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What's next for iSeries application developers?

Fewer companies use the iSeries, RPG is losing ground. Few new applications are being built. Even IBM is outsourcing development work. Is it time for developers to abandon ship?

This ISN'T what I was going to write about this time. Unfortunately I was overtaken by events. (It happens to all of us.) I read something that the more I thought about it, the harder it hit me. Here's the article I read: IBM to export highly paid jobs to India, China.

To summarize what was written, IBM is moving 4,730 highly paid application support jobs from the U.S. to China and India. The jobs are primarily in the Application Management Services group, a part of IBM's Global Services. This information is based on internal company documents planning for 2004.

What's NOT clear from the article is exactly when all the jobs will be lost or what motivated IBM to move all the jobs to China and India.

For a long time (since the early 1990s when I saw "future software" at an IBM lab), I've believed that application development as we know it will become effectively obsolete over time. That doesn't apply to just RPG, but really any application development language. Technical trends over the past two years confirm that long-term prediction to me. But this will be a slow process. It won't be completed in the next few years.

Beyond that, we know that application developers on the iSeries face MANY more immediate challenges today:

  1. IBM iSeries isn't rapidly expanding and adding new customers as a market.
  2. Many companies are not choosing to build new applications on the iSeries, although IBM has been working hard to provide better tools and runtimes to change that.
  3. RPG is not a preferred language for e-business by most companies. (IBM's WDSC toolset is very important here.)
  4. The bulk of the work on iSeries today is in older RPG/400, not ILE RPG, even though many developers now know ILE RPG.
  5. The majority of the work is supporting applications or packages, not building new ones.
  6. Some companies have looked to outsource application development and support to IBM Global Services and others.

I've always told application developers don't expect to pay off a 30-year mortgage in this line of work. For iSeries RPG developers, the other immediate issues listed above provide a strong motivation to find future job security somewhere, somehow. There are many strategies developers pursue:

  • Moving into a management or business analyst role
  • Moving to another platform or skill set: Java, WebSphere, Microsoft, Linux, etc.
  • Becoming vertically specialized in a business segment and/or software package (e.g. JDA for retail)
  • Changing careers altogether

While IBM has made many positive improvements to the iSeries and application development, those changes will benefit companies more than the iSeries developer job market for sure.

There are differences between companies, but my experience shows many iSeries shops have often KEPT in-house developers on staff when they had other choices available. It's a testament not only to the companies that have done so but also to the developers they've kept employed.

Clearly this IBM news item doesn't DIRECTLY affect an iSeries application developer working for any company OTHER than IBM. So why does it bother me so much? There are a few things:

  • First, these were application support developers, the SAME role most iSeries developers are in! While many application development jobs have already gone overseas during the past six years (remember how Y2K globalized IT development to India?), application SUPPORT jobs had remained in the U.S. for the most part.
  • Second, this is the world's largest computer services company giving up on the idea of successfully doing application support work in the U.S. in a massive manner.
  • Third, these aren't jobs LOST but rather SHIPPED to another country. What does that say about our ability as a country to compete for GOOD jobs with these high-tech competitors for the future?
  • Fourth, what roles do the governments play in this? The U.S. doesn't appear to do anything to encourage IBM's investment in keeping these jobs in the U.S. Are China and India providing incentives to move these jobs? I'd be surprised if they weren't.

These are application SUPPORT people moving overseas, not the developers of large enterprise software applications such as PeopleSoft, J.D. Edwards or SAP. That kind of development has been moving offshore since the day Al Gore declared in 1998 that the U.S. was "short one million programmers." Yes, Al, you DID get other countries to step up to that challenge very nicely. It was too late for the U.S. when George Bush said this past year that high-tech jobs are an "area of concern." In hindsight, maybe Ross Perot had it right in 1992 when he criticized Bill Clinton's trade policies by declaring the U.S. needed "fair trade, not free trade" since that's the way other countries operate.

With that, I hope there's more good news than bad coming for iSeries developers and the companies they work for in 2004. Maybe IBM and the U.S. government can do more.

Let me know your thoughts and ideas on the road iSeries application developers are heading down. You can reach me at

About the author: The Value Manager is an IBM iSeries IT manager trying to make the right decisions to deliver better value for his company. He welcomes your comments and feedback. E-mail him at


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