Want To Influence IBM i’s Direction? Consider Joining An Advisory Council

Want To Influence IBM i’s Direction? Consider Joining An Advisory Council

December 12, 2022

Alex Woodie

Do you want to make your mark on the future of IBM i? If so, there may be a volunteer position available to you on one the two advisory councils run by COMMON and COMMON Europe, which play important roles in advising IBM what new features and technologies should be added to the platform.

Members of the COMMON Americas Advisory Council (CAAC) and the COMMON Europe Advisory Council (CEAC) play an important role shaping what new features and functionality are added to the IBM i platform. The two councils work closely with IBM to review and prioritize customer requirements submitted through IBM Ideas (previously the request for enhancement, or RFE) program. They also function as a sounding board for new ideas generated internally by IBM architects.

Being a CAAC member not only gives you a firsthand look into what IBM has in store for future releases of the IBM i operating system and related products, but it also allows you to influence the direction of the platform directly with IBM. This is done through monthly interactions with IBM architects via Zoom meetings on specific topics, as well as the twice-a-year ventures to the IBM Lab in Rochester, Minnesota.

The CAAC recently concluded its annual fall meeting in Rochester, which also involved several members of CEAC (it was only the second joint CAAC-CEAC meeting ever). The three-day meetings in Rochester provide even more time for give-and-take with the IBM architects as well the various product managers and developers that create the platform.

Much of the time of being a CAAC member is spent going through Ideas, according to CAAC member Mike McArdle, who joined the council in 2018. CAAC has three subcommittees – one each for application development, the database and IFS, and systems operations – that meet via Zoom once a month for an hour at a time. The subcommittees go over customer requirements submitted through IBM Ideas to determine if they are actually good ideas that would benefit real-world IBM i shops, and if so, what priority they should be given.

“We take the list and try to get through 10 a week,” says McArdle, who sits on all three subcommittees. “We have a top 20 list that we try to come up with for IBM every year. We find ideas in the subcommittees and then bring them to our master group and let everybody get in on it, because we don’t want to find out our top 20 is all app dev or all sys admin stuff. We want to be balanced and want to give them a balanced look at what they want to be working on.”

The top 20 lists help IBM to understand what the most pressing issues are facing its IBM i customers, and are helpful in kicking off additional conversations between IBM and the CAAC and CEAC about how best to solve them. Sometimes, IBM will take another approach to solving an issue brought up by the customer, and the give-and-take with CAAC and CEAC helps to flesh out the possibilities, says IBM’s Alison Butterill, the IBM i product manager.

“As they come forward with ideas, we often go back and say ‘Here’s what we’re thinking of. Here’s how we think we’re going to be able to implement it. Does that match what you guys thought the idea was, what was the crux of the idea?’” Butterill says. “And that way we can make sure we’re in sync with what the CAAC or the CEAC think was really the baseline. And then we start talking about, well, if we do it this way, then maybe we can add these things or do that or something else, or it’s in line with the strategic direction.”

IBM i Merlin came together organically as the result of several customer requirements around having a lightweight, Web-based development tool cohabitating with modernization tools inside of a container. The delivery vehicle that ultimately became Merlin was the brainchild of IBM architects, not necessarily the result of direct request to the IBM Ideas or RFE program for something like Merlin.

“We definitely got guidance” on Merlin, Butterill says. “We even get guidance on things like packaging and pricing and marketing . . . It’s really a brainstorming session, if you will.”

The new geospatial analytics functions added to Db2 for i with IBM i 7.5 TR1 is another example of an internally generated idea – in this case from Db2 for i database architect Scott Forstie’s team – that CAAC and CEAC provided some feedback for.

“If we’re having some of these wild and crazy ideas, as we often do, it gives us a sounding board,” Butterill says. “More than once, we have said ‘This is what we’re thinking of doing’ and they’ll say ‘Well, could you do it like this, so that we can do something else?’ It’s really a two-way street here.”

CAAC just had a milestone last week: It finally got caught up on all the IBM Ideas, McArdle says. “The community gives us such new and cool ideas that reviewing them all takes time. And keeping up is difficult.”

The CAAC can have 16 members, according to COMMON’s charter, but it currently has only 11, which means it could absorb four or five additional members, says McArdle, who joined the council in 2018. “We’re always shorthanded,” he says.

McArdle, whose day job is working as an instructor at Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, occupies the CAAC position reserved for the education community. The charter calls for up to four people on the CAAC to be business partners, ISVs or consultants, while the remaining CAAC members represent their own company. Two members may be COMMON board members.

It can be difficult to find new CAAC members. The group is picky about whom it chooses; it doesn’t want just anybody. “This group should have a balance of business, management, hardware, and software skills,” according to the CAAC webpage on the COMMON website.

The CAAC recently lost two folks who were both very experienced with operating the server, which is one of the attributes that the CAAC looks for in filling its council. “You want somebody on the CAAC who has his hands in the water, working with the product on a daily basis,” McArdle says. “I don’t really fulfill that role because I’m more of a theoretical guy.”

One of the hardest parts of filling the CAAC positions is getting the okay from the new member’s company or organization. Going through the customer requirements and meeting monthly takes time, as do the bi-annual trips to Rochester (which CAAC pays for).

“The hard part is getting company commitment, more than anything else. This is a chunk of time,” McArdle says. “Our perception is that everybody who works in the IT world is working 70-hour weeks. So this is a commitment of time on their part. But they love doing it once they get inside and start to do it.”

The CEAC is in a similar boat as CAAC, Butterill says. While the CEAC is arranged slightly differently – it has two IBMers advising it due to the differences in customs among the different countries in Europe versus just one IBMer advising CAAC – there is also a need for enthusiastic, committed IBM i professionals to vet customer ideas, provide feedback to IBM, and shape the future of the platform.

IBM i may not be an open source product that is developed and controlled by its community users, as Linux is. But that doesn’t mean the IBM i community doesn’t have a big role to play in driving the product forward. In fact, IBM counts on active participation by the community to help keep IBM i vital and responsive to its customers’ needs. That is why the IBM Ideas Portal, the two COMMON advisory councils, CAAC and CEAC – as well as the ISV Advisory Council and the Large User Group – are so critical to the future of IBM i.

“One of the things that sets IBM i apart from many other places at IBM is this partnership we have with the community,” Butterill says. “We spend a lot of time, as do community members like Mike, in making sure that the product reflects what our customers’ need. That’s why they help, because they like to point to something [and say] ‘I had a hand in that.”’

If you are a COMMON member and would like to join the CAAC, you can submit an application here.

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