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IBM i Open Source and the Talent That Follows

December 6, 2017

Today's topic is IBM i development skills. IBM has been committed to ensuring that talented employees of all backgrounds can flourish on the platform. This is evident with the evolution of RPG, the continued enhancement of developer tools, the invention of Open Access, and so on. Of course, open source technology definitely plays an important role in this strategy! I wanted to share a real-life example. So, for today's article, I've asked James Hodgkinson to share his company's experience. James is an information systems leader at a Midwest manufacturer. They've seen first-hand how open source can bring top-notch talent (and easy value) to the platform. I thank them for sharing! Take it away, James...

Almost two years ago to the day, my organization was tasked with the challenge of replacing a long-time associate. By now you know the story, her void left big shoes to fill—ranging from her deep understanding of business logic to the intimate knowledge of the infrastructure of our (mostly) RPG application structures. From here we had to decide who to hire, what skills would be required to meet our expectations, and what opportunities existed outside of the immediate challenge of replacing what was lost. 

This led us on a journey involving the evolving IBM i landscape, open-source solutions and blending the right talents with the right tools. 

Before we leap into the hiring process, let’s take a step back and discuss how we started using open-source software. Shortly after I was hired (with no IBM i schooling), we began to experiment with open source via PHP. To shorten the learning curve, we used a rapid development tool to generate the PHP code based on our file structure. This tooling helped to open our eyes (specifically mine) to the possibilities involving PHP, JavaScript, Db2 and building applications with an eye on the future. 

Over time, it became clear that these were not just proof of concept applications. These were applications that would become a key strategic resource as we evolved our existing application infrastructure and considered how we wanted to evolve our Information Systems department. 

At this point in my career, I’d watched the webinars, read the articles, and was beginning see where modernization (buzzword!) could take us. It wasn’t really modernization after all—it was simply using all the tools available to us. Luckily for our organization, IBM was just about to make accessing open-source software on the i easier than ever. We were about to have access to most of the top programming languages natively!

The use of PHP to build web applications also added an element to the hiring process and new questions presented themselves. Should we consider hiring someone with expertise in this area? What value would a student fresh out of school bring to the changing programming landscape we were facing? Is it still the smart play to hire someone with previous IBM i (more likely stated as AS/400 or iSeries) experience?

We were open to the grizzled AS/400 veteran, someone with database and SQL chops, a student fresh from school, or any combination of the above. We wanted to focus on the talent of the individual because we knew we had the server to take advantage of almost any skillset that walked through the door. 

During the hiring process, Jason stood out as the candidate we were looking for. He was in the process of wrapping up a two-year degree at an area technical college and we brought him on board as an intern while he wrapped up his last semester. He proceeded to exceed our expectations and we set out to hire him immediately after his internship and graduation that summer. 

Jason came to us with the typical experience you’d expect out of a two-year college: Java, .Net development and iOS mobile application experience, along with a few other quick-hitter development classes. He had zero experience with PHP, or anything IBM i related, and was still able to hit the ground running. If you’ve got the thought process of a programmer, the individual language skills will soon follow. 

As Jason got his feet wet the first year, we had him begin to consolidate our disparate web applications into a more cohesive unit. He wasn’t forced to build something new; instead he was able to iterate through what already existed. Our existing open source centric applications, were the building blocks for his early development as a programmer. During this time, he became comfortable with PHP, JavaScript (jQuery), and some of the other areas typically related to web development: Apache, SQL, JSON, etc. 

Additionally, we were also able to bring new Business Intelligence applications to our leadership team as an alternative the previous green screen or output files of old. In their place were interactive data and charts—applications we will build upon to power the next 50 years of the organization. 

As we entered year two of Jason’s tenure, our IBM i POWER7 lease was running out. In working with our management team and our friendly neighborhood third-party vendor, we found that upgrading to POWER8, along with the upgrade to IBM i 7.3, would end up saving the organization money and we jumped at the opportunity. As part of this process we also installed product 5733-OPS (Open Source for IBM i). 

Prior to installing the open source tools, Jason was working on integrating Git into our application workflows. To get us going he was running a local windows version of Git to manage our files on the IFS. Now? We’re running Git natively and our application turnaround time has never been better. 

Next, we ran into an issue with Git playing nicely with our High Availability software and off-site system replications. In researching solutions to our problem, rsync was suggested as a solution. What’s that—rsync is included in the open source tools of our new OS? Problem solved. 

Following these two quick success stories we started to explore other options available to us and Node.js looked like a good place to start. Currently, we are using Node.js to sync DB2 data with other applications running on Microsoft’s SQL Server. This will effectively and efficiently solve a long-standing opportunity for improvement in our organization. All for “free,” with software we already have in house. 

At this point, you may be wondering where RPG fits into this scenario. For Jason, it hasn’t yet. We’ve used the PHP toolkit to make the odd call to an RPG program here and there, but most of his work is leveraging our existing database and delivering the “modern” applications our executive team expects and requires we deliver. 

That said, we’ll spend a good deal of the next two years finding ways to leverage our existing applications and integrating them into our web development world. Either of the PHP or Node toolkits will be available for the job when we get there. Who knows, Python may have an answer or two to provide! 

My No. 1 takeaway from these past two years? You must start somewhere. The sooner you begin to take advantage of an opportunity, the sooner the work will pay off. In this case, using the open source tools provided by our IBM i platform paid off immediately. 

The time to start is now. Your mileage may vary, but the road is open (source) ahead of you.
In closing, we’ve only begun to explore the open source community and we look forward to contributing more in the future. Also, my daughter Ellyot asked for a shout-out. Hi Ellyot! Finally, special thank you to Jesse for reaching out and allowing me to write for you today.

Thank you for reading. 
James Hodgkinson
Information Systems Leader
Midwestern Manufacturer

Posted December 6, 2017| Permalink