Vergere: Everything in life is a pendulum
Just before I left to attend COMMON in Anaheim, CA a close friend told me the following: “You don’t seem happy to me – you just seem stressed or worn out as you would say. I don’t mean to offend. I’m just saying how it seems to me when I see you lately. Both you and [Wally]* seem ready to snap and there has to come a time when you ask yourself if it’s worth it.” I thought about these words and why they were true, and why they weren’t, many times on that trip and initially composed many answers, although I wrote nothing. I knew there was something important in this regarding the paths we chose for our careers.
Something about being here professionally, how we came to be here, and why we stay. Something about the times in your life where you just have to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.
By the first evening at COMMON my thoughts had moved beyond my personal path and defending it; onto my opinions about the larger IBM i community. I’ve been involved in the leadership of my local user group (OMNI in Chicago) for the majority of my career and as such have attended my share of our technical conferences. In the Spring of 2012, COMMON had an energy I hadn’t felt in a long time. Not excitement yet – but a willingness to believe in the advocacy of others. Attendance was up and people, developers from the trenches, were starting to believe things are going to get better. Before you start to think I am just an IBM i cheerleader who has drank the kool-aide and am promoting the platform to further my own objectives let me introduce you to Wally. Wally isn’t just one person in my life, he is a composite of all the IBM i developers I am friends with and whose opinions will inform my writing. Significantly, this group includes my husband.
* Dilbert 2012-11-11: Pointy Haired Boss, “Why don’t any of you look inspired by my leadership?” Wally, “I died on the inside years ago. Now I’m just a fleshy container full of coffee and resentment.”
On that balmy night last May I found myself leaving the COMMON centric area of the DisneyLand Hotel and walking. Eventually I sat in a peaceful courtyard in the Grand Californian and from there I could look up to the balcony of the room we stayed at in 2008. My reaction to the energy of the conference was based on the experience we had during that family trip. We were in the happiest place on earth with our kids, lucky enough to be able to afford it, and by any measure generally successful.
However Wally couldn’t transcend a malaise and eventually a terse conversation took place. He felt marginalized, like there was no value placed on his skill set or in his abilities, he had no leverage at work because of the poor economy. Every year it seemed fewer people were expected to do more work, to constantly learn new technologies to meet the changing demands of business and to do all of this for less money. My response to him was something I would repeat many times over the next several years – it has to get better. Just hang in there, your skills are amazing and the market will rebound, be patient.
Four years later I have to say I never thought it would take this long. I have always believed everything in life is a pendulum. It is time to be honest and look at the nadir of our experience. There are things we need to acknowledge as a community in order to learn from them. Attending my first COMMON conference was a natural reminder of my first technical conference, OMNI in the late 1990s.
At the time Wally and his ilk were at the top of their games. They were known for being the talent that got things done technically and delivering solutions that became business assets. It was easy for him to say to me, you could do this, and for me to think it was a great career move. In those days if you had a pulse and could spell RPG you could get a job. At that first OMNI conference many students from a local community college attended, they were my classmates, and when I look back now I question how many of them are still in the IBM i world. I don’t know, but my best guess based on statistics is that only about 10% probably are. Even then, as we compared notes in the weeks that followed, there were different experiences.
The first was people who said the sessions didn’t really follow what they had been learning in class, they didn’t relate. A second was the opinion that no one (vendors) seemed that interested in speaking to students and there wasn’t much information about hiring but that the sessions were interesting. And a third smaller group, who were employed as RPG programmers already, who enjoyed the event and were engaged on multiple levels. A friend of mine had a chance to tell Jerome Hughes (who had delivered two excellent sessions on SQL while wearing an Armani suit no less) about SQL saving the day, albeit interestingly, when there had been an issue at his work. But, that last group had been identified as an employee the company wanted first and learned the language and system second. The two of us are still here 15 years later. I found my home for education. I started volunteering that night, have spent over 10 of the last 15 years on the board, and I have never regretted time spent for this purpose.
However I can’t ignore the changes we have seen over those years. We went from the height of Y2K with its prolific jobs and ample salary to layoffs and consulting companies falling apart in the early 2000s. Programmers being told constantly about the need to modernize, and being the geeks they are, knowing the need for GUI/web enablement. The problem was that there was no clear path – should they learn net.data, Java, cold fusion, .Net, asp.net, CGIDEV... Not to mention the ongoing frustration to this day, developers who are embracing modern RPG techniques and standards are still supporting legacy systems written archaically. Those disparate concepts are hard to switch between; one could almost make the analogy it is like telling someone who has quit smoking to have a cigarette. Then there has been the profound struggle thanks to the Great Recession. Now the IT team composites have become multi-discipline and far more complicated further challenging an overtaxed resource.
This has not been an easy decade and when I look at where the community is I see the fatigue everywhere. I think the debate over the name of the platform comes from the discontent when people felt they had made a commitment to an industry, done what was asked of them, and were not being supported in return. The iSeries’ years weren’t the best for any of us. Conversationally, many developers had the greatest success of their professional years when on the AS/400. For many it is hard to muster the enthusiasm to believe in the IBM i.
As a community we can’t afford this to continue.
Yes, things got harder than we ever thought they would. Our company politics and dynamics are more complicated than we ever anticipated. This is the world we live in. The platform is solid. IBM is behind it and supportive, and there is a User Community ready to educate us and the next generation.
We have to shake off the negativity or we won’t be able to propel the IBM i into the next iteration of business technology responsiveness.
This isn’t up to IBM. It is up to us. To find our voice in organizations and user groups. To attract new talent to the platform even when we have to extend past our comfort zone to do so. To advocate on our own behalf even when it feels like we are a lone voice. To admit how many feel this way, when none of us want to put it into words.
It is time to let go of what we had when we worked on the AS/400 and to trust the IBM i will take us further than we ever believed in. The pendulum is swinging back and we have to make what is now possible happen.
I believed in 1998 –
i believe now –
Will you join me?