midrange.com – In My Humble Opinion

Words of wisdom and insight from the IBM i (System i / iSeries / AS400) community

Browsing Posts published by Dean Asmussen

The ‘experts’ finally agree that we’re in a recession here in the United States. Well congratulations. Someone certainly ought to win the Nobel Prize in Economics for that belated revelation. The judging shouldn’t be counted off for the fact that it took a tragedy of horrific proportions to get these ‘experts’ to actually read the data that had been in front of them for months. As Harry Truman once said, there are three levels of lying – lies, damn lies, and statistics. Everyone certainly spun the statistics to new levels of abomination until September 11 finally made them face facts.

Unfortunately, nobody bothered to ask us folks in the computer consulting industry. We could have given them a ‘heads up’ years ago. Of course, we were at a bit of a disadvantage compared to other industries. In the true oxymoronic spirit of ‘I’m from the government, I’m here to help you’, our congress in its infinite wisdom approved yet another increase in H1-B visas after the Y2K non-event. Just as thousands of technical professionals were coming available to work for the first time in years, companies looking for cheap labor manufactured a ‘shortage’ of IT talent and successfully presented it to congress.

As a result, the consulting and contract arms of the industry have been in the tank since the fourth quarter of 1999. During 2000, the availability of so many inexpensive (and many unqualified) H1-B’s forced many qualified independent contractors out of the business. It is a sad fact that US business to this day prefers to pay $45/hour to someone that knows nothing rather than pay $100/hour to someone that is four times as productive. Even those consultants that knew to save for ‘dry spells’ found their resources taxed beyond their plans, and many more were new to the business had nothing saved ‘ thinking it to be like the stock market that just kept going up. After all, there was a shortage of IT talent, wasn’t there?

Our industry experts, myself included, never anticipated the post-Y2K downturn in the consulting business. After all, weren’t there years of backlog out there that hadn’t been done due to the focus on Y2K’ Who knew that everyone but those in high growth industries had spent all of their money’ The bad thing is that Y2K would not have been such a resource drain if not for the litigious nature of our society ‘ companies spent money they shouldn’t have because they were afraid of getting sued. I knew enough to know that we wouldn’t need the visa increase, but perhaps congress shouldn’t be blamed after all. Computers are mysterious things to most people, hence the popularity of Dell’s ‘Steven’ character.

Not that all of this is bad. There were several people that got back into consulting as a result of Y2K that shouldn’t have been in it in the first place. Many people here under H1-B are inimitably qualified, and will find new sponsors even as their original sponsors fold. The other side of the coin is that some native charlatans will remain employed, while some qualified immigrants won’t have the contacts necessary to remain so. Separating the wheat from the chaff is never an easy, or clean, process.

Ironically, the increase in visas may eventually create the shortage that it was intended to address. Thousands of H1-B recipients are being forced to return home after losing their sponsorships this year ‘ one of the reasons I always warn foreign nationals to be careful what they’re getting into when they move here on a temporary basis. Since the cheap labor already caused thousands to leave the consulting and contracting industries, there may not be enough supply to meet the demand. I’ve received more solid leads in the last 30 days than I have in the past 24 months. And it’s the slow season’

JMHO,

Dean Asmussen

With all due respect to the late Walt Kelly, this statement is possibly more
true of the AS/400 community than of the Cold War antagonists about which it was
originally written. We in the midrange community tend to be our own worst
enemies, to wit:

  1. IBM — Continues its lack of advertising, which is only overshadowed by
    its inept attempts at the same on those rare occasions when it actually
    DOES
    advertise. One can only assume that someone in the AS/400
    advertising camp, which also drove OS/2 Warp into the ground, has compromising
    pictures of Lou Gerstner which allow it to continue this travesty of a
    marketing campaign ad infinitum until SOMEONE actually purchases a
    machine based upon it. The latter is not going to happen, but if at first (or
    second, or third, or fourth) you don’t succeed…

    And somebody please tell me why CA/Express requires that it be installed on
    the host machine when Rumba and NetSoft require no such host installation for
    full TCP/IP connectivity.

  2. IBM’s Software Vendors — Those that haven’t tanked due to their deadly
    embrace of UNIX compatibility continue to write software steeped in the
    RPG/400 (OPM) model. ILE is used only when desired results cannot be achieved
    via OPM, thus RPG programmers have no good examples by which to learn the new
    methodology. JAVA? Ha! If vendors won’t use ILE, how do you expect them to use
    JAVA?
  3. The “Trades” — “Midrange Systems”, “News/400″, take your pick. These
    publications, while occasionally touting PC-based solutions, get their bread
    and butter from AS/400 COBOL or RPG programmers. They push the latest IBM
    solution, even when it’s inferior to third party products, rarely suggest
    third party products even when IBM has no equivalent, and mainly repackage
    what IBM announces. They also rarely criticize IBM itself. “Preaching to the
    converted” has become “Preaching ONLY to the converted.” All semblance
    of impartiality is gone.
  4. AS/400 Developers in General — Despite their now long existence, we
    rarely utilize new techniques such as SQL, ILE, Database Triggers (which could
    use some more definitive buffer calculations, BTW), or referential
    constraints. Our own insistence on using “what we know” has certainly been
    instrumental in the decline of the AS/400.

On the other hand, who can blame us? We all learned “C” only to never use it
again, and to my knowledge none of us is yet “flipping burgers” for not learning
JAVA.

Being a member of the AS/400 Advocacy Group mentioned in today’s “Midrange Computing Monday Morning Update”, I was given a little pause. With little doubt, the article was fair. The latter should be expected from a magazine whose existence depends as much upon the survival of the AS/400 as does our own. However, nobody from “InfoWorld” or “Computer World” asked for the same access to the group as did the “Midrange Computing” author. I must take issue with the target audience ascribed to the group — I thought that Corporate Earth would be the target of any ads, with the media, IBM, and its shareholders being secondary targets. Despite nearly a DECADE of our input, IBM just doesn’t seem to “get” the AS/400 — hence our appeal to persons outside of that environment.

“No clear consensus”? Of course not. We know that, if we’re going to win, we must win on the facts. We cannot just go spouting off hither and yon about issues that we are not even sure are issues. Said speculation has already burned up FAR too much bandwidth on midrange-l, IMO. Until this weeks’ announcement, we won’t have all the facts. Speaking out now would only invite derision and discredit our organization before it even gets started.

The point is, we don’t care about the AS/400 for the sake of the AS/400. It’ll run JAVA, REXX, CGI, C, and the old standbys of CL, RPG, and COBOL. It will also run AIX via PASE, and service PC files via IFS. With the introduction of native TCP/IP support several releases ago, it remains, what I declared nearly seven years ago, “The most connectible box on the planet”. What we DO care about is that the AS/400 is still IBM’s most reliable product. Many of us have huge educational investment in a product which, while other products translate to it, its products do not necessarily translate to other boxes. Less reliable boxes. Less business-oriented boxes. Boxes that cannot be run by the company’s accounting clerk after a few brief hours of training and no technical staff, as can the AS/400.

Believe you me — the AS/400 advocates will certainly resurface after IBM’s announcement. Hopefully, only to decide that we no longer have a job to do. I somehow doubt the latter, though. IBM’s history of promoting the box has been spotty at best, detrimental at worst, and pandering to those of us that complain about the lack of advertising in the median.

A warning to IBM — look at your average AS/400 sale, the number of people trained to support the box, and the third party companies that earn a living off of your only true “magic box” in the campaign of the same name. Then tell me we can’t come up with the money for one of those full-page advertisements…

JMHO,

Dean Asmussen

You’ve done it, I’ve done it. For years. Almost everyone we know over the age of 18 has at one time or another. After you’ve been married for a while it becomes less frequent, but it still happens. Sometimes it’s the best you’ve ever had, others, it’s not very rewarding for either party. Often, you’re fumbling around in the dark, not knowing what to say or do. Sometimes it makes you feel good, others, angry.

We’re talking calling IBM about your billing. This problem has been going on literally for decades. Even when the bill is correct, you’ll not receive one one month, and then receive two the next. Plays havoc upon the old budget process, doesn’t it?

But a correct bill seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Your odds for a proper bill from IBM improve if you’ve had the same hardware and software for a while along with a comprehensive services agreement, but quickly go down hill if you change hardware or software or have service performed outside the services agreement. If you’ve never had an incorrect invoice from IBM, you’ve either never done business with them for more than one transaction, or aren’t looking closely at your invoices. Or have never called for OS/400 support that was supposed to be free.

What are you to do? You call IBM. Sometimes, you get a helpful person who straightens things out right away. More often, you get a surly person bent on making you pay your incorrect invoice. In the latter case, you then call your IBM representative, who apologizes all over themselves and promises to take care of things. You feel good about the situation — until next month’s bill arrives with the same unpaid (and unearned) charges upon it.

So ensues the “30 day dance”. With the arrival of your bill each month, you again point out the inappropriate charges. You are again promised that they will be “taken care of”, and then you wait another thirty days to dispute them. If you do not finally cave in and pay just to eliminate the madness or because you just forgot, your problem should be taken care of within 90 days (although anecdotal evidence suggests that it can take longer).

IBM’s inability to control one of the most basic computer applications, Accounts Receivable, stands in stark contrast to its message of handling e-business for dinky businesses overseas. Would YOU want to sell olive oil from Italy using systems from a company that overbills you every single month? I certainly wouldn’t.

This problem has been ongoing since before the AS/400 was introduced. If IBM cannot get its own house in order, how are they supposed to do the same for the rest of us? A business computer company that cannot perform the most basic of all business functions on its computers? Ridiculous.

Set your own example, and speak for yourself, IBM. Fix this billing problem NOW. Set an example for your customers, and your potential customers. Do it.

JMHO,

Dean Asmussen

Thanks to Booth Martin for the inspiration of this article. Booth asked “(speaker said) ERP is dead. When did this happen? Who is next of kin?”

As I responded to Booth, ERP was dead before they came up with the acronym. Its’ forebears were JIT, MRP II, and MRP. Same product, different wrapper. Yes, the purists will say that the forebears were not the same and from a technical standpoint (other than MRP II) they’d be right ­ but from an implementation standpoint they’d be wrong. ERP promised to be a merger of the three earlier technologies, but ended up being the same thing with some added features that should have been in the originals to begin with.

Let’s not split “correctness” hairs but, in short: ERP started out as MRP, material requirements planning. A methodology introduced by the American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS), MRP was how our inventories were supposed to be run. MRP II (manufacturing resource planning) took into account not only inventory but plant capacity, critical paths, and master scheduling. JIT (just in time) promised that you’d only receive material from your vendors today that you needed to produce today’s products, integrated with your MRP II and MRP systems. APICS is a FANTASTIC organization ­ it just needs the authority to take a cattle prod to some of its’ members from time to time. If I had a nickel for every APICS Fellow that asked me to write a program to create a wholesale increase in lead times…

But I digress. ERP is dead because western business investment in infrastructure is dead. Western business is too busy drooling over the cheap labor in “emerging markets” to give a hoot about doing things right in the first place. The average ERP implementation takes between 18-24 months but, in today’s “what have you done for me in the last quarter” stock market, few companies have the stones to properly implement ERP. After three or more failed attempts at ERP implementation (failed because they didn’t commit the proper resources other than money), most companies just gave up. An ERP implementation, done well, should almost become a corporate religion. The desire for success of the project must come from the CEO down to middle management down to the worker on the factory floor. Instead, these projects usually start in IT and end up dying there.

The ERP software vendors are complicit in its’ death as well. Most came up with proprietary application development tools that nobody wanted to learn. Many embraced CASE, which they did a poor job of, and that acronym died before ERP did. The biggest ERP vendor, SAP, required that everyone working on their package be “SAP Certified” ­ a process that cost tens of thousands of US dollars and guaranteed a high billing rate to clients. Most other ERP vendors just charged a higher billing rate regardless of their representatives’ qualifications. The high rates virtually guaranteed that companies wouldn’t use the resources required for a successful ERP implementation, yet SSA (my ERP vendor of choice) just sold out for less money than my last three clients spent on their SSA software. Here in the Southern US, we call the latter “cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

To answer Booth’s “Who is next of kin?” question, I must give an unqualified “I don’t know.” Probably another acronym that means the same thing as ERP. Just don’t give me that “e-commerce” crap. You can’t get a decent ATP (available to promise) without having either an ERP system in place or more warehouse space than God. Note that the companies that failed last Christmas (and will probably take three or more years to recover) were the ones that took and acknowledged e-orders but didn’t know that they couldn’t fill them.

Speaking of death, the AS/400 seems to be lingering on the edge. It appears that Armonk has finally achieved what it set out to do ­ kill the best system it owned. Almost no new AS/400 jobs appear lately. It doesn’t appear that you can GET an AS/400 job unless you’re prepared to move half way across the country, despite the low unemployment. No advertising, no education, no demand. Congratulations, Mr. Gerstner. Hope that your bonus is based on those money-losing Netfinity machines…

JMHO,

Dean Asmussen

Let me start off by saying that my server crashed just before the first of the month (taking most of my unread e-mail with it), and if I haven’t replied to you by now I’m probably not going to. I still have everything saved, but AOL doesn’t seem to want to read it. An upgrade to AOL 5.0 on my Win ’98 machine appears to be impossible, yet the only way to retrieve downloaded but unread mail. Since I’ve railed against AOL before, I’ll discuss newly discovered peeves instead.

Peeve number one, Compaq. For those of you that weren’t around prior to Dell, Compaq was Dell on steroids back in the 80′s. Tiny green screen, keyboard that snapped over that screen and the 5 1/4″ drive(s) to allow it to be portable (compact, as it were). The fact that Compaq ran DOS rather than CP/M, coupled with their production capabilities, allowed them to exceed everyone except IBM in the production of “PC compatible” systems and to toast CP/M rivals like Cromemco and Osborne and DOS rival Kaypro. How Compaq could put out such a cruddy machine now (yep, that’s the server that crashed) parallels the company’s stock price.

Number two, badmouthing of consultants. Actually, this is nothing new but seems to have taken on a darker tone of late. Rather than defend my own position, which would then require further defense against those that would “pick nits”, I’ll say this — if you don’t like consultants, you’ve had more than one bad one. If you’ve only had one bad one and still dislike consultants in general, then you’re guilty of gross generalization. Just don’t paint all of us with the same brush.

Peeve number three, the so-called H1-B visa “controversy”. We ran out of these allotments earlier this year than ever before, yet businesses are screaming for more. Why? Nearly every consultant and contractor I know that is out of work has been so for quite some time, and these are GOOD people as opposed to Y2K opportunists. Despite an unemployment rate of 1.4% in my geographical area, IS job listings have been at an all time low around here for the past several months. The only “need” for H1-B visas that I and others see is a need to pay people less than market wages for equivalent work. If area companies like SAS, IBM, Red Hat, Nortel, Cisco and the like need high-tech workers, perhaps they should advertise in the local paper instead of lobbying congress. Back when I had a “real” job (and unemployment wasn’t nearly so low), the paper regularly ran classifieds for computer jobs in excess of five pages. I often caution those coming here from overseas about the business practices of those sponsoring them — it appears that my fears of exploitation for the latter are still valid.

ULTIMATE peeve — “the new economy”. There IS NO “new” economy! There are new companies and technologies in which persons unqualified to do so (because they don’t understand the industry) are investing great bags of cash in the hope of a large return, but these are no more “new economy” than the bloated stock price of Microsoft or the “plastics” from the days of “The Graduate”. Plastics did well long-term, but not as well as they did the first two weeks after that movie opened. Wall Street is legalized gambling, plain and simple. They try to woo you with numbers and statistics but, if you’re betting on a single winner “du jour”, you’d be better off at the track. Long term investments are good stuff, but don’t let anyone fool you into believing in this “new economy” horse emission. The NASDAQ proved it today, but it will take a long-term beating of the idiots that drove companies like Amazon.com over $100 per share to get the idea through everyone’s head. P/E ratios cannot be ignored just because a company has “dot com” at the end of its’ name, nor should a company be allowed to be in business for nearly five years without making a profit and still make up a portion of someone’s retirement fund…

JMHO,

Dean

A great deal of bandwidth has been expended on both MIDRANGE-L and other forums regarding IBM’s advertising (or lack thereof) of the AS/400. The whole “Magic Box” campaign, oft referred to as the “Tragic Box” campaign, appears to have been an attempt to keep those that managed to ruin the fantastic chance OS/2 had to eclipse Windows gainfully employed.

Personally, I’ve been a big detractor of IBM advertising of the AS/400 myself. New directors of the AS/400 come forward offering ad campaigns, only to be quashed by “the powers that be” in Armonk. Anyone attend the New Orleans COMMON where the AS/400 was featured daily in ad’s in the “Times-Picayune”? Out of those, how many actually saw an ad in a local paper? I really WANTED to believe Tom Jarosh when he stated that AS/400 advertising was “going mainstream”, but felt deep down that it would never happen. I was right. I even heard a few local ad’s on the radio afterward — for about a month — yet never saw a single one in the paper that I read cover-to-cover every weekend here at home (where all of IBM’s PC production resides). No wonder I looked askance at the IBM representative in San Francisco when she claimed that Jarosh couldn’t attend this COMMON because he was in Armonk “fighting for the AS/400″. To be fair, I DID receive quite a bit of material and contact information during that particular “Soundoff” regarding getting AS/400 education into my local community college.

Even “Tragic Box” emphasized NetFinity (on which IBM has yet to figure out how to make a profit) and the S/390 (which is still completely misrepresented as a web machine). What about the midrange? I started griping about AS/400 advertising when I saw 390/6000/NetFinity ads without the AS/400 in the “mainstream” press. Now, even the RS/6000 (a poor machine to begin with) is missing — how “Deep Blue” could be represented as an RS/6000 is a mystery to me to this very day. The midrange as a whole seems to be conspicuously absent from today’s advertising by IBM.

Taking an open view, though, current hardware sales pale in comparison to the overall health of IBM. The company still leads the world in patents (thank goodness), but has really focused on the “Global Services” division as far as business is concerned. Paying third-party consultants less that they can make on their own may work for now, but not forever. Either directly (through ownership or training) or indirectly (through 401(k) or mutual funds), we in the US all own a piece of IBM. Their move away from hardware is understandable in a booming economy, but hardware is what sells in a recessive one. In a depressed economy, companies tend to not “give a hoot” about your high priced consultants when all they really NEED is a computer that runs mission-critical applications faster.

IBM cannot continue to alienate the veritable LEGIONS of loyal customers and technicians that service its’ machines. Where IS the IBM that we all know and love? Can Mr. Gerstner continue to promote profits over product during the next several years? I don’t think so. Could the AS/400 be a cornerstone of an improved hardware offering from IBM? Yes, with a few improvements of its’ own. Should we that earn a living on the AS/400 be upset with its marketing? Yes. Will those that don’t learn JAVA be “flipping burgers” instead of programming? I doubt it, if you were any good to begin with.

Wherefore art thou, IBM? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, yet the rose that buoys most of our careers and retirement plans tends to stink of late. Wall Street knoweth you not as do we who strive in your dark bastions, making your name a success and your prowess unopposed. Global Services may earn you a passing profit, but it is indeed your hardware and the dedication of thousands that DO NOT work for “Global Services” that keeps you in the forefront of the technological revolution. Why hath thou forsaken us?

This is NOT really what Dean looks likeTomorrow is my birthday. Other than the (so far unverifiable) fact that that it will be the brightest full moon since the Lakota Sioux supposedly took advantage of it in 1866, a nonevent overall other than that it’s also the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and that the space shuttle should be about 1/3 through their repair of the Hubbell space telescope. I’m “the Dad” with a birthday too close to Christmas. “Dads” tend to not get too many birthday presents anyhow, and having one this close to Christmas is a “double whammy”.

By the time you read this, the consummate IT event –Y2K, will be over. You’ll either be doing what I plan to do, making jokes at the expense of those that spent thousands of dollars on bunkers, ammunition, gasoline, and canned goods, or you’re trying to buy your way into the local “SPAM smorgasbord” (assuming you actually HAVE any money) without getting shot and I’m wishing I had a generator powerful enough to operate just the pump on my well. Either way, the computers aren’t the problem, are they? Goods and services, that’s where the REAL money is.

As I work a client site prior to the Y2K event, I wonder. “Why do we need Y2K to fault computer systems?” Just today, and nothing to do with Y2K issues, my client’s client/server-based order management system failed. Again. It’s been doing so with great regularity for the past eight months and has no relation to their ERP system other than a recently announced cooperative agreement and a few ODBC connections. A serious bug was discovered in our ERP system that is fully AS/400-based in this regard, and also had no relation to Y2K. The payroll package failed, again, with a decimal data error on some employee record that it will take a week to find — assuming we find it at all — and is also unrelated to Y2K. Fifteen Windows-based PC’s stopped working, and one of those required a reload of the OS — again, nothing to do with Y2K. Using an AS/400 utility to scan a file for a specific value, I missed a record that I shouldn’t have because the utility doesn’t function correctly if you prompt field names a second time. The latter problem has been around for a number of years, but I keep forgetting about it.

My question is, who needs Y2K given the stuff we have to work with on a daily basis? Can Y2K blow things up worse than they already do? I don’t think so, but guess we all know the answer to that question by now. Personally, I don’t see how Y2K can be any worse than dealing with what we already have. Even the imminently “Up” AS/400 failed last week without reason, and we’re still waiting on IBM to attach meaning to the dump tape that the system so generously created without prompting.

Wanna give me a birthday present? Give me some software that works well on a consistent basis — or maybe a can of SPAM…

IMNSHO,

Dean Asmussen

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