RPG plus skills are still in demand

Duncan Abbott has, he says, specialised in AS/400 recruitment ever since Dr Frank's wunderkind first trundled off the production line; he even considered calling his company Silverlake, settling only at the final moment for the catchier monicker Drive IT Recruitment.

'Finding people', he says, 'was easy as everyone was mad keen to move onto the AS/400 platform from their System 36 and 38s - all you had to do to ensure a steady flow of job applicants was headline the ad 'Upgrade to AS400'.'

Placing applicants wasn't much harder - 'clients knew there weren't that many differences between the CPF and OS400 operating systems and, for that matter, between RPG2 and 3 and RPG400 code - they were happy to put in the small amount of training necessary.' Things were quite rosy. IBM mid range sites migrated AS/400 bound almost en bloc, Abbott knew where the sites were, and even the '90s recession had little effect on his niche in the recruitment business.

Then came the Internet with all its works. IBM half discovered it was sitting on what the company's Paul Fryer modestly describes as 'the world's most advanced server' and RPG seemed headed for obscurity - the technological equivalent of the fall of the ukelele as glamorous Fender Stratocaster parvenu Java hogged the stage. 'The AS/400 operator stroke support bod with no NT or PC skills', says Abbott, 'is now a rare beast indeed.'

Newbury and everywhere else in the world based Bayer is probably an exception in that the AS/400 system it runs for subsidiary Agfa is sticking with its 'relatively frozen' RPG and Synon mix pending worldwide migration to SAP. 'We are not', says business systems manager Robin Jackson, 'what you'd call typical.'

Konrad Litwin is sales director at IBM mid range systems integrator Catalyst, and is firmly of the opinion that, not unlike undertaking, RPG is a dying business. 'The new blood coming into the AS/400 scene', says Litwin, 'has little or nothing to do with RPG - it's Domino, HTML, Java. Whereas you once confidently advertised for an AS/400 consultant, the result nowadays would be people ringing you up asking 'consultant in what?' Frankly, an AS/400 interview today is much more likely to include 'but what does NT stand for?''

Litwin concedes that RPG is likely 'to hang around for a few years', and adds the side swipe that 'those with legacy systems have little choice'. What then of the oak panelled traditionalists?

Not renowned for their placing of ground breaking bets (oh, all right, there are exceptions - Barings, for example) banks have majored in AS/400 installations. Midas-Kapiti International majors in selling AS/400 software to banks, Ad van der Rest is Midas-Kapiti's UK human resources manager, and his eloquent email is reproduced verbatim:

'RPG AS/400 skills have been one of the traditional workhorses in the banking software arena. While the recruitment of these skills has eased over time as newer technologies have grown, RPG skills have remained a consistent recruitment need because of AS/400's enduring stability. RPG skills even enjoyed a flutter of additional demand in the run-up to Y2k. Going forward, and particularly in the banking software arena where prudence is a virtue, we believe RPG will continue to be strong at the back end of products, despite the use of Java technologies at the front end.'

So: Java and its flashy friends doing the flag waving and RPG beavering away in the rear; so to speak. Gary Thornley heads the system development group at geared up developer Martin Dawes, estimates a company increase in AS/400 techies from 56 to seventy by the end of 2001, and broadly agrees.

'A couple of years ago', says Thornley, 'RPG was the name of the game. Now there's HTML, XML, Java, Plex, Lansa - basically they're just languages and they'll be supplanted in turn when something better comes out - but what we're looking for now is application related skills. There is', he continues, 'no reason why someone who knows NT and, say, Domino shouldn't take to working in an AS/400 environment, and there's no particular reason they should ever learn RPG.'

Thornley believes business skills are becoming more important as the internet matures - 'there's much more business to business stuff, less business to user, and the web site as an electronic funfair for its own sake is approaching the end of its days.' He believes furthermore that the AS/400 - Martin Dawes claims the UK's largest installation - is poised to become the vehicle for internet applications.

IBM's Paul Fryer is being interviewed simultaneously and interjects that 20 per cent of AS/400s over the past two years have been sold to 'brand new customers'. It is, he says, the key to the business world. Mr Thornley says in a rather kindly way that it sounds as if Mr Fryer works for IBM, but the joint opinion is clearly that this is good gear which does exactly what it says on the box.

It is suggested that the AS/400 could, in fact, be regarded as a big PC. Mr Thornley agrees; so does Mr Fryer although he does go off into one about 64-bit being the norm, how many loonies do you see gawping at AS/400 chips at computer exhibitions, we could show them chips make their hair curl, and so on. Apropos of the subject Mr T introduces AS/400 support for which, he says, one could hire a man and a dog. Mr F rejoins scornfully that the dog could run the whole show, and the man is only there to cover when the dog takes its holidays.

Having canvassed the captains of industry it was clearly time for an opinion from the coal face. Techies are difficult to interview. It is not that they do not wish to talk; on the contrary - I speak as an ex machine code programmer - they can, would, and probably do talk for Ireland. It's just that their grateful employers have arrived at the notion that techies in the presence of the media should at all times be accompanied by at least two keepers.

I caught Mr X at an uncaged moment, and he spilled interesting beans before rounding off the interview by saying he had no wish for his name to be attached to quotes, as his employers had arrived at the notion that techies in the presence of the media...

Dear Mr X: no names, no pack drill; trust me.

Mr X has been with the AS/400 since birth, decamped from Big Blue to the grimy commercial world some three years ago, and I infer from his remark about it being the best thing since they invented fantasies about the birds from Abba - whatever they may be - that he considers the AS/400 to be quite a good thing.

The early days, said Mr X, were when the AS/400 was regarded as a small mainframe. Cheap, easy, bit of payroll, bit of stock control, operations was knowing which way up to insert a 13 amp plug, and being God was being perceived to know RPG. Nowadays, continued Mr X, one can trot along for an AS/400 job and they're looking for all sorts of things - here we go again - Java, Domino, HTML, Unix, NT - you name it and it'll run on an AS/400.

I put to Mr X the suggestion that the AS/400 is really a bigger and better PC. Mr X said it was far better than that as you can plug anything you like into an AS/400, and it just works - you try doing that with Raid. It was, he said carefully, as if IBM had unwittingly introduced a Big Mac, but hadn't quite figured out how to sell it.

We return to Mr Abbott who - having sussed that, in these decadent days, RPG alone is insufficient - visited a prospective employer and listened politely as the requirements for an RPG400 developer were intoned. Expertise in networking and MS Office were prerequisites; a good working knowledge of VB, Novell and Java would be handy; and Lotus and C++ would be useful allied to an understanding of operations which the successful applicant would naturally be required to cover.

Mr A descended to the wit of the gutter and enquired what eye colouring might be considered suitable. 'Brown', came the non-ironic reply, followed quickly and politically correctly with the increment that blue would also be in order.

Hazel eyed RPG soloists need not apply. l

ENDS

Comparative results from the latest SSP/Computer Weekly survey released last month. The Survey analyses the number of advertisements for computer professionals in the trade press and the quality national dailies and Sundays.

Table 1: Skills most in demand over the past quarter 1Q00 1Q99 jobs on offer change Pos Pos Skill in 1Q00 in 1Q99 1Q00 cf 1Q99 1 3 C++ 5,318 8,982 -41% 2 2 Oracle 4,119 9,555 -57% 3 4 Unix 3,983 8,054 -51% 4 10 Java 3,919 2,995 +31% 5 1 Windows NT 3,839 9,793 -63% 6 24 Internet 3,591 1,236 +191% 7 6 SQL 3,579 6,543 -51% 8 5 Visual Basic 3,261 6,975 -53%

Table 2: Skills most in demand one decade ago

1Q90 1Q00 jobs on offer change Pos Pos Skill in 1Q90 in 1Q00 1Q00 cf 1Q90 1 14 Cobol 5,574 728 -87% 2 9 C 2,711 3,021 +11% 3 3 Unix 2,231 3,983 +79% 4 29 CICS 2,021 401 -80% 5 39 VMS 1,629 260 -84% 6 79 VME 1,373 79 -94% 7 25 MVS 1,368 436 -68% 8 24 DB2 1,363 451 -67%

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