Another topic that seems to be topping the charts these days is the bemoaning of the retirement of RPG talent. But is it really one of the signs of the coming apocalypse?
A certain amount has been written lately about all the RPG talent that is getting ready to retire or die and what impact that will have on those of us who are still hanging on. Maybe it all started with a webinar (the recording's available) "Strategies for Overcoming IBM i Skills and Staffing Shortages" given by Rob Rheault, Director of Application Services, and Marcel Sarrasin, VP of Corporate Marketing and Business Development, at Fresche Legacy. This webinar kicked off a certain amount of discussion in the RPG/AS400 Developers group on LinkedIn under a post by Kimberley Chan.
Somewhere in there was an article from Alex Woodie on IT Jungle also about IBM i talent shortages. Most of that article (in my opinion) deals with the process of digital transformation that many companies are undergoing and Soft Landing’s efforts to help in that arena. The scarcity of RPG- and IBM i-specific talent was one of the concerns cited that might keep companies from moving forward on this type of project.
Is There a Shortage?
Sounds like there must be. I know that’s not very specific, but I haven’t done the math and frankly have little interest in doing so. But it only stands to reason that such a shortage either exists or is coming.
First, the total number of RPG/IBM i people never was overwhelming. Sometimes it seems like you can’t swing a dead reindeer without hitting a Java programmer, but RPG people, interestingly enough, like reindeer, are rarer.
Second, we are getting older, and eventually this generation will be extinct. Granted, not everyone who knows RPG also remembers $.35 a gallon gas, but for a variety of reasons, the number of new people who have been brought into the fold is probably smaller than the number leaving.
Third, some (one might even say many) of the people who were once RPGers have over the course of the years moved into other languages (Java, DB2 PL, etc.).
And fourth, not a lot of people are surging to get into RPG programming. I know Jim Buck has a vigorous program at the college where he teaches, and a professor whose name escapes me right now has a very solid program at a college near me in Muskegon, Michigan. In fact, I am sure there are a number of quality programs across the country. But the teaching and evangelization of RPG is not nearly at the level we see for Java or PHP or Python.
So, I guess it’s true. We will slowly dwindle, becoming a rustic folk of forest and dell, destined to be overlooked and forgotten as the great currents of history sweep over and around us, and someday, all that will be left will be a solitary wax figure of an old man (or woman) in the Smithsonian next to a vintage IBM typewriter and Fonzie’s leather jacket, with the sad sign “RPG Programmer—Extinct.”
But why? Why are the practitioners of a language that is just flat out really good and getting better slowing dying out? Why are they not being constantly refreshed with new, young talent?
I think there are a number of reasons, reasons that give RPG special problems that other languages don’t have.
No PC Presence
One problem that RPG suffers from, and I think it is a serious one, is that it’s not a language that some kid can read about and decide, “Hey, think I’ll check that out” and start hacking away on it and get the bug.
You have to have access to an i to get started. And that means you probably have to have a job at a place that has an I.
Unfortunately, picking up a language just by screwing around with it on a PC before you take any formal classes is quite common today. So when kids are looking to get into programming, RPG is just not something that they can easily get going on. I know what you’re going to say: Liam. And yes, he is an exception. But that’s the point. He’s an exception, not the kind of thing that is going to happen every day.
No “Cool” Factor
In a way, it almost seems like an oxymoron to talk about “programming languages” and “cool” in the same sentence without using the word “not.” But this is a world where “The Big Bang Theory” has been on TV for 10 years. There are people who do think programming languages are cool, and those would be the people we want to connect to RPG.
Problem is, among people who think programming is cool, RPG isn’t. Up till recently, it was positional, it’s not OO, you can’t build games or cool graphics with it, none of the things that make languages cool today. All it does is handle business applications.
What we need is a PC version of RPG that can somehow be linked to the Kardashians or One Direction or Fifth Harmony. Until that happens, we’re in tough shape.
If I were really in need of talent, I think I would be at least somewhat flexible in terms of how I get that talent. I believe there are a fair number of older RPGers and consultants who live somewhere other than where a given job is. I have done remote work for many companies. There is no technical reason why it can’t be done and no productivity reason either. If you need to have someone sit in front of you to tell whether they are accomplishing anything, then you don’t deserve to be a manager.
But there is something about the i environment that just doesn’t like remote work. You find all kinds of remote jobs on the web, but not for RPG. For whatever reason, i shops want someone full time who comes into the office every day and takes up a desk. That’s productivity in the i world.
Seems like if you are really desperate for resources you might be flexible, but I guess not. Or maybe that’s just West Michigan.
One final thing. So far, what we have is a situation in which the language by itself is not cool, and to get started on it you need an IBM i, so we can rule out people just getting into it on their own.
So they have to get involved in it at school. College specifically, where there is a budget to get an I.
That by itself is not the end of the world. College-educated programmers will hopefully be taught good things: modular, structured coding; /Free; ILE—that kind of stuff. And that’s good. I am not in favor of a generation of homegrown, “we don’t need no standards” programmers.
So, there I am at college and all, but what language do I choose to study? Hmmm, what will help me decide? Oh, I know. In true American fashion, which one lets me earn the most?
I can guarantee you, it won’t be RPG.
I live in West Michigan, and we have some shops that use RPG. Those employers, from what I have seen, must think we do it for love, because the salaries or hourly rates they offer are lower than what the guy who changes my transmission oil gets. And when people send me emails asking if my company needs any programming help and they list the rates by language, RPG is always right at the bottom of the scale. I won’t even tell you how many tens of thousands of dollars below a web programmer RPG ranks in the Robert Half Salary Survey I just downloaded. And that is adjusted for the lower cost of living in this area.
RPG is just not valued. Do you know any other job where people are concerned about a talent shortage where the pay seems to keep going down rather than up? I know that we say, "Oh, RPG is used by small to medium businesses. You can’t expect them to pay a lot." Really? Why not? They do it for other specialties. It’s very, very hard for me to feel sorry for people who cry "We can’t find resources" when all they offer those resources is a low salary compared to other languages.
And the Final Word
Is there a talent shortage? Yes, probably.
What can we do about it? Not really sure on that one. To be honest, I think the deck is stacked against RPG, but we shouldn’t do silly things to make it worse.
RPG is a skill. It’s a mindset. When it does become critical, everyone will be wondering how this has happened. But to me, it seems pretty obvious.
About the Author: David Shirey