Let it train, Let it train, Let it train

There's always a need for training in the ever-changing world of IT. Annie Gurton looks at what's happening on the iSeries/400...

There's always a need for training in the ever-changing world of IT. Annie Gurton looks at what's happening on the iSeries/400 training front.

iSeries/400 training empowers people to get seriously involved with the implementation of e-business solutions,' says industry analyst Martin Butler. 'E-business requires people who know how to get front-ends of business, including web sites, linked up to the enterprises' back-end processes. Someone with iSeries/400 skills can provide businesses with suitable working e-commerce applications because they know how to seamlessly and smoothly integrate application requirements with existing systems.'

Brian Parkins, an iSeries/400 Instructor with IBM UK Learning Services, agrees that iSeries/400 training gives skills which are broadly transferable and widely useful. 'Because iSeries/400 is a closed box and users are not allowed to tamper with the hardware, the training is only concerned with accessing, integrating, connecting, operating and using the system. People who take an iSeries/400 course learn about best ways to use the system, how to program for it and tailor and adapt applications, and connect it to other systems and the internet. This is usefully broad training useful for anyone in IT, as well as essential for anyone using an iSeries/400 box.'

Any training organisation can set up and provide iSeries/400 courses, but Parkins, predictably, says that there are distinct advantages to receiving education from the product's suppliers. 'We are able to give a definitive explanation on how the system works and how to integrate and use it. Obviously, we are closer to the developers of the system and can talk more openly with the engineers and developers.'

Mike Horning, iSeries/400 business manager with Sapiens says: 'The AS/400 has always been a dependable rock solid platform, and the change of name to iSeries/400 will only help emphasise that its qualities are highly suitable in the new world of e-business solutions, where there is even greater need for system dependability. Users and developers who take iSeries/400 training will find that they have a rock-solid grounding which can be adapted for any other environment. By comparison, training in any other environment is simply more generic and less detailed, less useful if you like. Because the choices in other platforms are bewildering, and the optimisation between hardware and software is not a given, the training has to be more complex. ISeries/400 training offers dependability, and does not require time spent in trouble-shooting technical problems.'

Fundamental skill
In particular, believes Horning, users will want training in optimising their old applications in the new iSeries/400 environment. 'Programming in iSeries/400 is a fundamental skill, like learning Latin,' says Horning. 'The iSeries might lack hype and charisma, but it is still the best enterprise backbone and the most dependable e-commerce system engine. ISeries/400 training reflects all those values.'

An important part of Sapiens' work with IT managers is adapting and adding functionality to AS/400 and other legacy systems, and Horning believes that iSeries/400 with its Rad tools and methodologies, is the best to take companies forward into e-commerce. 'The adaptation and development of legacy applications and data, without touching any intellectual properties, is what makes iSeries/400 so important,' he says.

Another firm which works closely with AS/400 sites is Jacada, and UK country manager Bill Sawyer says: 'Many firms are looking to breathe life into their legacy systems, and with the right training mainframe an old AS/400 can be translated into a thoroughly integrated iSeries/400 e-business site.' For firms that don't have the skills inhouse, Jacada can deliver updating and integration services, or it can train inhouse managers to use and programme their iSeries/400 environment.

IBM's Parkins says: 'We find that by offering a variety of courses, such as simple user level or basic programming to complex integration and web development, in a variety of formats such as self study, workshop or classroom, we are able to provide what most people need.' Training can be adapted, says Parkin, so that a project manager, for example, who only needs how to set up and run workflowed data queries can know how to do that after a day or two. 'We also run full five days courses but often senior managers are reluctant to let their staff away for training for more than a day or so. It is false economy thinking that the managers are away from their desks for that time, because they are building on a skill which will have long term and very broad impact on the whole business, but still, some managers think like that.'

He says that courses on database management are particularly popular, as are the systems operators courses and basic introductions for users. 'There is no accreditation for completing a course,' says Parkins. 'Trainees get a certificate of attendance, but if they want accreditation they have to complete a test.' It is not essential to take a training course to sit the tests, Parkins explains. 'If someone has been working with iSeries/400 for a while and is competent they can sit the test, or take it by e-mail, without taking a course.'

Certificate of accreditation
He agrees that if someone wants to use their iSeries/400 training on the jobs market then a certificate of accreditation is highly desirable. 'We have competitors also offering iSeries/400 training,' says Parkins, 'and some of those offer their own accreditation.' However, he is convinced of the hidden benefits of having IBM as the trainer. 'For one thing, our training material ties in very closely with the product specification literature and instructions from the developers and engineers,' he says.

IBM's Learning Services division also offers an 'Education Card' which delivers an unlimited amount of training in an unrestricted number of product areas for a one-off fee. 'Despite the restrictions on users getting inside the boxes, they are still responsible for making connections, setting up and plugging in the system, networks and peripherals,' says Parkins.

The boom in business intelligence tools is enhancing the demand for iSeries/400 training, according to James de Bathe, AS/400 WebFocus account specialist from Information Builders. 'To get the best business intelligence out of an enterprise then a knowledge of the core system and database is essential,' de Bathe says. 'The days when executive Information Systems were only available for the top team have long gone. Consequently business managers at all levels need to know how to interrogate the system to get the information they need out of it, without compromising the integrity of the system.' Although the iSeries/400 is virtually idiotproof, training in extracting, consolidating and distributing information is still important to ensure optimal use. 'The iSeries400 is often the system of choice of small businesses and a training course for the not-particularly-IT literate is almost mandatory. The iSeries box and WebFocus are easy to learn, robust and forgiving, but some training is always necessary to point out the potential and best ways of achieving requirements.'

Kevin McGee, sales director at Information Builders agrees saying: 'As SMEs have small IT departments, or people with other jobs also responsible for IT, is it not only important to have a system which is bomb proof, but those people involved also understand clearly how to get information to the points within the business where it is needed. However good the documentation, to get the right information to the decision makers, wherever they are and whatever devices they are using, requires at least a day's workshop or classroom training. It is time well spent.'

iSeries and the jobs market
There was a time when the mid-systems job market was grim and unwelcoming for iSeries/400 trained people, says Jon Newlyn, business development manager for Attachmate. 'There was a slump in demand for specialist mid-systems skills,' he says, 'largely due to the IT industry's misguided and unhelpful discrimination against the mid range.' Mid range was perceived as backward, passé and unfashionable, believes Newlyn. 'The IT industry has this unnerving habit of dismissing all things and technologies which are old and long-established, no matter how reliable they are.'

'The values of mid range are being validated again now,' continues Newlyn. 'Businesses are moving back into the mid range because they realise it is the best option for harnessing critical e-business components. And along with the surge in popularity in mid range is a surge in demand for those skills, so now is an opportune time for those with iSeries/400 skills.'

Newlyn has found that there is a shortage of people with good iSeries/400 skills so consequently demand is high and rewards are good. 'Anyone with iSeries/400 skills will find that their place on the job market is considerably enhanced, particularly with employers wanting to develop e-commerce,' says Newlyn. 'The job prospects today of anyone with iSeries/400 training are remarkably promising,' he claims.

After a period out of favour, AS400, or iSeries400 as it is now known, is rapidly gaining in respect, and demand is growing for users and programmers familiar with it. Training is all at the user and programmer level - none except IBM's own engineers are allowed inside the iSeries400 boxes at a hardware level. However, the 'associated' skills of integration and business process management which are part of iSeries400 training are more useful than any hardware management skills are highly regarded, and are what is giving iSeries400 its reputation for flexibility.

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