How to Close the AS/400 Skills Gap - Read This Article - HelpSystems

How to Close the AS/400 Skills Gap

Five skills you don’t need to manage IBM i (and two you do)
May 1, 2019

Much has been said to debunk the myth of an IBM i skills shortage or decry it as a disappearing act. Yet, year after year, respondents to the annual IBM i Marketplace Survey by HelpSystems list IBM i skills as a top concern. The results also show that organizations are addressing these concerns by adding automation, modernizing development, and getting rid of obsolete technology that breeds the dreaded word: legacy.

But why do we on IBM i continue to carry the perception that so-called “IBM i skills” are scarce? Is it because the keywords in our job listings don’t match the search queries of job seekers? Are our requirements outdated? Are we looking for skills that match our veteran staff? If so, this can’t be a concern reserved for IBM i alone.

If we look outside of IBM i, we see reports of a global technology skills labor shortage as significant as 4.3 million workers by 2030. It appears that IBM i is not the only platform that could be in trouble. In the hiring rat race, IT leaders need to think about offering the right tooling and minimizing mundane tasks in order to attract talented minds.

So, are IBM i skills really that unique? Do we need 10 years of RPG experience or 30 other skills from the AS/400 days? Can’t we just hire someone with general IT knowledge and an aptitude to learn and then equip them with the right tools?

Consider this: here are two skills that you absolutely need in order to manage your IBM i in 2019...and five skills that don’t hold as much water as they used to.

Required Skills

Skill #1 – An Understanding of Enterprise Systems IT Concepts

Future staff needs to understand what makes IBM i unique in order to help their business take full advantage of this powerful, scaleup technology. Essentially, this is about having a basic understanding of what enterprise systems are and how they work.

We know that IBM i isn’t like the gaming PC recent grads tricked out in college. It’s a robust platform capable of handling thousands of connections and end users while delivering 99.99 percent uptime.

New staff must cultivate enterprise systems skills, so they understand how security, backups, jobs, and other core concepts work. An easy way for IT managers to help build these skills is to send new hires to COMMON conferences and encourage them to watch educational webinars or enroll in online education courses.

Skill #2 – An Understanding of Database Server Concepts

IBM i is great at handling transactional data. Many large enterprises benefit by building applications that require billions of records on IBM i. New hires must understand how to properly access the DB2 database from HTTP servers or through technology like SQL.

In addition, they should understand how to query and report on the data in DB2 directly from IBM i for business intelligence purposes, without needing to waste processor and network bandwidth by sending the data to a non-IBM i system. IBM i has modern data access that performs very well.

Nice-to-Have Skills

Skill #1 – CL Programming

For years, IBM i systems administrators have used command line (CL) programs to tread water when it comes to day-to-day tasks. These homegrown scripts can be works of art, but typically more the Jackson Pollock persuasion than Leonardo da Vinci. Everyone understands their own organizational system, but a hiring decision should not depend on someone’s ability to decipher someone else’s spaghetti-ware.

In 2019, staff should not be expected to get too deep into CLP. Nor should they spend their time babysitting the system like past administrators. No. In 2019, systems management should be automated. The return on investment (ROI) of training new staff on old CLP that could (and should) have been easily replaced by an off-the-shelf solution years ago is zilch.

Instead, IT managers should sweeten the pot for job seekers by positioning their team as modern and forward-thinking, a great place for any IT pro to develop their skills on the latest tools for automated monitoring, backups, job scheduling, and more.

The benefits? Happy, efficient workers and fewer errors for managers. Time for innovation replaces overtime for troubleshooting for admins.

Skill #2 – SBMJOB Manual Processing

If we can agree that using a CL program to control things like nightly batch processing is passé, then we can see how manual, command prompt submissions like SBMJOB must also go the way of the dodo. Certainly, batch processing as a concept falls under the fundamental enterprise systems skillset, but how we expect our team to manage these processes must be centered around automation.

Job scheduling is not as simple as it once was, if ever it was. It’s is a complex mixture of IBM i and Linux/Windows processes, thanks in part to modernization initiatives that include web interfaces running from these other operating systems. With all this information hitting IBM i from different platforms at different times, we would not be set up for success even if we ask our teams to use IBM’s free scheduler, which only runs IBM i processes based on a date and time and often requires daily care and feeding instead of set and forget.

We aren’t in the business of writing, fixing, or maintaining runbooks or scheduling programs. We are, however, in the business of providing availability, error-free processing, and top-notch service levels to our business. Instead of looking to hire someone who knows how to SBMJOB, hire someone who can quickly pick up a modern, intuitive tool and easily deploy event-driven scheduling to control cross-platform schedules.

The benefits? Admins no longer need to manually enter error-prone timer jobs. Managers get a good-looking tool with a short learning curve.

Skill #3 – Menu Option 21

Backup/recovery on IBM i is a big topic—and it should be. Preserving irreplaceable business data is essential. We might even be hiring because the last guy got it wrong...

Some IT pros have dedicated their entire career to just this area. Unless we’re willing to wait for (or pay for) that needle in the haystack, IT managers need to consider alternatives to in-house experts.

Cloud solution providers can help alleviate the need to have an in-house backup/recovery expert. From there, we simply rent some space and pick up a simple tool for backups and/or data replication or rent one through our cloud provider. With this disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS) model, we can make the switch in minutes and run our business from the cloud when disaster strikes in addition to having the cloud provider monitor your backups and data replication.

The benefits? No more battling with untested (and often undocumented) backup procedures for admins. Managers can allocate backup/recovery costs as operating expenses (OPEX) instead of capital expenses (CAPEX).

Skill #4 – JDBC/ODBC Activity

Security is a concern for everyone in IT. It’s also another specialist area where some have focused their entire career. Not an area to take lightly, not an area to underfund. The average cost of a data breech is $3.86 million, which is probably close to what we’d pay our new hire for almost 40 years of service.

As more and more IBM i servers have opened the database to web services, we need to be certain we can control the ins and outs of our data. But that doesn’t mean that our new hire needs to understand the ins and outs of cybersecurity. It just means they need a way to control it.

This connects closely with the database server skillset. DB2 is getting hit hard with outside queries. Instead of seeking someone who intimately understandings object-level security, we should seek someone who understands why and how users (or hackers) might access the database and then equip them with the right tools to create not only a firewall, but also a way to track and block (if needed) FTP, ODBC/JDBC, SQL, and remote commands on IBM i.

Ultimately, object security is the best defense that ensures only authorized access to your database tables. However, if not implemented correctly, it can impact the applications running on IBM i. Alternatively, exit point software will simply audit and block by IP address.

The benefits? Hardened security with a paper trail for managers. No more patrolling for database intrusions for admins.

Skill #5 – Processing Quirks

Let’s say we’re in a retirement scenario. Our IBM i expert is leaving the company on their own terms, setting out to enjoy their well-deserved retirement relaxing on the beach, playing golf, or spending time with family and friends. There is a unique opportunity here for well-prepared IT managers.

Our existing systems administrators have an intimate understanding of the quirky rules and logic that apply only to our business. No new hire will have this knowledge. If we equip our veterans with systems management automation tools before they depart, they can document their knowledge by transferring it into the tools and drastically reduce the learning curve for new hires.

Alternatively, we don’t necessarily have to backfill the role. This is great news to those of us who may have been caught off-guard by our expert’s retirement announcement. If we already lost our tribal knowledge and we don’t have the in-house expertise to monitor our own systems or upgrade/PTF our applications, we can borrow a professional.

Professional service providers can train our remaining team on how to use systems management automation software as well as IBM i. They can even step in with managed services in certain areas. Just as many organizations turn to software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS), or DRaaS to save money, professional service providers can also help us save money and fill any skill gaps we may have.

The benefits? The business finds a cost-effect way to get business done without having to a allocate resources for additional headcount—and nobody loses their job.

The Next Generation of IBM i

IBM i will be in the mix in 2030 and beyond. IBM’s chief architect, Steve Will, already has a roadmap for IBM i reaching all the way into 2028. Big Blue rightly expects that businesses will be running on IBM i a decade from now. What that looks like—whether on premises or in the cloud—remains to be seen, but we can prepare to manage our IBM i estate, no matter what form it may take, today.

Here’s the key: we can’t abandon the platform just because AS/400 talent is hard to find. After 30 years, it should be! Instead, let’s shift the focus to IBM i technology and create even higher ROI by investing in automation. HelpSystems has a recorded webinar called AS/400 Talent Retiring? that shares strategies for stabilizing IBM i when in-house expertise is no longer available. Please feel free to watch it as your time allows.

This article originally ran in IT Jungle's The Four Hundred enewsletter as sponsored content on March 25, 2019:

What's my next step?

49 percent of IBM i shops are concerned about skills depletion as they look to plan their IT environment over the next few years. In addition to seeking the right skillset, automation is a great way to overcome a shortage of IBM i resources. Watch this webinar to learn more.

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