Guide

What to Do When Your AS/400 Talent Retires

Foreword

The AS/400 platform (a.k.a. iSeries or IBM i) is behind the scenes at many organizations around the world, reliably storing trillions of records and running the large-scale applications that power their business.

The advantages of this platform have been obvious to its user community—who are its most stalwart supporters—for decades. But this community is in the midst of a demographic shift. Many of the most experienced AS/400 resources are reaching retirement age.

IT managers hoping to find new IBM i talent to fill their shoes are discovering that the pool of experienced RPG programmers and operators or administrators with intimate knowledge of the operating system and the applications that run on it is small.

This begs the question: How will you manage the platform that supports such a big part of your business?

This guide offers strategies and software suggestions to help you plan IT staffing and resources and smooth the transition after your AS/400 talent retires. Read on to learn:

  • Why IBM i skills depletion is a top concern
  • How leading organizations are coping
  • Where automation will make the biggest impact

Enjoy!

What’s Wrong with Retirement?

IBM i Skills Depletion

Ask almost any IBM i user in the business and they’ll proudly tell you how they got their start back in the System/38 or AS/400 days. Many of these experienced IT professionals are directly responsible for building and managing the processes that have kept their company running for years.

The problem with retirement is not only do you lose a reliable worker, but all their knowledge and experience goes right out the door with them.

Even though the 2020 IBM i Marketplace Survey Results indicate that 45 percent of respondents include IBM i skills depletion as a top concern while planning their IT environment, companies are clearly choosing to stay with the platform.

For 72 percent of survey respondents, IBM i runs over half of their business-critical applications and a whopping 90 percent believe that their IBM i server provides a better ROI than other servers.

There are many applications available for IBM i that run critical functions for many companies today. In some cases, these applications have been heavily customized to fit the business rather than forcing the business to fit the software. In other cases, companies have developed their own applications to run unique portions of their business where packaged software was not available. In either case, this software may have been in place for a long period of time since IBM i has always been known for upward compatibility.

However, the 2020 IBM i Marketplace Survey Results also suggests that 85 percent of respondents still use the green screen interface to connect to their IBM i business applications. Green screen is comfortable and familiar to veteran AS/400 operators, administrators, and developers, but it can also come across as antiquated.

Some CIOs, IT managers, and IT directors might think it’s time to replace this legacy-looking technology, despite the fact that the business rules created in-house on IBM i applications are unique and highly competitive.

Luckily, such a costly project is completely unnecessary. The underlying hardware and operating system are robust and secure, and IT leadership can turn to modern applications from software vendors that make the work on IBM i look good, really good.

In fact, the survey results show that 45 percent of IBM i shops anticipate no change to their IBM i environment and another 20 percent plan to increase their IBM i footprint.

Smart investment! In a 2019 report from IDC, the analyst observed that "the uniqueness of IBM i, such as the integration of the operating system with the virtualization layer, the transactional system, the database, and the application servers, provides businesses with a strong, fully integrated foundation for innovation with much lower operational expense." Not the kind of thing you typically hear about Windows or Linux.

The analyst goes on to assert that the key to the best-kept secret in IT (i.e., IBM i) is staying current. And while IBM i makes upgrades comparatively easy, they are often delayed or skipped due to the doubled-edged sword of backward compatibility.

 

Don’t Put the Cart Before the Horse

IBM i shops plan to increase their IBM i footprint

The programmers and operations staff who remain to manage the system understand the business and the logic in the current applications. However, they are often left to support the old technology instead of being educated on the modern development and management tools that are available.

True, some may not be interested in this training. They’ve led a full career, but they don’t want to leave the business and the systems they’ve created in the lurch; they want to leave a positive software and systems legacy behind.

The young bloods of IT understand mobile, web, and GUI, but they won’t immediately understand the unique business logic and the process controls that are in place.

It is here that the old school and the new must come together. Mutual benefits abound, including mentorship and guidance, as well as increased flexibility and willingness to watch green screen turn into mobile and beyond.

Still, overcoming the “millennial gap” is a huge challenge for any organization and this takes time…which you might not have, unless you start early.

How Are Companies Coping?

Retirement Guide Lights Out

Referring back to the 2020 IBM i Marketplace Survey Results, the majority of IBM i shops manage the platform with anywhere from zero to five IBM i developers, administrators, operators, and other data center staff thanks in no small part to the fact that 49 percent of these organizations run IBM i unattended.

That’s right. When faced with their IBM i expert’s retirement, leading organizations are leveraging third-party tools to streamline their processes and/or substitute staff with automation tools. Top solution providers also offer knowledgeable services and support that organizations can affordably rely on instead of stockpiling in-house experts in key areas.

Automating IT Operations

Automation and monitoring software makes it easy to stay on top of operations and get ahead of system and application performance issues, even when experienced staff is out sick, out on vacation, or out the door.

It frees up resources to focus on business tasks and provides consistent processing, better utilization of computer resources, and more predictable outcomes. Plus, it puts your IT team in a better position to support your business as it grows and reacts to the market—without adding staff.

It’s best to implement automation software prior to retirement, so veteran staff can import the CL programs and manual processes that they are familiar with into the tool and preserve the tribal knowledge that they have been amassing and fine-tuning for decades.

Since automation tools reduce the reliance on custom code and typically provide a modern graphical or web interface, you don’t need a person with long-term IBM i experience. Even a generalist can start adjusting workflows, integrating processes from other platforms, adding metrics to monitor, setting thresholds, and backing up data right off the bat.

If you’re in a position to rehire, the most successful companies build in some overlap time where the veteran IBM i expert can mentor new talent, explain the business logic, and share helpful tips for using the tool. In our experience, this time is mutually beneficial, as many veterans are invigorated by sharing their knowledge and are curious to pick up new techniques from the new talent.

TAKEAWAYS

It’s best to implement automation software prior to retirement, so veteran staff can import the CL programs and manual processes that they are familiar with into the tool and preserve the tribal knowledge that they have been amassing and fine-tuning for decades.

Automating Cybersecurity

The benefits of automation tools extend beyond data center operations. Many cybersecurity and compliance processes are performed manually or completely ignored on IBM i, exposing companies to unnecessary risk.

Although IBM i is a very securable system, even the most experienced administrators make mistakes or compromises over the years that leave the system vulnerable to today’s cyber threats.

Many companies deployed only the default settings that IBM provided—which are not necessarily appropriate for the current climate—and the skills to harden IBM i security, keep up with requests from end users, architect security into new development projects, and detect and alert when there are security incidents are in especially short supply.

In addition, regulations are here to stay. Each year, they are reinterpreted and provide a more stringent and challenging set of rules for compliance, which audit teams enforce. If performed manually, your existing team has a very hard—if not impossible—job trying to keep compliant, and any new staff you may hire won’t have time to learn IBM i security.

Adding automation around reporting and hardening of security settings can help alleviate the pain of staff and skills shortages. Cybersecurity software simplifies and automates security and compliance tasks, including reporting, maintaining a static configuration of your server, profile management, encryption for data at rest, and secure managed file transfer.

The most successful companies combine cybersecurity software with professional services from IBM i security experts—including onsite training, risk assessments, implementation, and penetration testing—or subscribe to full managed security services. This way, you’re not forced to keep IBM i security experts on staff. Instead, you’re free to rely on software that locks down the environment and outside security experts who know the intricacies of the platform.

Companies that invest in educational offerings and encourage both veteran and green IBM i staff to attend conferences and local user groups have the added benefit of strengthening their employee’s skillset and bringing IBM i security acumen in house.

TAKEAWAYS

The most successful companies combine cybersecurity software with professional services from IBM i security experts—including onsite training, risk assessments, implementation, and penetration testing—or subscribe to full managed security services. This way, you’re not forced to keep IBM i security experts on staff. Instead, you’re free to rely on software that locks down the environment and outside security experts who know the intricacies of the platform.

Automating Data Access

IBM i is a system of record and contains a transactional database. For most IBM i shops, it stores all the irreplaceable data your business needs to make smart decisions. It’s your job to make sure that decision makers have access to the right information at the right time.

Many of the manual report balancing procedures that have been done for years are stored in your IBM i expert’s head. As your expert nears retirement, he/she is looking to leave behind a legacy of documented process automation.

Adding report automation software allows you to burst and deliver reports electronically, convert reports into useful formats such as Excel, and archive reports for long-term storage to comply with data retention requirements.

When a less technical user needs to unlock the valuable data stored on IBM i, business intelligence tools remove the manual chokepoints and automatically check business values from different sources without interrupting data processing. This makes real-time data available when business users need to make decisions.

TAKEAWAYS

The most successful companies use modern business intelligence tools to replace Query/400 with online reporting and also look to replace outdated AFP forms technology. Here again, it’s best to implement these solutions before your IBM i expert retires so you’re sure to capture all that tribal knowledge they’ve gathered over the years.

How to Move Forward without Hiring

How to move forward without hiring

When experienced IBM i resources are scarce, industry leaders get the competitive edge by partnering with experts who can help you with software and services that will keep your organization going strong.

Even better than hiring consultants who don’t know your business, preserve the tribal knowledge of your retiring staff by documenting their processes within your own, easy-to-use automation tools and rely on the quality support and services available from respected vendors.

Invest in your existing staff. Seek out training opportunities on new development and management tools. Share knowledge, learn from each other, and communicate across the generational divide. While many IT professionals who got their start in the AS/400 days are nearing retirement, there is still a robust workforce on this stable platform who are hungry for information.

And remember to pay it forward. Support colleges that offer IBM i or RPG coursework. Replenish the pool of IBM i skills by helping to nurture the next generation of IBM i experts.

Visit the IBM i Academy

IBM i skills depletion continues to be a top concern for IBM i shops around the world. As experts are reassigned or retire, IT managers often look to backfill these essential positions with recent grads who are new to enterprise systems, borrow administrators from the Windows team who are unfamiliar with IBM i, or add administrator duties to an IBM i
developer’s job description.

We understand that IBM i administration is a big responsibility—this system runs your business, after all! That’s why HelpSystems has created the IBM i Academy resource center. Each category contains educational material created by experts with decades of experience on the platform. Your team will have access to information about:

  • Current IBM i trendsIBM i Academy
  • IBM i operating system fundamentals
  • IBM i automation tips and tools
  • IBM i security tips and tools
  • Ways to get involved in the IBM i community
  • And more!

Our goal is to help your new team member quickly gain familiarity with the IBM i operating system, so they can tackle their new responsibilities with confidence.

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