Innovating And Thriving with IBM i
July 26, 2021 Alex Woodie
You may have noticed that the IBM i server has developed a certain reputation, and it’s not always a good one. There are folks among us who consider IBM i to be a “legacy” platform, something that should be invested in as little as possible and moved away from at the earliest convenience. But as a panel of experts at the recent OCEAN conference demonstrated, it is possible to not only innovate on the IBM i, but to create a culture where the business and its employees can thrive.
The Orange County Educational Advancement Network, or OCEAN, pulled together an all-star cast of IBM i experts for its annual summer soiree, TechCon21, which was held online due to the ongoing COVID pandemic. It tapped Perforce’s Mike Pavlak, an expert in Python and PHP development, to lead a discussion about how IBM i customers can innovate and thrive with the platform and in their professional lives.
Lots of good advice was presented during the 80-minute session — too much to condense into a short, 1,800-word story. So here are what can be considered the highlights of the discussion.
To Alan Seiden, principal of the Seiden Group from Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, innovating and thriving is about moving out of your comfort zone and trying something new, both from a technological and a career standpoint.
“It’s about not being an island,” Seiden said. “That means your IBM i traditionally . . . sitting in a closet and continuing to run it’s great that it can do that. On the other hand, it can’t be an island anymore. The platform cannot be an island, and we cannot be just islands.”
Birgitta Hauser, a self-employed Db2 for i expert from Germany, echoed that sentiment, and encouraged the adoption of open source technology as a form of innovation. “We’re living in a new world now, a different world,” she said. “We’re still running applications, so we have to keep them and move them into a modern world.”
There is technological innovation, on the one hand. But innovation can also occur at the personal level, according to Charles Guarino, the president of Central Park Data Systems, an IBM i business partner and consultancy based in New York City.
“I think the only way you’re going to really get [personal innovation] is by having empathy for the business,” Guarino said. “I’ve always found that the greatest success I’ve had add in any business I walk into is understanding their biggest pain points. Because once you understand their pain points, now you’re a peer. Now you’re not some geek . . . . Now you have a seat at the table.”
For Jesse Gorzinski, IBM’s business architect for open source on IBM i at the Rochester Lab, the debate is much plainer: Without a mandate for the business to innovate and thrive, there is no business.
“We have these blue-sky ideas when we think about innovation and thriving,” Gorzinski said. “But it really comes down to something very practical at the end of the day. Because what is the central objective of any business? It’s profitability, right? So at the end of the day, it’s all about how do you save money, how do you become more efficient in a direct sense.”
For System i Developer co-founder Paul Tuohy, innovating and thriving means having the dedication to make the most of your time here and figuring out how to keep learning. That’s not necessarily easy for people of a certain age living in this brave new world of Zoom calls and virtual events, he said.
“These are Web events. A lot of people are being told to attend them by their companies,” the Irishman said. “And people who are, let’s say, in the latter part of their careers — okay, let’s be blunt: old fogies around my age — who for the last 15 years have been treading water because as far as they’re concerned there’s really nothing else to learn. I’ve always had a thing that was sort of beaten into me at a young age, which was that every night when you go to sleep before you go to sleep, you ask yourself the question: What new thing did I learn today?”
Keeping oneself fresh and inquisitive is important to HelpSystems Richard Schoen, who has dabbled in just about every discipline in his 37 years on the IBM i platform and its predecessors.
“I’m kind of a meat and potatoes guy,” the Minnesota resident said. “I help people automate their daily work. And that takes a ton of different forms . . . I tell people, even at the tail end of their career, even if it’s not a development thing that you’re interested in, find something you’re interested in to spend one or two hours a day on, or maybe a couple hours a week. But that’s the thing that’s going to keep us fresh.”
Scott Forstie, the IBM business architect for Db2 for i at the Rochester Lab, took a big-picture view. While there are things that individuals can do to foster innovation in the company, the organization must consciously create room for that to actually happen.
“You need to have somebody in that team who wants to be the change agent,” Forstie said. “They have to be brave. They have to be willing to fail. But there is something at the end of that challenge that’s going to be very rewarding. For leaders, you have to enable your team to innovate. As a leader myself, I have a team. What do I want my team to do? I want them to rock and roll. I want them to feel like they own the business. But there’s very pragmatic things that leaders need to do to actually get those people to feel like they own the business. So there’s a challenge in there.”
The fear of failure is a great hindrance to innovation, but it absolutely must be overcome if there is to be any progress made, Pavlak added.
“I’ve known a lot of people throughout my career who…would look at a project and say, I can’t do that, or I won’t do that,” he said. “When they said they can’t do that, they’re really saying they won’t do that, they didn’t want to take the risk. They have a track record on delivering on all the other projects. But if they reach outside of the box too much, they’re afraid they’re going to fail. And the fear of failure is a big thing.”
It takes concerted leadership and a culture that encourages mentoring to enable folks to take a risk, to “poke their heads back up out of the hole and look around and not necessarily worry about the grass cutter going by,” Pavlak said.
One method that Guarino has found quite successful for developers to really connect with the business folks is to drop the tech talk.
“When I’m speaking to other developers, that’s the time and place,” he said. “But when I’m speaking to a business owner, you don’t want to hide behind all that vernacular. You do that, and you know what you get? You get the eyes glossing over, and you’ve lost them.”
While there is a time and place to take calculated risks — heck, you might even mention your determination to adopt containerized microservices in the cloud in mixed IBM i company — it’s also possible to get out over one skis. Knowing your strengths and not straying too far from them is a good way to foster innovation, according to Hauser.
“The developers have different talents,” she said. “The Web guy, if he knows a little about a database, that’s great. If the database guy knows a little bit about how the Web application works, it’s great too. So they learn from each other . . . . We need to know exactly who is good for what. And if you then have your talent and give them time to play, things to play [with], then you will be really good.”
Seiden agreed. “To get people a little bit out of their comfort zone in a safe way — how do you do that?” he said. “I think the answer is to add some amount of structure to make it happen.”
With more than 300 open-source projects enabled on IBM i, Gorzinki’s team certainly has its share of accomplishments (not to mention maintenance work). The large and growing number of open source development languages available on the platform, whether its Node.js or Ruby, PHP or Python, is good. But for Schoen, one must find a balance between the new and the practical.
“I talk to companies where they’re like, Oh we’ve got to do something in Node, then we’re going to do a Ruby app, then we’re going to do a PHP and Python app,” Schoen said. “Now all of a sudden you need four or five different skills sets in your development stack internally. So you have to temper that enthusiasm with some reality as well.”
Pavlak sees a version of that play out in the students he teaches every semester at the Illinois community college where he teaches.
“I can tell you every student who comes into the four walls at Moraine Valley Community College wants to be a full-stack developer,” Pavlak said. “You know why? Because they go out to Indeed.com and see that full-stack developers make lots of money. Then they walk into my class, and I explain what a full-stack developer is, and what a front-end developer is, and what a back-end developer is. And then the terror and the fear and all that kind of stuff sets in.”
The IBM i server has always been a practical box, one that doesn’t require an army of specialized technicians to run. That usually is a good thing, as it lets companies run their IT departments lean-and-mean. But that can also backfire, as management gets complacent about the relationship between tech investment and performance.
“Your experiences is in your application,” Hauser said. “The guys you have, they know the business, they know the application. That application maybe a little older because you didn’t modernize in the last few years. But throwing everything away and going off the IBM i or buying standard software will not solve it, because you have a software which is exactly what you need.”
In Seiden’s opinion, many IBM i shops are significantly under-investing in their platform.
“You’re a multi-million-dollar company and you have two programmers and you wonder why they’re not coming up with these amazing GUIs and the user experience you want?” Seiden said. “You say ‘I need to get XYZ solution.’ But you’re way, way underinvesting. This is not the real-world. This system has run at such low-cost, maintaining what you have. You don’t realize what you can do. All the ingredients are there to have the perfect system to help your business and make it exactly what you want.”
You can still register for OCEAN TechCon and view the recorded sessions. To register, click here.