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AS/400 guru Pence says go back to school

IBM changes the name of the AS/400. New sales of the AS/400 continue to be low. New technologies keep popping up. These are challenging times for AS/400 programmers.

Challenging, perhaps, but not impossible to survive.

According to IBM AS/400 guru Roger Pence, it's simply a matter of having a marketable skill set. There was a time when you didn't have to know very much to be an AS/400 programmer; now there's a lot to learn, Pence told the more than 300 AS/400 programmers attending the annual DevCon conference, being held this week in Las Vegas.

"Not only is there a lot to learn, but we worry if the concept of an AS/400 programmer will continue to exist," he said.

To ensure their future marketability, AS/400 programmers must do two things, Pence said. First, they need to be responsible to their company and learn what technologies they can to help it. Second, they must build up their skills -- "add bullets on your resume," he said.

"You need to push yourself to learn something new -- push yourself forward in your career," Pence said. "You need to put lots of notches on your belt."

New technologies are flying at AS/400 programmers faster and faster, and they need to grab on to some of them. Technologies that are a must to learn, Pence said, include security, ILE RPG, HTML, XML, Wireless Markup Language, SOAP, Java/WebSphere, Lotus Notes, SQL, Net.Data and CGI.

"We're doing things today we would have never thought of five years ago," Pence said.

Many attendees said they realize they need to learn new technologies. In fact, in a recent Search400 survey, 82% of the 453 respondents say they are expanding their skill set by learning new programming languages, for instance. While Java and application development for the Web were most on their minds, users recognize there are dozens of new technologies out there. They also understand that there are many to choose from and that they need to think carefully before choosing one.

Part of this push to learn new things includes realizing that the AS/400 is not the most important machine. "Now it's part of the world. It's an important part of business. It's no longer the most important computer," Pence said.

AS/400 programmers also need to realize that they need to knock down walls and learn to work with other departments to come up with a solution that's best for the company, he said. With Web applications, programmers now work with graphic designers, ISP people and security experts. "Get it out of your mind that we know it all. Those days are gone," Pence said.

He also encouraged people to not turn the AS/400 into a "religious" thing. "Don't invest your ego in this. Take your skills and apply them to opportunities as they come along. If you can't take the religion out of it, you're going to have big problems," he said.

AS/400 programmers need to keep a broad mind. They need to learn platform-independent skills such as XML, which is very hot right now, he said.

As for changing the name of the AS/400, Pence said it isn't necessarily a bad thing. "You would buy it no matter what. We don't care about the name," he said. "There's no brand equity in the AS/400. No one knows what it is. People outside the AS/400 world just want a solution."

The AS/400 community isn't going away. Like anyone, Pence can't predict the future. But he said, "I think when you look at what's out there, look at our own crystal balls and think about it, we should get excited."

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