Ted Holt on Programming Trends and More

Paul talks to Ted Holt, technical editor of Four Hundred Guru about being a technical editor while holding down a full-time job, trends in programming, returning to COBOL and the importance of music!

Paul: Hi everyone and welcome to another iTalk With Tuohy. I am joined today by Ted Holt. Hi, Ted.

Ted: Hi, Paul.

Paul: So Ted is a senior systems analyst with the Taylor Group but I think more people would know Ted as being the person who writes and edits the excellent Four Hundred Guru from, also a well-known speaker over the years. I am trying to think back when we first met Ted. It was probably-probably-must have been at COMMON sometime.

Ted: It was. COMMON in Atlanta but I don’t know how many years that was.

Paul: Well, obviously, since we are both in our 20s it had to be a few years ago. Also, Ted, you have been involved in writing a few books and that as well along the way.

Ted: Yes, I have written several but I haven’t written any lately.

Paul: And of course, Ted, you’re here at the RPG and DB2 Summit speaking for us. Always great to have you here.

Ted: It’s an honor for me to be invited. I appreciate it.

Paul: Well it’s a-I think the boot is on the other foot here, Ted, at Summit as we are the ones who are honored. So tell me, Ted, I think maybe to start off with you have been editing Four Hundred Guru and I think Four Hundred Guru I can safely say is probably the most technical of all the publications that has been out there. With that, in other words, what you publish was just good technical articles. So have you seen sort of a change in the trend over the years in the type of stuff that you’ve been publishing that people have been interested in?

Ted: Well, we try to run a mixture of topics. People are faced with new things of course: XML, JSON, whatever. These things weren’t issues several years back but nowadays everybody is dealing with things like this so, yeah, we run articles on the new stuff like that so that’s definitely new but I find that people still-it’s the everyday RPG, CL, you know SQL, those fundamentals are what I still get the most questions about.

Paul: Yeah and do you think that is-do you get any feeling is that sort of new people coming in on the platform or is it sort of old people making the change from their old RPG III style and they’re trying to get into RPG IV or both?

Ted: It’s some of both. I would say it’s mostly people that are modernizing their skills, more so than people coming to the platform.

Paul: So of all the stuff you write because-of course, I have been reading your stuff for years and it covers the whole gamut of everything but do you have sort of a niche thing that you like? Like are you a big “Oh, I really like doing stuff on SQL” or “I really like doing stuff on ILE” or anything like that? Do you have a favorite?

Ted: Well, I don’t consider myself an expert in anything. I do what I need to do to try to keep my company profitable and help them to keep me in a job [Laughter]. We need-SQL is obviously one of the big things. I learned SQL 30-something years ago on an Oracle platform when I was in college and then I went to work in a 36 shop and I didn’t have SQL. It just drove me nuts so I was glad to get back in the 38 world and get into SQL so database was a big part of my education. The way I look at it is your database is sort of the lifeblood of your company anyway. You can always write programs. It’s those-it’s the database, is it normalized, how well it is put together, that sort of thing that really matters as to what you can do with your company and software so for me, that is #1, the database. That’s probably where I do the most study and the most try to improve myself is trying to keep up with all the new things that come into SQL, to learn to use the new features effectively. In other words, I like-if I have a project that I have to do or say a program to write, I like to be able to do that in half an hour as opposed to half a day-

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: Because there is just so much that needs to be done so if I’m going to be that productive, I have got to keep up with the new stuff.

Paul: The-and it’s quite impressive what they’ve been doing with the database over the last few years, is it not?

Ted: Oh, yes. All these new OLAP app functions and things like that that they have added, I’m using so much of that stuff now and what it means is instead-in the old days we would have sat down and taken days to write a RPG or COBOL program or something. Now we turn something out in a few hours.

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: With ILE RPG and embedded SQL.

Paul: I’m finding that the amount of stuff that I don’t have to write anymore is quite incredible especially things like constraints and things like that. It is just-it’s scary at times.

Ted: Well, that’s another thing too that I’m seeing. I think maybe people are starting to understand-at least I hope they are. Back in the old days, we always put all of our logic into programs. You know don’t let a user enter an invalid code in this field or nothing. Nowadays we can build constraints and we have triggers and things like that that keep it out of the database no matter what the source is so I really hope that people are seeing more and more the need for doing that. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement in that in our shop and I’m sure there is in many other shops as well.

Paul: Oh yeah, especially as we get into this sort of open world because it’s no longer just we have this one program that’s maintaining the file. Potentially now it can be hit from four or five different places-

Ted: Sure.

Paul: And things like that. So there was another instance since we’re talking about the programming side-you just mentioned this the other day and I sort of did a double take when you said it which was you are actually working in COBOL again now.

Ted: Well, I never worked in COBOL before. I taught COBOL at university years ago.

Paul: Oh, that was it.

Ted: So I always knew COBOL. To me back in those days I wrote RPG. I put myself through college by writing RPG on System 34 so I was teaching COBOL at the university and paying my bills with RPG on the side and to me, the two languages pretty much did the same thing. One could do what the other could do. That is no longer true now. ILE RPG is so much more powerful than COBOL. The COBOL, the native COBOL is sort of the 90-pound weakling compared to ILE RPG but our COBOL is even more antiquated. We are a former mainframe shop so maybe your listeners know you can take old code that was written say on a System 36, 34, and you can run it on a modern IBM i system but they probably don’t know you can take that old mainframe code and run it on an IBM i system. I think that’s commendable.

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: We have bread and butter applications in our shop-being a former mainframe shop, we have bread and butter applications written in that old COBOL. COBOL DL1, DSC-JCL, all that stuff and we can run that code on our i so the i is even more versatile and more powerful than a lot of people realize. We can run all that old code, keep it going, and at the same time, we can write modern applications and Web services and things like that using ILE RPG.

Paul: A mix and match.

Ted: It is, isn’t it?

Paul: Do you find sort of a brain switch you have to do if you’re switching now between that old style COBOL and then getting back into your RPG ILE or is it you do it without thinking?

Ted: Well I don’t think much about it because it’s just-I don’t know. I know all of it so well it doesn’t matter I guess but the old COBOL was written by people who had no concept of structured programming so all the loops are done with goto's. It was written by people who couldn’t program if you took away goto.

Paul: Yeah. My twitch is starting. You are using that four-letter word goto.

Ted: So really, the hardest part for me is not that the language is COBOL. The hardest part for me is it was written by people who didn’t understand structured programming, modular programming because that’s the way I build all my programs and all my systems now is everything is done modularly and so heavy use of service programs, subprocedures, things like that so get-the mind set is the big change, not the language.

Paul: So for a minute, since we’re talking about languages, Ted, have you looked at any of the other-like these sorts of the new languages like PHP, Java? Have you delved into those yourself?

Ted: I have piddled with them I guess you would say. As far as trying to use those in production, I haven’t. We have some Web development we use in WebSmart from BCD.

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: WebSmart ILE and so we have built WebSmart applications. What I’ve been very successful with is I can take an old CICS COBOL program from the mainframe days and I can rip out all of what we would think of as display file, we can rip all these out and parameterize that COBOL program. Then I can build a WebSmart ILE front end that doesn’t do any I/O kind of processing. It just makes a call to my new batch program that I have made from my own interactive program. We can keep all that old code going giving it a modern front end so the only interest I really have in delving into these modern technologies right now for my shop is just try to find ways to give new front ends to old applications.

Paul: So where do you find the time, Ted? Because you’re doing a full like 9-5 full-blown I say 9-5 and of course we know that means 9-8 or whatever. I mean it is a full-blown-you’re out there and you’re editing Four Hundred Guru, which comes out what? Every two weeks isn’t it?

Ted: Usually.

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: It varies but it is usually a couple of times a month.

Paul: And that’s no easy task so where do you get the time?

Ted: Well time has always been very valuable to me. In fact, I’d rather waste money than to waste time because the money you can get by but if you waste the time, there is no way to ever get that back so I am one of these guys that-I take a book with me everywhere I go. If I find myself with five extra minutes on my hands, I have a book out reading or I have a notepad out writing or something. I use every spare minute I can so as far as the time, well obviously it’s a problem. I have an 8-I go to work at 8:00 in the morning or usually 7:00 but I start officially at 8:00 and get off at 5:00, which is usually 5:30, but I don’t work on Guru on company time.

Paul: Yeah. Obviously, yeah.

Ted: I mean obviously I don’t do that so that means Guru has to be done at nights and on weekends but I just-I don’t know. I try to find ways to be productive just like programming. I try to find ways to be productive, get the best use of my time, and I manage to get a lot done.

Paul: Yeah because I tell you. I notice having written a few articles for Guru I mean you are one tough editor to deal with. You give us a hard time. You go through our stuff and you pick holes in it, say fix this, fix that.

Ted: Well, you think about it. Tens of thousands of people are going to see that article and we want to make sure that it’s right.

Paul: Yeah, sure.

Ted: I don’t get them all right. I send stuff out sometime, I make a mistake, and tens of thousands of people see it. You shrug it off and you go on but yes, we want to try and make sure that what we’re putting out there is accurate and it’s helpful. We are succeeding, Paul, because I get a lot of compliments, good compliments on that stuff on here.

Paul: Oh yeah and deservedly so. It’s a marvelous publication and we-I love writing for it. I really do. Actually, you mention the reading there as well but there’s another thing-actually it’s funny because somebody just said it at breakfast this morning. I laughed when they said this because you have a reputation for doing something every now and again where either appropriately or inappropriately at a conference, suddenly from behind your back will appear, something like a mandolin or a banjo or that and you’ll break into song. So is this your other secret pastime?

Ted: Well I have loved music all my life. I have-you know it’s nothing that I can take credit for. It’s just a gift from God I guess that I have a lot of musical ability and I’ve always been able to play a lot of instruments and that sort of thing so I love music. I never wanted to make a living at it because I loved it so much. Nowadays most of my music playing is playing piano for my church. That’s about all the music I do but I love music and so every once in a while I get this idea of hey this would be a good song. I’ll put some funny lyrics to a song.

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: So I have at times like when I was here last year, I brought my ukulele-

Paul: Yup.

Ted: And I just surprised everybody in front of my SQL session. I said before we get started, we’re going to do something else, and we sang a song. I took 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning' and I put different words to it. I’m having fun at the Summit.

Paul: So how many-how many instruments do you play?

Ted: None. [Laughter] People ask me how many languages do you speak. None but anyway-no I played-piano I guess was-I’ve been playing since I was probably eight years old and that’s the main one that I play now but I play guitar, mandolin, banjo and things like that. When I was in high school and college and such I played in the band. I played French horn, tuba and trombone so to me, it’s sort of like one instrument or another, it’s no big deal because it’s sort like think of an if, then else. It looks different in CL and RPG but it is the same concept, right?

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: Well a C scale is a C scale and it doesn’t matter whether you play it on a banjo, guitar, trumpets or whatever. It’s all the same.

Paul: Yeah. It’s a strange thing but it’s the thing that I’ve noticed over the years that good technical people generally don’t come from like a mathematical or scientific background. Actually, some of, I think probably the best programmers I’ve met are people who are musically good. I don’t know how this reflects on me because I can’t hold a note and I can’t play an instrument so read into that what you will. So, for example, like Barbara Morris, she is a cello player.

Ted: Right.

Paul: And she has played with an orchestra-

Ted: Right.

Paul: So a fairly good cello player but you’re also a reader, a vociferous reader as well I believe. You were telling me you now have your hundred books that you are trying to go through at the moment.

Ted: Well I figure I have only got so many years left on earth so I better spend my time wisely. I do love to read. I always have, so I have-I have been trying for the past several years only to read good stuff, good literature. I just say I don’t have time for twaddle.

Paul: Yeah.

Ted: But I have gone to the Web and Google trying to find a different list of what other people say are good books. Surprisingly I’ve read a lot of those books already. By going through this list though I’ve been introduced to authors and readers-I mean authors and books that I had never even heard of. I’ve read some really good literature but I guess my favorite will always be John Steinbeck. I’ve just never found anybody that does it for me the way he does.

Paul: Well actually, I think that’s a good note to leave it on. I think Steinbeck is always a good way to close something and so it is, Ted. So Ted, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Ted: Well thanks for asking me. I appreciate it.

Paul: You keep up the good work on Guru and keep giving us a hard time when we send you an article.

Ted: All right. It’s a deal. Thank you, Paul.

Paul: Okay. Okay, everyone that’s it for this week. Tune in again in a couple of weeks for the next iTalk With Tuohy. Talk to you all then. Bye.

Paul Tuohy has specialized in application development and training on IBM midrange systems for more than 20 years.

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