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Jim Buck on Gateway College and New Ventures

Jim Buck

Paul Tuohy: Hi everybody and welcome to another iTalk with Tuohy. I'm delighted to be joined today by somebody that who I thought I had actually interviewed quite recently, but when we checked, it was actually back in 2014. So hello, Jim Buck.

Jim Buck: Hi there, Paul. Kind of exciting being in Austin at the IBM Champion Day.

Paul: Yeah, indeed. I should explain. Jim and I are down in Austin, as you say, at this IBM Champions Day getting to hang out with other IBM Champions for a couple of days. I've heard more about hardware than I wanted to hear in a lifetime, but okay. We segue. We're not here to talk about that, Jim. So Jim, the last time we were talking, you were still teaching at Gateway College.

Jim: Yes, I worked there for 15 years.

Paul: 15 years but you're not there anymore.

Jim: I'm not. I left the college after the last school year.

Paul: Okay so before we talk about what you're doing now, I just want to reminisce a little bit about your teaching time, because of course you are kind of unique in the industry―or not unique, but you have that very high profile for the great work that you've done with teaching RPG and that especially. So over your 15 years in the college, about how many RPG programmers have you taught? Can you put a number on it?

Jim: I would say somewhere over 200, maybe 250.

Paul: Okay. That's a good number―and how many of those do you think are actually working as RPG programmers?

Jim: Well I keep in touch with a lot of them, but that's a hard question. I would say probably 70-75 percent of those are coding in some manner, you know.

Paul: Yeah.

Jim: Our systems anymore aren't all RPG. The big thing about teaching RPG to these young people was it got companies to look at them that normally wouldn't―

Paul: Yeah.

Jim: So they might go into a shop writing RPG and end up writing PHP or some combination.

Paul: Sure. Yeah.

Jim: But it was great for the students. For years, I have 100 percent placement rate at the college. If you got through the program, you pretty much had a job before you graduated.

Paul: That's a good way to be in this day and age.

Jim: You know it was a two-year school, too. When I first started teaching, it was even hard to get internships or companies to actually look at a two-year student. But I think a lot companies have found out is that I was teaching skills that the employer could sit the kid down the first day and start making―the kid could start coding for them.

Paul: Yeah. So would it be a fair thing to say Jim that what you actually taught was that you taught programmers but really what you used was IBM i and RPG just as the mechanism for doing that?

Paul: Yeah. So would it be a fair thing to say Jim that what you actually taught was that you taught programmers but really what you used was IBM i and RPG just as the mechanism for doing that?

Jim: Yes, and I was kind of unique because I really focused on making the young person employable. By employable, I really stressed work had to be done correctly; work had to be done on time, documentation, the type of skills that make a young person employable, and RPG was the venue for that.

Paul: Right. Okay. So actually, I'm going to swing back on that in a sec but just before I do that, so I'm going to ask two really nasty questions. If you look back over an illustrious 15-year career, so pick a high point and pick, like, one of the things that you loved about your teaching, and one of the things that you hated about it.

Jim: Well, I stuck it out to college mainly for the young people. I got such a kick out of watching them, you know, grow, both professionally and personally and seeing them get jobs. So that's really why I stayed at the college for 15 years.

Paul: Oh, come on. Say it. Say the bad point. [Laughs]

Jim: The bad point. I really struggled with the bureaucracy of college life. You know, it's a big business today and they didn't always see what I was doing as part of their business plan.

Paul: Yeah. I think that's something we all have difficulty with at times is bureaucracy, but I've got to say academia is a bureaucracy onto itself. It truly is, so you have my sympathy with that one. So but I wanted to segue back on since you mentioned it there, Jim. So sometimes―or a thing that I say quite a bit and I'd be interested in your opinion of it since you were somebody who actually taught programming through the medium of RPG. A lot of what I say to people now is I say well, RPG is now just another programming language and if I'm going out to employ programmers, if I don't have―if I'm like, for example, close to Gateway and there's a stream of RPG programmers that I can go and look at or book a year in advance, a couple of years in advance―well then theoretically if I'm talking about modern RPG, I should just be able to grab a programmer out of a good course in college. I don't care if he is Java, PHP, Ruby, whatever, and it should be pretty straightforward to retrain them to be able to use RPG. You got a comment on that or―?

Jim: Well, you're correct. RPG today―the modern RPG is like any other language and what's interesting about it is when young programmers are shown it, they often will say things like, "well this is so much easier than Java. You know you mean you do control op and the final name and it's open? You mean I don't have to create a connection?" and blah, blah, blah right? So they just take to it like a duck to the water. I mean where―and I do a presentation, I don't know if you've seen it. It's called "Failure to Modernize."

Paul: Yes.

Jim: That presentation really pretty much summarizes the fact that companies have to move forward, because you take a young kid in and show them RPG-III and they'll pick up their stuff and go somewhere else.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah.

Jim: So it's going to be a critical mass, but once kids are exposed to the system, exposed to the operating system, the power of the Power Systems and the power of RPG, you can see their eyes light up.

Paul: Yeah. Yeah. Nope. That's―no argument on that from me. So this brings us to what you're doing now, Jim. So you haven't retired. You haven't just taken to your yacht and disappeared down to the lake forever. [Laughs]. You're actually continuing the cause. So you want to tell us a little bit about what you're doing now?

Jim: Well I started a business, it's called IMpower Technologies. I'm very excited about it because what I'm doing is I'm teaching online now, and it's based on Brian Meyers and my programming in ILE-RPG. I've condensed what I did in a whole year into eight sections that covers that whole book. In fact, I even got a little bit farther with the class.

Paul: So yeah. This whole area of online education. So is it online? Is it just―or not just―but is it recorded videos or is there also like one on one interaction? Is it nearly like taking a class online or is it watching videos and then have exercise interaction? I'm sorry. Easier question: Want to describe what it is? [Laughs]

Jim: Well when I was at the college I always resisted online teaching, mainly because you end up teaching so many classes and it's difficult to give the student the interaction that they need. So when I did this, there are a lot of videos, there are example programs and like―I'll take an example program. I have a video explaining how I coded it, why I coded it that way, and then at the end of each section, there's also a programming exercise that when you're done, you tell me that you've completed it, and then I actually give you a grade.

Paul: Okay.

Jim: So each chapter has quizzes. I really tried to duplicate college without all the―can I say the word bureaucracy? [Laughs]

Paul: I know the word you want to say. That's okay.

Jim: So, you know, I've done a lot of that but what's more important is one day a week in the afternoon we have a call to anybody that is taking the class. So instead of waiting until like I have five people to take the class, you can pretty much sign up anytime and start through the process. You know you might be in the first section; somebody else might be in the fifth section. It's a group call and what's good about that is I try to really keep it interactive. Then if a student has a problem, I actually―they can send me an email and I'll actually get on a conference call or I actually use Skype, explain to them what their problem is. So I've really tried to keep the interpersonal with the classroom with this. So I'm really excited about it and I think I can make a difference.

Paul: Yeah and it is. It's―I'm going to be interested in talking to you in may be about six months to a year's time when you've gotten a lot of it under your belt with the thing, because I know the little bits of web stuff that I've done now and again. Personally I've taken a lot of web courses for learning stuff, because I just find it great being able to learn at my pace and when I have time, as opposed to being stuck to a―well it's a five week course, so you've got to do it over these five weeks. You know that of course is one of the great benefits of the web. So it's―so how does your thing tie in with that. About how long the course takes? I mean does your work that way? Is it like a set thing that you have a start date and an end date?

Jim: Well I limit the length, the total length of the class―

Paul: Yeah.

Jim: Because you know you don't want somebody to try to complete a class for a year, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Jim: So I'm still kind of working out the length. I'm thinking probably three months; it has to be completed in three months.

Paul: Sure.

Jim: But I don't want to get into how many weeks because it's like people often ask me―you know I sail on Lake Michigan. "How long does it take to sail across Lake Michigan?" I always say, "well, how fast is the wind blowing?" Right?

Paul: Yeah. [Laughs]

Jim: So the way it's set up there's not a set length, and what I really feel for this to be successful is employers need to say to a young person "I want you to work 15 or 20 hours a week to get through this class."

Paul: Right.

Jim: So the employer needs to be more involved, but I think the end result will make it worthwhile.

Paul: Yeah, so I also know that you were involved in the current certification for RPG that's done. So does this tie into that certification as well? Have you sort of geared this a little bit towards the certification?

Jim: When we did the COMMON RPG certification, they decided to do the certification based on that textbook.

Paul: Oh, okay. Okay.

Jim: Okay and it was funny when we went to write the certification, I convinced IBM and COMMON that we should have young people write the certification. So five of my graduates that had been writing RPG code for 5+ years were actually on the team to put it together.

Paul: Yeah.

Jim: I said "well you know, I've been writing RPG so long I don't remember what I didn't know," right? So that's what we did there. I'm not going to say that "oh, you take this course and you're guaranteed to get the certification," you know.

Paul: Oh yeah. Sure.

Jim: But if you do the programs, put the effort in―I didn't mention there is also quizzes, and you get points for the programs that you've completed. Then your employer, you know―like if you took it, Paul, your employer actually gets a report card of how you did in the class. [Laughs]

Paul: Okay. I'm not taking it. [Laughs]

Jim: So I think, you know―and I've talked to COMMON about it. They want me to offer the certification as part of the class. We're still kind of talking about that.

Paul: Okay. So we'll watch this space.

Jim: Yeah.

Paul: So just to finish off. I'm glad you mentioned sailing across the lakes, because the last time we talked―of course your other love is sailing. You're president, aren't you, of your local boat club and that?

Jim: Well we have a local community sailing center I'm president of, yes.

Paul: Yeah, well so this is your other passion. So are there any famous people you've taken sailing recently, Jim?

Jim: Well I took a famous one and an infamous one.

Paul: Okay. At the same time?

Jim: That would Susan [Gantner] and Jon [Paris]. I took them sailing. We've been talking about it for like, 10-15 years, and they were finally in the area. We were able to do it and it was a great day. I mean, the wind was perfect. It was―we really had a good time.

Paul: Yeah, so I'm going ask. How good a sailor are they?

Jim: Well―

Paul: Come on. They don't listen to this. You can say. [Laughs]

Jim: They had a good time, and the weather was perfect. [Laughs]. We didn't lose anybody over―nobody went overboard, nobody got hit with the boom. It was a great day.

Paul: Okay. I think that's a good note to leave it on. So Jim thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I'm going to check in with you, maybe in six months to a year's time and see how all the online training is going.

Jim: I think it would be great and I'd love to talk to you about it.

Paul: Okay. So that's it for this iTalk, everybody. Tune in again for the next one. Bye for now.

Paul Tuohy has specialized in application development and training on IBM midrange systems for more than 20 years.

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