Welcome to i: How to Get Younger Programmers up to Speed in the IBM i/Power Systems World

New IBM i-ers? Despite what you may have heard, they do exist. I should know—I’ve been training them for the last 16 years, first in the context of an IBM i-focused curriculum at the college level, and now through my professional IBM i training business.

If you’re having trouble finding new employees qualified to work on IBM i (AS/400), the problem may be that your organization isn’t taking an active enough role in training them. Let’s face it, most universities just aren’t teaching IBM i skills anymore—and they haven’t been for at least the past ten years. Until last year, I was working at one of the few colleges in the country left with a strong IBM i curriculum, and I was sending students to IBM i programming positions in companies throughout the country.

However, one school can’t support an entire industry, and employers can’t expect to rely on universities to teach skills that are more “in the weeds,” like IBM i programming. If IBM i-focused businesses want to close the skills gap, they need to take education into their own hands. I’m not saying you have to train people who have no idea how to use a text editor. Of course, IBM i job candidates should have a solid understanding of programming fundamentals. But businesses have to make it feasible (and enticing) for a recent computer science graduate who lacks the platform-specific skills to enter the IBM i space.

If companies in the IBM i space want to stay relevant, they need educate their new employees rather than look for them. I believe that so strongly that I left the technical college to start my own professional training firm for IBM i. Now I work with organizations to help take computer science graduates who don’t have experience with business programming or IBM i and turn them into industry-ready developers. As an educator in the space, who works directly with IBM i newcomers, here are a few tips I have for employers looking for ways to fill the ranks left by an aging and retiring workforce.

Remember, i isn’t so different

In computer science, the first language you learn is always the hardest. Once you have the fundamentals down, it’s much easier to translate those skills to other languages, paradigms or platforms. In our programs, we don’t teach people the definition of computer science or how to make the computer spit out the first 10 Fibonacci numbers (the kind of stuff you’d find in an intro class). We teach them how to apply the knowledge they already have to the idiosyncrasies of the IBM i platform. A talented programmer is a talented programmer, regardless of the language. With the right training, they’ll be a good IBM i developer, too.

Focus on certifications

Employees send employees away to summits, trainings or trade shows all the time and just expect that they’ll learn something. But they often come back with little or nothing to show. That’s why I encourage sending employees to programs that include certifications. Not only does it give the employer something to show for their investment, but it gives the employee something to work towards, which helps keep them engaged and get more from the program. No one likes taking tests, but evaluations like these are essential for motivating students and proving that they what they learn has stuck with them.

Embrace online learning

In-person learning can be time- and cost-intensive. Online learning programs, on the other hand, represent relatively small investments and can be completed more or less around the student’s existing schedule. It doesn’t always have the same impact as an intensive week- or month-long session, but it may make more financial sense in certain cases. If your organization is looking for a more cost-effective way to accelerate new employees’ acclimation to IBM i or even just trying keep long-time employees educated in the latest the platform has to offer, I highly encourage looking into online learning.

IBM i businesses: Innovators in more ways than one

If all this sounds like a lot of work just to find and retain qualified employees, take comfort in the fact that it’s not just IBM i employers that are having this difficulty. As the business world becomes more specialized, employers in all sectors are investing in education and training programs for their employees. The need is perhaps more pressing with IBM i (AS/400), but I predict that this model, in which business must act as educator to secure the right talent, will soon be ubiquitous.

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Jim Buck
Jim Buck is CEO, CoFounder and Lead Instructor at imPower Technologies LLC. Jim’s career in IT spans more than 35 years – primarily in manufacturing, healthcare and college education. Jim has served as past president (13 years) of the Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association (wmcpa.org) and has served on a number of teams developing IBM i and COMMON certification tests. Jim has co-authored, with Bryan Meyers, several IBM i books used in companies and colleges worldwide – the latest, Programming in ILE RPG – 5th Edition (2015). Jim’s other accomplishments include: recipient of the 2007 IBM System i Innovation – Education Excellence Award, 2014 COMMON Presidents Award, and named IBM Champion – Power Systems for 2013, 2016 and 2017. Jim is an independent consultant and professional IBM i trainer. He is active in the IBM i community working to help companies train their employees in the latest IBM i technologies to develop the next generation of IBM i professionals.

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