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Maximize IT ROI With Power Systems Skills

Training at events like COMMON, Think and TechU enable IT staff to apply new techniques and more freely innovate.

Photograph of a woman speaking onstage at Think 2019.

“The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay,” Henry Ford once said. Training benefits employees by aiding in their career development. It enhances staff retention; when a company invests in staff, staff becomes invested in the organization. Beyond the feel-good factor, training is purely a matter of enlightened self-interest: The more staff learns, the more effectively—and efficiently—they will do their jobs. More to the point, with fresh insights, they’ll come up with better solutions and novel approaches.

Often, just a day or two at a training event can deliver big takeaways, says Larry Bolhuis, president of the COMMON user group, reflecting on his return from a 1988 COMMON conference, his first as a young IT professional. “My boss said, ‘I can already see the value we got from that investment because you’ve come back with so many new ideas.’ ” 

Some of those ideas come from formal training sessions, while others come from interactions with other attendees. He tells the story of complaining to an IBMer about how time-consuming it was to use a Java* web interface to configure a piece of IBM gear. “The IBMer shook his head at me and said, ‘You should use command line. It’ll take you 20 minutes.’ ” When Bolhuis returned home, he went to work and discovered that his colleague was right. “I said, ‘I’m an idiot. I can’t believe I wasn’t doing this.’ Now, I have all of those tasks scripted. We use those switches every day.”

In a more sobering tale, he recounts a “Jeopardy!”-style game at a recent conference that included IBM i Control Language (CL) as a category. None of the contestants were able to correctly answer a single CL question. It wasn’t because their version of IBM i didn’t have CL functionality, they just didn’t know it was there. “These people haven’t used it because they didn’t get the education that they really needed,” says Bolhuis. “As a consequence, they’re writing their programs using old technology like the dreaded go to, instead of structured loops, which are much easier to read, much more transportable.”

These three tales illustrate the importance of training: It gives IT professionals new ideas for innovation, helps them find better ways to do the tasks they already perform, and ensures that they discover new tools and get the most out of the tools they already have. Fortunately, many training resources designed to serve the different needs of Power Systems* users exist.

It’s Time to Think About Think

Think—IBM’s annual gathering of tech leaders and industry luminaries—is returning May 4-7 to San Francisco. Attend keynote sessions that spark questions about how AI can revolutionize your organization, then acquire hands-on experience via labs and demos. Learn more.


Launched in 1960 as a user group, COMMON has grown into a primary provider of Power Systems and IBM i education. From local events to national conferences, to a variety of virtual offerings (see "What if You Don't Have Money for Training," below), COMMON offers up a comprehensive slate of educational and networking opportunities.

What If You Don’t Have Money for Training?

Even organizations without the budget for conferences can still access training resources for little or no cost.

COMMON hosts two complimentary virtual conferences each year. These two-day events focus on a single conference track. Recent topics have included AI and IBM i, “Demystifying the Challenges of Database Modernization” and “Intro to Well-Designed REST APIs.”

COMMON also has an extensive library of video training sessions. Many entries are free to users; others require COMMON membership, which costs $219 for individuals and $745 for corporations. Membership also entitles members to attend local user groups, which provide opportunities for learning and networking.

In addition, COMMON presents training webinars. The current offering is a three-part series on IBM i Access Client Solutions.

Local events and regional conferences are typically much more affordable and have lower travel costs.

The System i Developer website offers free downloads of educational material, including a guide for Remote System Explorer (RSE), a compendium of RSE keyboard shortcuts and other useful tips


POWERUp 2020 (Atlanta; April 19-23), COMMON’s spring meeting, is a four-day event devoted to Power Systems and IBM i education. It features nearly 400 sessions covering more than 20 IT topic areas. The depth of content ranges from primers for beginners to highly advanced sessions for veterans. The program encompasses not just traditional tracks on database, networking and RPG presentations, but also open-source languages, Java, and even Linux*. Session scheduling represents today’s essential technologies, including tracks on high availability (HA) and resilience, mobile and modernization, and developing web applications. Attendees can take advantage of sessions on IT leadership and management, developing business skills and IT strategy. Still, other sessions are designed to help users get the most out of their systems, such as the “Hidden Gems” series and overviews on IBM i 7.4 and other recent releases.

POWERUp also includes an expo featuring dozens of ISVs. Perhaps the most valuable functions at the meeting are the receptions and breaks that provide attendees with networking opportunities to share tips and tricks.

“I've lost count of the number of times I’ve been discussing a problem with an attendee and someone at the table goes, ‘Oh, we tackled that about two years ago. Here's what we did.’ ”
–Paul Tuohy, developer, member of the RPG & DB2 Summit

COMMON IT Executive Conference

Another essential event, co-located with POWERUp, is the COMMON IT Executive Conference. This two-day program presents senior-level IT managers and executives with a series of strategic briefings designed to help inform their decision-making and activities over the coming year. The program includes sessions from IBM on new announcements, updates on key industry trends, and the opportunity to network with other executives and share best practices.

COMMON Fall Conference

COMMON’s second event of the year is the COMMON Fall Conference & Expo (Tampa, Florida; Sept. 14-16). Although the program has yet to be released, it will provide the same mix of technical and practical offerings for attendees of all backgrounds. It will also include an expo populated with IBM Partners who not only offer compatible solutions but also augment the speaker lineup with their expertise.

The COMMON Fall Conference gives attendees the opportunity to network with their peers or those who have more experience. Bolhuis and former COMMON president Kevin Mort do a session called “Tales from the Data Center.” “We take situations where people have done colossally stupid stuff and we point out what they did wrong,” Bolhuis explains. “Then we tell you what they should have done.”

COMMON Boot Camp Training 

New talent requires training in the basics, whether the individuals are new hires or existing employees being transferred over from a different position. To fill this need, COMMON has developed Boot Camp Training. Each of these online courses features a sequence of individual sessions taught by COMMON experts. The current slate includes IBM i system administration (14 hours) and programming in ILE RPG (10 hours). A subscription (available for individuals or multiple users) provides unlimited access for a year, so students can go through the entire set or reference modules as required. 

RPG & DB2 Summit

The RPG & DB2 Summit (Dallas; March 24-26) is a unique event in that its program is aimed solely at developers. It’s presented by System i Developer, an organization dedicated to building educational offerings for IBM i developers. The program serves up content on topics like IBM i application modernization, mobile apps, open source and web services.

Sessions provide basic skills, like an introduction to modern tools like Node.js and more advanced techniques such as integrating AI with IBM i. As a result, both beginners and seasoned developers find value in the meeting. 

Although online training can be effective for IT professionals with specific learning objectives, attending an event like the RPG & DB2 Summit provides the chance to be exposed to unfamiliar technology. “If I want to learn the basics of Node.js, there are a plethora of online courses that I can take, but if I’ve never heard of it, how am I going to find out about it?” asks Paul Tuohy, developer and part of the three-person team that runs the event. “But if I was somebody who had never heard of Node.js and suddenly I’m seeing all of these mentions of it at the RPG & DB2 Summit, then I say, ‘Well, maybe I’d better find out about that.’ I might even sit in on a session or two—or three.” 

Like Bolhuis, Tuohy considers the networking aspects of the meeting to be just as valuable as the technical content. And it isn’t just the chance to talk to speakers that bears fruit. Sometimes, the conversations that take place with attendees can be even more valuable. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been discussing a problem with an attendee and someone at the table goes, ‘Oh, we tackled that about two years ago. Here’s what we did,’ ” Tuohy says. “So now you have that contact, you’ve solved your problem and your personal network expands.”

“A typical attendee might be an AIX systems administrator today, but they want to learn more about Linux on POWER because their organization may be implementing SAP HANA or Red Hat OpenShift in the future.”
–Ian Jarman, business unit executive, IBM Systems Lab Services

IBM Technical University 

IBM Technical University (TechU) is a global series of training events managed by the IBM Lab Services team. Two U.S.-based TechU events are held each year, with the next one scheduled for May 18-22 in Orlando, Florida

The IBM TechU programs offer a comprehensive, agenda covering all IBM platforms in a single event: IBM Power Systems, IBM Z*/LinuxONE*, and IBM Storage. Whether an attendee is working with IBM i, AIX, Linux on POWER* or on the mainframe, they will find training sessions that will advance and deepen their technical skills. Each IBM TechU event features hundreds of sessions taught by top IBM and industry experts, including IBM Distinguished Engineers and product subject matter experts. New tracks this year included an AI track for IBM Power Systems, a storage boot camp for new IBM Storage professionals, and Fast Start sessions for IBM i and IBM Z/LinuxONE. 

“Many people work in a multidisciplinary world,” says Ian Jarman, business unit executive for IBM Systems Lab Services. “A typical attendee might be an AIX systems administrator today, but they want to learn more about Linux on POWER* because their organization may be implementing SAP HANA or Red Hat OpenShift in the future. Not everybody needs everything, but most people really value the variety of sessions at TechU.” 

The Value of Training

Finding money for training can be challenging, particularly for small organizations. But without training, skills gaps develop. 

“Skills enablement and regular training are two of the most effective investments you can make for your business, for morale and for employee retention,” says Jarman. “I would encourage managers to consider the risk to the business of not investing in training.” 

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Charles Guarino

President, Central Park Data Systems

Central Park Data Systems is celebrating its 25th anniversary in the IBM i community in 2020.

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