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Tom Huntington on the 2020 HelpSystems Survey and the Effects of the Pandemic

On this episode of iTalk, Paul Tuohy talks with Tom Huntington to discuss the 2020 results of the HelpSystems IBM i survey and how the pandemic has affected work and life.

Paul Tuohy: Hi everybody. Welcome to another iTalk with Tuohy. So actually it seems like the other day that we were talking Tom and it pretty much was so—
 
Tom Huntington: Right. It was.
 
Paul: I’m joined today by Tom Huntington, who is the executive VP of Technical Solutions on HelpSystems, and we spoke just a few short months ago, Tom, because you guys had your annual survey going on—
 
Tom: Right.
 
Paul: And the results are in.
 
Tom: The results are in, yes.
 
Paul: The results are in. By the way, I will put the link to the page in the description of this—
 
Tom: Awesome.
 
Paul: For the iTalk. So Tom, tell me the results.
 
Tom: Right, so first of all, you’re right. We did have the survey open in September of 2020 which you know, obviously, being a pandemic year was always interested to see how people would handle it. I thought we’d have even way numbers, but here’s the thing I have to remember in all of this is this is the seventh year of doing the IBM I marketplace study, and I think a lot of the same customers fill it out year after year, but you know, this year we actually had almost 25% of the people who took the survey were from Latin America, so as HelpSystems has grown, your reach has grown differently too because we now have offices in Argentina and places like that that can help promote it in their native language and access their customers so that was kind of—I forgot about that when we were talking earlier, but that was kind of an interesting little piece and being a COVID year, we did add in a few questions related to that this year too, Paul, so I’m very pleased. We had 500 people fill up the entire survey and another 250 that filled out partial of it. I guess they got tired. It takes 20-25 minutes to do the survey so it’s not something simple and the thing to remember, too, again is that people don’t get any incentives other than for the love of the platform, right, or the love of operating systems is why they fill it out.
 
Paul: Yeah, that’s why I don’t fill it out, Tom.
 
Tom: I thought you were a Power Champion too. I thought you were a Power Champion, too. You better be.
 
Paul: But tell me Tom—sorry, just when you mentioned the figures there, are the numbers of people who filled out the survey, is it sort of the norm that about 750 or is it down a little bit? Up a little bit?
 
Tom: It’s pretty consistent. That’s kind of been the high bar as we get about that many people from—and the other thing just demographics. It’s probably always good to talk about demographics so this year the percent from North America was down because of the heavier percent of people from Latin America filling out, South America, you know Central America, in those areas but typically we’ve had about a 60/40 split of North America versus the rest of the word and this year, the numbers were a little less than that—that was good, actually. I mean, it’s good to get different opinions, different numbers, but quite honestly in a lot of areas like the number of partitions, the number of servers those things stayed pretty consistent in what people are doing. We’re about, right now, about 25% of the market of only runs a single partition of IBM i so highly virtualized we are today.
 
Paul: Yeah, okay. Well I do want to talk about some of the stuff in the survey, Tom, but let’s start with the pandemic
 
Tom: Sure.
 
Paul: Related things so what came out in that area that was sort of interesting or—?
 
Tom: Right, so I think the goal with that was to add two or three questions which we did related what’s on your mind related to the pandemic, how did you switch over from working in the office to work from home and interestingly enough as I talk to customers, quite a few people already have been working from home. They’ve been doing IT from anywhere even as administrators or developers, right. You can pretty much be anywhere but when we looked at our top IT concerns around IBM i, one of the things that did noticeably grow was reduced spending, right because if you think about it in the pandemic year, a lot of us went into it and say oh my gosh, you know, business is halted. Take manufacturing. There were manufacturers that literally had to shut down and couldn’t do any manufacturing. Now, depending upon what industry they’re in, they may have leaped back into business and been going 100% ever since because you now they’re in home and gardens or outdoor type things. Those kinds of items at least in my experience have been growing crazy, so we had that question in there. Reduced IT spending was the number one thing there. Security was number one, HA number two, modernizing applications number three, and then concerns about skills and you know, IT skills. I kind of drum a drum here and say this is not just an IBM i problem. It’s an IT issue around the globe no matter what platform you are. There’s a shortage of IT skills and it’s not only going to get worse as we go through this decade so we as leaders need to encourage young people to go into IT in general and they’ll learn RPG or they’ll learn open source or IBM i or RDi or whatever it is. It’s just a matter or putting the tools in front of them that they’re comfortable. Don’t put a green screen in front of them right so those are things that it’s pretty doing that you’re going to have problems attracting new kids out of college or out of vocation school or wherever they’re coming from, but so the other part of it is that because of the tool set that IBM has, things like ACS, Access Client Solutions, for being able to access the system, run it through a browser, work from home. If you think about IBM i, it’s become a database server so it literally runs your business application and even if you are running green screens, I mean green screens run just perfectly fine from home but certainly a browser might be a better choice this day and age but the fact of the matter is there’s a certain business applications that for whatever reason performance-wise or they just haven’t retooled them, they run them from green screen and it’s just fine remotely so I think the IBM i community adjust to work from home quite nicely because the tools were there, ready, more pressure on things like VPN and making sure that was working and like our own company, making sure everybody had a laptop or after realizing you’re going to be working from home for a while, working on a card table is probably not the best ergonomic thing for people, right so at HelpSystems, we had a few of those where it’s like it looks like you’re working from your couch. You might want to decide to get something a little better, right, it put a lot of pressure on that too.
 
Paul: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing I’ve found. I was actually having a conversation with my son-in-law about this that he was saying that you know whereas for a lot of us, this whole thing of working from home is not an issue. I mean, like I’m sitting here in my office that I’ve had here at home for—
 
Tom: Yeah.
 
Paul: 20 plus years for a lot of people who have just joined a company who you have like just moved up to the big city say—
 
Tom: Yeah.
 
Paul: You know from home and they’re sharing an apartment with six other people; suddenly working from home is not really an option there.
 
Tom: Yeah, it’s a challenge, you know. You have your own space. I have my own space at home, but I have been sharing some space with my son-in-law and daughter who are also working right now from where we are here in Florida and that’s another story we’ll talk about at the end, but it’s a challenge. It’s hard for people in the work force to feel that part of the culture of any organization if they’re working from home but the good news with IBM i I think the survey basically showed that we add the tools, the server is reliable, where people were automated, they were much better off, where people still had manual process, they struggled. You know you think about printing. If you have to print or you have to manually receive letters and whenever it may be in your office, how did you get through with those things going on, you know?
 
Paul: Yeah.
 
Tom: That’s where people may be struggling a little bit where they really were—it wasn’t just a modernization as you and I think of a browser versus a green screen. It’s oh my God, we’re still printing all this stuff. We’re still scanning all these things in manually. You know we’re filling out forms in the warehouse you know, if you have that stuff automated, you switched over to work from home quite nicely, and your business continued to move on.
 
Paul: Yeah, so apart from that Tom in the survey, did it sort of follow the trend that has been going for the last years, few years? I mean, I think we have talked about this before—
 
Tom: Yeah.
 
Paul: That on the survey, it’s usually those top two or three items like you know concerns about security, and like the ones you mentioned the challenge of finding people—
 
TH: Yeah.
 
Paul: So apart from the COVID related stuff, are those still the main concerns that are coming out?
 
Tom: Yeah, Security and HA are the one and two, security by far is in the 70% of the people that we gave them about 15 things that they could check off as being their top concerns and security was 76% of the people put down security and then I’m doing this off the top of my head, by the way. I should have the survey up in front of me so if you look at a number and it’s off by 1%-2% this way or another, yeah blame Paul, not me.
 
Paul: Oh my goodness.
 
Tom: Now, but yeah then, HA I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood or about you know 60% of the people put down HA which is interesting because you know HA has been around for many years on the platform but the things, you know, certainly are concerned. You know, it’s amazing. We talk about COVID and we think about negative—everybody always thinks about the negative side of things, but one of the things that’s happened is certain businesses have double in size. They’ve had to add shifts to manufacturing to whenever they’re doing businesswise distribution because they’re in an industry that’s higher demand whether it’s in the US anyways outdoor type activity became the essential or just like yesterday. I was talking to this small manufacturer of outdoor patio equipment. Everybody wants new patio equipment so they can sit out on their deck and work from home kind of thing and be comfortable. You know, their businesses have grown so because of that all of a sudden now they adding shifts and HA even becomes a bigger issue for them, right? Security goes without saying. I mean we now have all the end points that are connecting to your network from outside your network to work every day and so there certainly have been a lot of risk with that.
 
Paul: So actually there’s something you touched on there, Tom, I’m going to come back on it in a sec, but before I do that, one of the things I find it and you know this from chatting with you before that I mean HelpSystems is a very large company. I mean you’ve touched it. You have customers all over the world. I’ve got a funny feeling that you go and personally visit every one of them—sorry, well, not every one of them.
 
Tom: It’s funny because my wife and I were just talking about this. She goes, you know, you get energized by going out and seeing people and traveling and stuff. She says I feel like you’re a little more irritable here during the pandemic and it’s because you’re not out traveling and visiting people. I certainly don’t visit each and every one of them because we’ve got over 20,000 customers these days and it’s been an amazing story in itself, but you know, IBM i is very important to us. Today it’s 30% of our businesses, but it’s not because the business has shrunk. It’s because we’ve done a bunch of acquisitions outside of IBM i too to kind of diversify our own company and quite honestly a lot of things that we’ve acquired impact IBM i because you know I mean like the survey says, that game show, there’s a lot of other technology alongside IBM i all the time. I mean there’s Windows servers, there’s Linux servers, there’s UNIX servers, and so if you talk about I want to do pentesting for the organization, I have to pentest everything, right. It’s not just IBM i. So that’s another part of what’s interesting for me has always been the fact that IBM i usually doesn’t stand alone. It’s got other servers that are doing other things with it.
 
Paul: Yeah, but the thing that interest me, Tom, so but I mean you I know talk to at least a couple of hundred customers a year.
 
Tom: Yes, right.
 
Paul: So what interests me is that in your conversations with them does that survey hold up?
 
Tom: Yeah, it does. You know one of the things I always talk to talk about demographics-wise is that the diverse set of types of industries that are using IBM i manufacturing is still large, distribution, kind of warehousing, those kinds of things, financials of course, banking and credit unions, transportation, healthcare, insurance, all very vibrant yet around the IBM i platform and so throughout the year, I do anywhere from there to—I doubt I’ve done 500 but let’s say 400 individual conversations with customers that usually lasts at least an hour like we’re talking today and it’s all about what’s on your mind? What’s on your roadmap? What does your IT environment look like and those things do reflect in the survey. For instance, just the partitions and where people are at from a partition standpoint. More and more people have multiple partitions and really doesn’t cost them anything as long as they don’t run out of processor that they’re paying for or disk space when they do it. They don’t have to upgrade their system. They just add another partition. It’s part of their environment and then other things that I hear about attracting—I usually get into how are you doing with IT skills and stuff like that too and you know, how are you attracting new people to the platform. Amazing, this year I hear a lot about open-source as I talk to customers that they truly are doing open-source of IBM i. They’re using RDi or if they’re not, I go on the preacher part of that and try to explain to them how uch more productive it would make all the developers. I mean that’s another thing. People think of the platform and nobody is doing development anymore but if you look at the survey, you’ll see relatively high numbers in development and the neat thing about IBM i is it doesn’t take a lot of developers to develop an application because the database is there. You’re not struggling with that. The tools are all there so then it’s a matter or more having that business knowledge and how to build an application that solves business problems. You don’t need an army of developers to get it done because it’s just all scalable right? You’re right an application that runs on one server, one VM that can be hundreds of terabytes in size and in talking to customers, we talk to customers that have half a terabyte of disk space on IBM i. I talk to customers that have over 200 terabytes of disk space on one partition on IBM i, not to mention the other 30 or 40 partitions that they might have. Then the other things is operating system. People are staying very current on the operating system. This year, we saw that 7.4 was about now about 15% to 17% again off the top of my head, and the year before was at 4%. So there’s this natural transition. People are upgrading their systems and people did upgrade their system during this pandemic. It’s something that still got done. I’d say there’s probably a little bit less hardware upgrades, but the operating system certainly was being upgraded and I know others who that’s what they do for a living on IBM i and they were certainly doing upgrades remotely and not traveling to datacenters or if they did it you know about today’s datacenter, you know about isolation and being away from people. Most datacenters don’t have people in there, right?
 
Paul: Yeah.
 
Tom: So you can go into a datacenter and not worry about spreading COVID to somebody else because there’s nobody else in the datacenter, right?
 
Paul: So the thing I want to swing back to you—sort of something you touhed on there I think there and maybe the two go hand in hand.
 
Tom: Okay.
 
Paul: So do you see a tendency or maybe a trend towards Cloud? Also the other things to that I mean, they don’t go hand in hand, but the other that would swing in there would be POWER10 coming up on the horizon.
 
Tom: Yeah. You know, it’s always how long do you stick with technology and are you worried about the future of it? I think over the IBM has demonstrated one there is a very much so a plan for the operating system. There’s the diagram that shows or the graph that shows IBM i next release is out into 2032 now and then it’s not just the operating system that we all have to be worried about. It’s about the hardware too right which remind everybody runs IBM i, AIX, and Linux quite nicely all on one server if you want in different partitions or VM and POWER10 is on the horizon. This is the year of oh, when is POWER10 going to hit, right? I don’t know the exact date and IBM certainly isn’t telling anybody, but we do know what is coming because last September just as we were doing the survey, the virtual conference around processors met and IBM revealed the POWER10 processor chip at that so usually you’re looking at a year, a year and three months or so before the server starts shipping so that’s good too for the road map and I’ve even heard people start talking about POWER11 so whatever it is going to be called, right? Yeah, let’s guess, right? I’m sorry. Hopefully I don’t get into trouble with IBM leaking it out that it might be called POWER11. I don’t know. That’s me guessing. They might just—
 
Paul: I’ll try and remember to edit this bit of the conversation out.
 
Tom: Yeah. No, that’s quite all right, but those things are going on while we’re going through the pandemic, while everything is going on and I will say that as a software developer, we have found through this pandemic period that productivity has actually gone up. Our developers enjoy working from home and I’m thinking IBM maybe is feeling the same thing. I don’t know how they do that for hardware kind of related things, but we definitely have seen our developers enjoy working from home. Maybe that’s the short-term thing or maybe they’ll like that forever. I’m not sure but look at our technology. You and I are meeting on Zoom. This is the first time we’re doing Zoom today for your podcast that you do and it’s great. It’s great seeing you Paul and it would be great to have you in my car; we’re going out for dinner and we’re at the Austin facility enjoying a Power Champion meeting, but if we can’t then maybe this is the next best thing and meeting virtually like this is great.
 
Paul: Yeah. Of course the fact that I’m really for your benefit, Tom, I’m wearing a mask. This isn’t the real me.
 
Tom: Yeah, right. That’s true. We can hide behind things too virtually. We could be whatever we want, now that I think about it. Did I answer your question correctly? I don’t know. Is there—?
 
Paul: You did.
 
Tom: Okay.
 
Paul: I think it was pretty good. The other bit was the swing towards Cloud. Are you seeing that?
 
Tom: Oh, the Cloud piece. I covered the POWER10 and that but the Cloud piece. Yes, well a couple of things. One there is more and more vendors popping up around the globe or at least wanting to get more vocal in that. I’ve been talking to people from Poland too, of course UK to North America and it’s not just the IBM Cloud or Google Cloud and things like that we’re hearing about and Skytap. I do think you know when I think about what we’ve gone through this last year with COVID and the pandemic is that I keep telling people what’s going to be the new norm and the new norm out of this is that yes, work from home is a reality. People have been able to trust their employees to do their work and also we’ve been working remotely so do I necessarily need to have my own datacenter anymore? Could I just be more comfortable now having IBM i run in the Cloud? I think this time period is going to get people to rethink that. As being in the IBM i marketplace, our customers don’t move very fast to new technology. They have a tendency to stick on what works for good reason because a lot of business that relies on this box, the operating system, and the applications that run on it to run every single day without a hiccup, right. I mean you hear stories—as I said, I talk to customers so there was a guy I was talking to from in the UK, but he says I had an-unwell at that time it would have been i series. I literally took my old i series that I didn’t know what to do with. I couldn’t dispose it. I put it in my basement. I’m kind of a collector of this stuff and I just let it run. It’s been running for 20 years. I’ve never IPL’ed it.
 
Paul: Yeah.
 
Tom: You know, just crazy things like that but that kind of speaks to the reliability of the box and you know that means too though that people can access it from anywhere. Putting it up in a Cloud and running it in IBM Cloud, Skytap. There’s a lot of private vendors out there, Connectria, Meridian IT, Colmark, and I was talking about them in Poland. I’m going to forget somebody so I’m going to get in trouble, Blue Chip, you could go on and on. There’s just hundreds and hundreds of MSPs, Cloud providers and that’s what people have to remember so when people say Cloud, what do you mean, right? The newest trend has been more platform as a service is what you’re getting from the bigger Cloud providers like IBM and Google which means they’ll host your operating system and your application but you’re still responsible for security, monitoring it, managing it, all those kinds of things. That’s where somebody like the other ones I mentioned are a little different because they also add services to that.
 
Paul: Yup.
 
Tom: They’ll make sure the backups are running. They’ll make sure that the security is good, that kind of thing.
 
Paul: Yeah, which would also tackle some of the HA concerns so this—
 
Tom: Yup.
 
Paul: We’re just about done here but before we go and you touched on it earlier because you’re sitting in Florida at the moment which I know—
 
Tom: Yeah, yeah.
 
Paul: Is not where you are usually based.
 
Tom: No, normally I’m in Minnesota in January. Well, actually, it’s no longer January is it? I forget; it’s February.
 
Paul: It’s February, yeah, so Tom, I believe congratulations are due.
 
Tom: Yes, congratulations for sure. I’m so proud. My son and new daughter-in-law just got married on January 30 here on the beach in Florida, a smaller wedding than what they were planning. They were planning about 250 people for their wedding originally, which was supposed to happen way back last June. We had a lovely, lovely evening. It was a nice 70sih degree Fahrenheit day for those of you who are in different parts of the world, and the moon was shining full. The palm trees were just lightly moving and shimmering. We had a great time dancing and stuff all night long. It was a beautiful deal. That was been one of the hard things that has happened. There’s been a lot of people that have had to put their life on hold and you know for youme, I’ve been doing this just fine working from home. I do miss the travel. Believe it or not, I love to travel, get out, and see people at COMMON and other conferences and stuff but for the young people of the world having to put their life on hold. You know, they were told they were going to get married in June. They were told they were going to have to wait for two years to get that same venue before they could book it again that the place was that far booked out and so to wait 9-10, for you and I, no big deal but—
 
Paul: Yeah.
 
Tom: For somebody who’s 28 years old, that’s a big deal so I’m really happy they were able to get married. They’re having a little honeymoon right now in St. Thomas so you don’t have to feel too bad for them. They’re in the Virgin—not the Virgin Islands but the US Virgin Islands and you know basically they have a resort to themselves because you have to have a COVID test and all that kind of stuff to get in there but they’re having a wonderful time so—
 
Paul: Cool.
 
Tom: We’re very blessed as a family that we were able to pull this off, everybody’s safe and so far, cross fingers, nobody has picked up any of the bad virus.
 
Paul: Okay, well, I think that’s a good ahppy note to end this on—
 
Tom: Yes.
 
Paul: Tom, so thank you for taking the time to tlak to me and I’m sure we’ll be chatting again when later in the year when—
 
Tom: Yeah.
 
Paul: Survey time crops up again.
 
Tom: Yup. Hopefully we’ll see you as a Power Champion in Austin, Texas sometime later in the year as we get through all of this.
 
Paul: Yup.
 
Tom: Have a great day. Thank you.
 
Paul: Okay, thanks Tom. That’s it for this week, for this iTalk everybody. Tune in again for the next one. Bye for now.
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