take a long time to find someone qualified to take over for a retiring programmer. When you work with Fresche, you have access to a large pool IBM i experts who are experienced in different languages, technologies, database capabilities. Somewhere down the road you might encounter a unique problem or need, or you might want to grow. This is easy when you have access to our bench of resources.
- Training is time consuming. If you find someone, you need to train them. Most IBM i systems are undocumented so the onboarding process often takes months or years. Fresche resources use X-Analysis to demystify the code and are fully onboarded in a fraction of the time. Part of our service also includes documenting your system so future developers can ramp up quickly. Documentation from developers for developers.
- Benefits are expensive. Most of Fresche’s resources are full-time employees of our organization, so you don’t have to worry about the HR side of hiring. We handle the benefits so you don’t have to.
- Overhead is costly. Most IBM i organizations were used to having programmers on-site prior to the pandemic. This means paying for office space and related expenses. Fresche resources, on the other hand, were working remotely pre-pandemic. Being remote is also less risky because our employees aren’t travelling or commuting through public spaces on a regular basis.
- Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Suppose you hire a programmer and they leave after a few months. You’re back to square one, searching for a qualified programmer to onboard. With Fresche, the overwhelming majority of our staff are permanent employees. We know their strengths and their weaknesses so we’re able to staff for success.
At this point, you might be sitting at your desk thinking about your company’s backlog, or the programmer who is going to announce their retirement soon. Maybe you’d just like to take a couple weeks off without worrying. My advice to you would be to call us. Let’s have a conversation and see what we might be able to do to help you gain peace of mind and mitigate these risks.
We’re offering free one-on-one sessions to review your needs and discuss what options might work for you. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a time.
You can also learn more about Fresche’s application services in the final session of their recent IBM i Application Modernization webinar series. The recording is available here.
This content is sponsored by Fresche Solutions.
Leo Lymberopoulos is director of Application Services at Fresche Solutions. Lymberopoulos started his IT career as a developer and gradually moved to project management, where he combines his IT skills with a passion for working with people. At Fresche, he helps manage Application Services engagements and also standardize processes for scalability and efficiency.