What IBM i Turning 35 Means to Me
June 21, 2023 Alex Woodie
I started my first AS/400 writing job in the summer of 1999. I already had two part-time writing jobs at the time, for an insurance magazine and as a stringer for a local newspaper, but I wanted a full-time gig, so I did what every job seeker did back in those days: I answered a want ad in the newspaper, of course. I had no idea it would turn into a 24-year career (and counting).
I still remember the job interview I had with Jenny Thomas, who was then known as Jenny Delroy and who was the editor of AS/400 Technology Showcase, the sister publication to Midrange Computing magazine, both of which were owned by IIR Publications and operated out of an office in an industrial park in Carlsbad, California.
The funny thing was, I wasn’t really looking to start a career in tech journalism at the time. I had worked as a reporter for Northern California newspaper in my first year after graduating college. I really figured at some point I would end up working at a daily newspaper. But with the dot-com explosion in full bloom, I decided it was as good a time as any to jump into the tech journalism pool.
I went into the job interview knowing that they wrote about computers, but nothing beyond that. I recall Craig Beery, who was the product editor at the time, sounding a bit annoyed when I asked what they wrote about. “The AS/400,” he said. I had no idea what he was talking about. Craig was not impressed, but Jenny hired me anyway.
I soon learned quite a bit about the midrange server – more than I ever thought I would know. And the more I learned, the more impressed I was with the machine and what it did. But there was something odd about it all. Very few people seemed to know that the AS/400 existed. While it was running the day-to-day operations for an estimate 110,000 organizations at one point, it seemed to exist only in the background.
It’s like I was let in on a secret technology that powered actual businesses that nobody talked about. Here was a proven technology that real-world companies used day in and day out, as opposed to the ridiculous dot-com business plans being rewarded with billions in the stock market. The juxtaposition of those two things intrigues me to this day.
Writing about the AS/400 provided me with on-the-job training in how business technology really worked. I wrote about all the different products that companies needed to automate their business with the AS/400. I wrote about hardware, like servers, disk drives, tape drives, printers, and UPSs. But mostly I wrote about software: ERP and CRM applications, forms management software, and business intelligence systems. I wrote about backup tools and development tools, tools to automate scheduling and tools for security. Programming tools, code converters, file transfer utilities. You name it, I wrote about it.
Change management software was obviously super important, but those stories always seemed to come due after lunch and made me sleepy. I also noticed the high availability software vendors passionately hated each other. What’s more, they didn’t take kindly to me writing about any of their competitors. I got many earfuls by trying to cover Lakeview, Vision, and Datamirror equitably. When Maxava and iTera came on the scene – boy, look out.
The learning curve was steep the first year or two. I never felt comfortable writing about something unless I had a firm-ish grasp on the topic. There were so many acronyms in use (IPL, EBCDIC, OLTP, FTP, DASD) and I had to look them all up before I would include it in a story. The Internet wasn’t nearly as useful (or as fast) back then as it is now, but I somehow managed to piece together an understanding of how it all fit together.
I was lucky in that I had been around computers basically my entire life, which was not something that my peers could say. I remember loading video games from cassette tapes onto an Atari 2600. When the original Macintosh came out in 1984, my family got one. From the late 80s on – I had just graduated 7th grade when the AS/400 was launched in 1988 – it was mostly IBM PCs for us.
My dad (who worked in aerospace) taught me some DOS commands (just enough to be dangerous) so at least I knew what a command line was going into Showcase. One of my uncles (who designed exercise equipment) had an ancient minicomputer of some type with a built-in screen, which seemed super cool to me. An East Coast cousin had developed a video game that was actually distributed by Microsoft with every copy of Windows, which always impressed me.
My first computer was a 15-pound PC “laptop,” which I received prior to my first year in college, where I was enrolled in the aerospace engineering program. All my classmates were impressed that I had my very own word processor and I didn’t have to use the schools’ machines. No, I said, this is an actual Intel 286, which means it can play video games, too.
I felt comfortable around computers, but this AS/400 thing was completely different, and I soon realized what that would mean. As I interviewed software companies and talked with AS/400 users, I quickly learned that it was not a “normal” computer, at least compared to what a twenty-something videogame enthusiast was familiar with at the time.
But what really stood out to me was that AS/400 users absolutely loved the machine. That was probably the most surprising thing for me: How utterly devoted AS/400 users were to this computer platform. The AS/400 was, at its core, a business machine. It didn’t have flashy graphics or any of the other things that I would associate with a computer that I would want to own. But people loved it for other reasons.
I quickly learned that the personification of this great machine that nobody outside of the business computing world had ever heard of was a guy named Dr. Frank. And if you wanted to hear Dr. Frank speak – and if you were a true devotee to the platform, then you really had to hear him speak, to get the gospel straight from the source, so to speak – then you had to go to something called COMMON.
What was great about Dr. Frank was that he could explain, using understandable terms, why IBM did something some way, and why the other server makers were doing it wrong (and sometimes why IBM was doing it wrong, too). It was especially fun to hear Dr. Frank talk about IBM’s competitors. He understood why the AS/400 users loved the machine so much, and he gave them more of what they wanted.
I never expected to hear grown men express such adoration for a machine. They took great pride in the fact that they ran an AS/400 in their shop, and that it was light years ahead of what their competitors were using, probably a Windows plaything or a “Eunuchs.” The AS/400 was secure, self-sustaining, and waterproof. You couldn’t kill it if you tried. It was literally the Chuck Norris of business machines.
These tales (some of which were tall, some of which were true) made for fun stories, and helped to break up the monotony of endless product announcements (including the dreaded change management story I put off until the afternoon deadline). As the months turned into years and the name kept changing, one thing never did: total loyalty to the platform by its users.
When I first joined the AS/400 community back in 1999, the machine already seemed like it had been around for a long time. The fact that it’s celebrating its 35th birthday today – quite a bit more if you count the precursor machines, the S/3x line – and that I am still writing about it and the community of users and vendors who make it go here at IT Jungle, is both improbable and very cool.
I’m honored to be associated with such a no-nonsense business machine, and glad that the AS/400 community has continued to read my stories about it. Members of the community often talk about how the machine has paid their mortgages or put their kids through college, and if things keep going the way they have, I’ll be able to say the same thing.
While the IBM i ecosystem has shrunk over the years, it’s retained a vital core of diehard supporters who refuse to give follow the herd by adopting a “standards-based computer” and instead continue to reap the practical benefits that the midrange machine continues to offer – simplicity, reliability, and efficiency.
I’ve come to recognize those as Midwestern values that stand out in a world full of fakers, frauds, and blind followers. They’ve paid dividends in helping me to sort hype from reality as I have embarked on a second job writing about big data, advanced analytics, and AI at Datanami.
But more importantly, I’ve recognized that those values have applicability beyond the realm of technology and business computing. They’re evergreen values that help in life, too, and that’s the number one thing I’ve learned from writing about this legendary machine for the past 24 years.