Plotting A Middle Age Career Change To IBM i – IT Jungle

June 20, 2022

Not many colleges teach the IBM i and RPG anymore, which makes it hard for midrange shops to replenish talent that way. But organizations have another resource they can tap for technical personnel: slightly more experienced individuals who are ready to start a second career. This is the path taken by Shelly Petty, who recently shared her story at the POWERUp 2022 conference in New Orleans.

Petty spent 12 years working in the banking field before making her career change to IBM i. Her previous job was a high-stress position that required her to handle securities on behalf of corporate clients and individuals. While she was pregnant with her second child, she decided she wasn’t going back. Little did she know she would soon be working on the IBM i.

As a native of Racine, Wisconsin, Petty was familiar with the local technical college. But it wasn’t she spoke to a friend who happened to know the grant coordinator at Gateway Technical College that her direction would become clear.

“She thought that I would be a good fit for the program,” Petty tells IT Jungle in an interview. “They were going to have one more round of this grant program, which was a SharePoint developer technical degree.”

Petty signed up for the SharePoint grant program, which paid for all her expenses, including a laptop. Before she knew it, Petty was spending 40 hours a week learning how to develop programs with the Microsoft framework. It would take 15 months to earn 70 credits towards a degree.

The course challenged Petty in ways she hadn’t been challenged before, and she credits her teachers with helping her through it. “It was very fast-paced. It was hard. It was a completely new journey for me,” she says. “The teachers were our main support. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it.”

While she was taking the SharePoint class, Jim Buck, a former Gateway instructor and now the owner of imPower Technologies, came to visit her class to talk about the IBM i. Thanks in part to Buck’s perseverance, Gateway is one of the few colleges in the country that still teaches IBM i and RPG.

After completing the SharePoint course, Petty decided to continue her education with a Web development credential. It was during that course that she was given the opportunity to attend the 2018 fall COMMON conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which would be a major catalyst in her future career development.

“COMMON was great,” Petty told an audience at the POWERUp conference last month in New Orleans, where she was invited to address the crowd during the opening session. “I met so many people, so many connections. I’ve learned a lot about the IBM i platform.”

In Pittsburgh, Petty got to know Marina Schwenk, a former student of Buck’s and now a COMMON director (she was elected in 2021). Petty didn’t know it then, but Schwenk was eyeing her for a position at Everbrite, the Greenfield, Wisconsin, sign manufacturer where Schwenk worked,

Shelly Petty started a second career on IBM i after two kids and 12 years working in banking.

“I could see that Shelly was driven,” Schwenk says. “Above all of that, she has a willingness to learn and a wonderful personality. I knew she would integrate very well with our team of tight knit developers.”

Following that fateful trip to Pittsburgh, things began to click for Petty. First, she decided to switch her studies at Gateway to the IBM i and RPG. She was granted a COMMON Education Foundation (CEF) scholarship, sponsored by iTech Solutions Group. Then Schwenk offered Petty an internship at Everbrite while she completed her classes. After eight months as an intern, Petty was hired to a full-time position for application support and development at the manufacturer.

While the IBM i is often viewed as an archaic entity from the distant past to many people under 30, Petty had a certain familiarity with the environment, thanks to a job she held years earlier at a credit card company. That familiarity with the character-based environment, which is so foreign to many, worked to her advantage as she got deeper into the inner workings of the platform.

“At that point, I really hadn’t worked on the i,” Petty says. “[But] it really wasn’t foreign. It actually made me feel a little more comfortable. But the experience of learning how the mechanics work in the background and now a lot of the interfacing with the UI, it’s all new for me. I’m learning.”

At Everbrite, Petty is part of a lean IT team that is called on to support operations for a company with four factories and more than 1,000 employees. In addition to supporting the users, Petty helps to modernize the applications, which gets her more into the design and architecture side of things.

“They’re starting to give me bigger pieces, so that’s pretty exciting,” Petty says. “I love to learn. And so the more that I get introduced to new things, it’s like dropping it into the bucket. I’m still piecing it all together. It’s exciting for me. I’m enjoying every minute of it.”

Petty has since become a COMMON regular. As a member, she attends the conferences and gobbles up new information. Her new favorite topic to learn about: Web services. She would like to learn how to leverage Web services to give Everbrite employees the ability to access data or applications in a self-service manner, she says.

With her second career on a firm footing, Petty is focused on giving back to the IBM i community. She is a member of the Wisconsin Midrange Computer Professional Association (WMCPA), one of the largest IBM i user groups in the country. She is going to speak to students at Gateway about the IBM i platform, and present courses on professional development at POWERUp. She’s gradually getting more comfortable presenting on more technical topics by co-presenting with Schwenk, who is not just a mentor to Petty but a friend.

She is also a member of COMMON’s N2i, which is for folks who are “new to i.” N2i was created a couple of years ago as the follow-on to the YiPS (Young IBM i Professionals) group after somebody came to the realization that one’s age wasn’t as important as one’s newness to the platform.

The N2i Committee (left to right): Richie Palma of iTech Solutions Group, Marina Schwenk of Everbrite, and Shelly Petty of Everbrite.

“The best part of N2i is that you are not defined by your age but by the number of years you’ve been on the platform, so all are welcome,” Petty said in New Orleans. “We provide a starter place to put the pieces together and provide you with the resource that you’ll need.”

Thanks to the Gateway grant, Schwenk’s mentorship, the CEF scholarship, and the internship at Everbrite, Petty has transformed herself into an IT professional. Petty’s story is proof that, with a little luck and a lot of determination, a second career in IT is possible.

“It’s a journey. It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had teachers that push you. They tell you exactly how they feel, and sometimes it’s not nice, but you need to hear it,” Petty tells IT Jungle. “I want to encourage anyone who’s interested in IT to go for it. It does take a certain aptitude to understand the logic. But if I can do it, they can do it, honestly.”

With so many job openings created by retirements from the Baby Boom generation, the potential to bring new folks to the platform for a second career should not be overlooked. Petty’s journey shows that the path is not only there, it’s absolutely doable.

“Shelly’s journey speaks volumes for anyone who wants to change their career,” Schwenk says. “If you set a goal and want a change, you must be that change and set forth on that path. It’s never going to be easy and is usually much harder when you are middle aged and have family to consider but, it is possible. In addition to the journey the person would be on, the beauty of the community is that when you reach this side. There are those of us who are willing to help people take off on their new career.”


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