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Meeting of the Minds

Alison Butterill has seen how user groups benefit IBM. She has long served as a volunteer for COMMON, the world’s largest professional association of IBM tech users.

Image by Alison Butterill IBM i Offering Manager - Photo by Craig Washburn

Many Power Systems users have been working in their company for many years, without sharing their experiences with users from other companies. At user group meetings and conferences, “the hands-on, experienced users are there to explain to other users or customers what they did with the tools and technologies to achieve their goals,” says Torbjörn Appehl, IBM champion and president of Data3/COMMON Sweden.

Across the country and around the world, IBM Power Systems* users are meeting up and sharing ideas around their business needs. Thanks to these user groups, everyone from programmers to CTOs is learning new ways to use and improve IBM technology.

“These groups are a great way to talk to someone who solved a problem in a way you hadn’t even thought of yet.”
—Alison Butterill, IBM i offering manager

But it’s not just the users who benefit. The groups are also an invaluable asset to IBM. As a company, IBM is dedicated to every client’s success. That requires listening to clients—and user groups are one of the best ways to do that.

In the course of her long career, Alison Butterill has seen the benefits of user groups to IBM firsthand, from her beginnings as an IBM IT specialist, to her current role as the IBM i offering manager. Throughout her career, she has served as a volunteer for COMMON, the world’s largest professional association of IBM technology users.

Founded in 1960 in Chicago, the nonprofit organization comprises more than 4,000 individual and corporate members. They represent more than 18,000 IT professionals using IBM Power Systems and related solutions. And that’s just North America. COMMON also has an international presence in nearly 20 European countries and in Japan.

“At first, the idea was to talk about common technical issues, from coding techniques to how to manage the system,” says Butterill. “But over the years, it has grown to reflect a wide range of technology areas and interests within the IBM Power Systems community, such as Linux* and open source.”

Giving Power to the People

By definition, user groups are organized and run by users, often meeting annually for a large national conference, as well as monthly for local events. The goal is to learn from each other’s experiences and expertise. Therefore, while IBM Power Systems is the focus of COMMON’s annual meeting and expo, many of the speakers are industry experts from companies other than IBM.

In addition to in-person meetings and events, user groups also offer online education, certification training and exams, and perhaps most importantly, direct access to IBM decision-makers through advisory councils and working groups.

Case in point: the Common Americas Advisory Council is a small yet diverse group of members that represent IBM customers of different sizes and industries, such as retail, distribution, and education. The council is designed to act as the liaison between IBM as a company and the user group members.

In Butterill’s experience, the process of exchanging ideas between users and IBM works like a well-oiled machine. Any IBM i user can go to the COMMON Requirements Portal, where they may choose between IBM i or AIX* requirements. They can review existing requirements to see what’s already been submitted, and add requirements of their own. Users may also submit hand written requirements during the annual meetings, but most opt for the online method, which is also mobile-friendly.

The advisory council then reviews these requirements and determines whether they should be submitted to IBM. And in most cases, they do.

“The council reads through and prioritizes everything submitted, going back to clients to get more information if necessary,” says Butterill. “Then they meet with us monthly by phone, and twice a year face to face, to share those requirements.”

Once IBM receives a client requirement, it is assigned to an appropriate IBM developer, who determines next steps. Depending on the requirement itself, the request may be handled in an upcoming technology refresh or release. Others may require more in-depth consideration and are placed on the list for possible inclusion in a future release.

This process gives users an opportunity to make IBM Power Systems better for their entire user community, while also giving them a powerful voice to IBM. “Our development team takes these requirements seriously,” says Dawn May, IBM liaison to IBM i client advisory councils. “And we deliver somewhere around 70 percent of all customer requirements that we receive.”

From Requirements to Releases

With any given release, many of the best new capabilities and features have come directly from the user group community.

“As a company, we get great feedback from user groups about what would help to make us more successful in the marketplace,” says Butterill. “We have such a broad range of clients and industry solutions, it really helps us get feet-on-the-street, direct input, and it has always helped us in formulating what we’re going to put into releases.”

Over the years, tens of thousands of IBM i customers around the world have downloaded Zend’s PHP products for i for numerous web and mobile application development initiatives. They have user groups to thank for that.

“More than 10 years ago, COMMON North America and COMMON Europe ranked putting PHP onto the system extremely high,” says Butterill. “Because of that, the offering manager at the time pushed forward and worked with Zend to get PHP into IBM i.”

A more recent example of the power of user groups is free-format RPG. Butterill says that was a high-priority requirement from all of the IBM i advisory councils. “We worked hard to provide that support and delivered it in IBM i 7.1 TR7.”

Along with exchanging ideas on how to improve technology, user group members are discovering creative new ways to implement those technologies.

“These groups are a great way to talk to someone who solved a problem in a way that you hadn’t even thought of yet,” says Butterill. “So users aren’t just getting an advanced look at the technologies coming up, they’re also learning new strategies about how to use IBM technology to solve real business problems.”

Ultimately, user groups are bringing together the best ideas and business strategies in the marketplace today. Users are learning from other users—and IBM is learning from them.

“User groups allow us to stay very connected with our customers and our partners, so we ensure that we’re delivering what they want,” says Butterill. “From our perspective, you really can’t ask for more than that.


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