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Data centers to hike iSeries skill requirements

As an iSeries pro you're going to have to learn new tools and languages, including Java and WebSphere. You might want to get some business planning experience under your belt, too.

Do you expect to have a job running a data center five years from now? If you're an iSeries programmer or administrator, you're going to have to be flexible. You're going to have to expand your skills, become more in tune with business strategy and maybe even consider a pay cut or relocation.

Experts say that, if you haven't grasped the fact that being versed in RPG is no longer your ticket to job security, then you better get comfortable shoes -- because you're going to be spending a lot of time pounding the pavement looking for work.

There are a number of factors working against you. iSeries programming is becoming a commodity. Programming jobs are being outsourced overseas. The RPG programming language just isn't as popular as it used to be. Data centers are moving toward a more distributed server environment.

Does that mean the iSeries won't have a role in the data center if you're not there to operate it? Nope. It just means that what businesses expect from an iSeries programmer is going to change. As a result, you'll be competing with your colleagues for the jobs that are left. And you're going to have to be prepared.

According to Gartner Inc. analyst Jim Duggan, the iSeries playing field has changed. The shift began about three years ago, when IBM realized that the days of the RPG programmer were numbered -- because of lack of interest from the rest of the IT community -- and began selling the iSeries as a Java machine. Good news for the platform. Bad news for the RPG die-hard resistant to change.

If you insist on staying with RPG, you're going to have to be very productive, Duggan said. Know how to use the productivity tools well. Have a broader depth of knowledge, and know the system programming and networking skills.

"If RPG programmers are scarce, those that are left are going to have to do more in an understaffed environment," Duggan said.

Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility

Don't care to take that kind of risk? That's probably a very smart move, say programmers who've been there, done that.

"You can either ride the wave of change or get slammed by it," said Jeff Talalai, senior programmer analyst for the Jay Group, a Ronks, Pa.-based marketing company.

Talalai said he used to work for a company where RPG development was all he was allowed to do. But he left because, he said, he was suffering from "pigeonhole syndrome."

He now works for a company where he writes applications for legacy apps using CGI, HTML, JavaScript, Java and HTTP configurations.

"Very simply put, you need multiple skills to keep your job," Talalai said. "You need to get out of your comfort zone and push your limits for learning new things."

Talalai is right on, experts say. If you want to be operating an iSeries in the data center in the near future, you'll have to learn a myriad of technologies, including programming languages and tools for the Web, such as HTML, Java, WebSphere and XML; database programming languages such as SQL; and messaging technology such as Lotus Notes. You'll have to be versed in business issues, such as security.

"Whether you like it or not, it's up to you to learn these technologies on your own time," Talalai said. "When the need arises, you must convince your boss that you're up to the challenge."

Michelle Harrison, an iSeries senior systems administrator for a Dallas-based company, said that by networking with all of her contacts she was able to land a new position with a $7,000 raise. She recommends being willing and ready to do whatever it takes to fulfill the needs of the company.

"The old days of 'I'm just an iSeries administrator with these skills' doesn't work anymore," she said. "I am certified in Novell and have a computer networking degree. But those are just tokens to help you get recognized as being flexible."

Road map to job security

The data center of the future is going to consist of a number of platforms, so it would be extremely unlikely to find an iSeries-only shop, said Gartner analyst Tom Bittman. As a result, the person who can manage all those servers is going to be much more valued than someone who concentrates on just one platform.

"Those that are focused on a box are going to be much more of a commodity -- that's not where I would want to be," he said.

Bittman added that programmers should certainly leverage what they know, but he said they will have to change. He recommends that programmers focus on middleware products such as WebSphere or languages such as Java, because "they're widely used."

"They should at least be taking courses and learning what apps are strategic to the company and focus on that," Bittman said. "Strategic architecture -- that's where I would focus my attention."

Programmers don't want to believe their jobs have been turned into a commodity, but they have been, Duggan said: "Programmers need to take this to heart."

Experts realize that change is not easy, especially for a 40-year-old who has been programming RPG his entire career.

Typically, the time it takes to train to become a Java programmer isn't long -- about a year. The difficulty, and hence the resistance to change, is in realizing that you'll be going from being a highly skilled and experienced programmer to being an inexperienced Java developer, Duggan said.

"But, if you don't do it now, you'll either be working for companies that are stuck firmly in the 20th century or you're going to see your job sent off to the Philippines or you're going to have to work for a much lower wage," Duggan said.

"There's intellectual value-add that programmers can bring to the table," he said. That means many will have to prove their business worth.

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