Continuing Education: How Mid-Career IBM i Professionals Can Stay Ahead of the Curve
Perhaps the biggest difference between IBM i and most other platforms is the emphasis on continuity. Unlike, say, the Microsoft operating system, a brand-new IBM Power System can run software that was written more than 30 years ago with little or no changes.
In some ways, that’s the platform’s competitive advantage. It means that companies that have invested a lot of money in their mission-critical applications don’t have to start over just because the platform is no longer supported. It also means that the applications are often accumulation of decades of business logic and real-world experience that could be extremely hard to replicate on a new platform.
Continuity doesn’t mean stagnation
On the other hand, the fact that the platform still supports dialects like RPG III, which was the tool of choice in 1985 has arguably contributed to the skills gap that we’re dealing with today. There is a mentality among some IBM i programmers – by no means universal, but not uncommon either – that because the platform still supports the tools or languages they learned in school that they don’t have to learn new technologies.
For everybody else, the fact is that developers can no longer sit in a backroom and write 5250 and print applications all day. In today’s business world, user experience can make or break company. An understanding of front-end principles is thus pivotal for any developer today. Sooner or later, your company is going to need someone to modernize the look and feel of the applications, and if you can’t do that, someone else – either a younger developer or someone who has kept up with their IT training – will.
How to maintain your network and your skills
So, what can a mid-career IBM i developer do to stay relevant? The first, and perhaps easiest thing to do is read up on the trade publications. That means general software developer publications, like Computer World, but also the IBM i-specific outlets such as IBM Systems Magazine and IT Jungle. Industry blogs, too, are a great way to find out what forward-looking thought leaders are talking about in the community.
Joining IBM user groups, such as COMMON and Local User Groups, is a great way to not only stay in the know, but also to network with other professionals in the IBM i space. Most people already know this, but I think it bears repeating: Even with the dominance of online job posting sites in the hiring space, employee referrals are still the biggest single source of new hires. The importance of being an established member in your professional community only increases as you gain more experience, because while you start commanding higher pay, it can also take a lot longer to get hired.
All these strategies are important to keep your career on track, but in IT, there’s one thing you can’t get by without: the technical skills. Can you deliver the solution or not? All the networking in the world won’t help if you can’t do what employers need you to do. Thankfully, we are today in the midst of a kind of education renaissance, with tons of new education options. Your choices are no longer limited to community or technical college classes. You can learn online, on your own schedule. Or you can take a few weeks off and learn the hottest skills at a coding boot camp.
The best part is, many companies are willing to spend significant sums on employee skills development. So if you think there’s a conference that’ll be helpful to your value or productivity as an employee, tell your boss. If there’s a class you want to take, find out what kind of reimbursements are available. Even if those aren’t available, some online courses, like those from W3Schools, are completely free, and often provide the option to get certified in some particular skill for a marginal fee. In short, there’s no excuse to not be up on contemporary skills.
It’s not just about getting hip with new information technologies, though. IBM i itself continues to change, too. Today, new IBM i programmers are learning more powerful and expressive programming languages like freeform RPG. So if you’re still writing fixed-format RPG with SEU, really you shouldn’t be. It’s not current and it’s putting you and your organization at a disadvantage.
Lastly, don’t forget to get certified for all these new skills. You’re already learning the content, so there’s no reason not to get something that you can put on your resume as a shorthand for “this person knows this stuff.” Plus, investing in certification gives you something to work towards, which in turn means you’re more likely to complete it.
We are all responsible for the future of IBM i
Make no mistake: The continuity of the IBM i platform is a huge advantage. But what it also does is put the responsibility to stay current in the hands of the community, rather than the vendor. It means that the impetus has to be on the businesses and the programmers to adopt the kinds of changes that are necessary. Ultimately, if we don’t all work to update our skills, we’re doing this tremendous platform a disservice.