Ciara Mejia Recounts Her IT Development Learning Experiences
Software engineer Ciara Mejia on the uniqueness of the IBM i community, the puzzle of programming, and the rewards of a career in IT
Ciara Mejia: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, Charlie. I’m very excited for our discussion.
Charlie: Perfect. Thank you very much, and I really thank you for coming today. So Ciara, we just met just a few weeks ago—I should say, at COMMON NAViGATE in St. Louis—but even after just speaking with you just for a few minutes, I was really inspired seeing and chatting with you because it was impressive to me how you were networking with so many people and just in my opinion soaking up all you possibly could in the moment, being in the moment. So my first question to you is really, what brought you to COMMON Navi?
Ciara: Well I always loved going to conferences in the past. I have gained so much knowledge going and attending. I’ve met so many people that have inspired me to become a better programmer. So I knew about COMMON, I’ve always wanted to go and so I asked K3S. I was like, would it be okay if I attended the COMMON conference this year? We thought it would be a great idea for all of us to go as developers and just be able to learn. It’s priceless. That little bit of time that you spend learning will help you in your career, and then the rest of the year until the next conference. Like, I’ve been practicing all I’ve learned. It’s great. I recommend going.
Charlie: Which you know is a perfect thing because I know so many people—not so many but I know some people who go to conferences and they come back with all these great nuggets of information, and then they don’t use them. Their normal life just gets back in the way and they don’t take advantage of all the great tools that are being taught at COMMON—at these conferences, I should say. So that was almost about a month ago, or not even quite a month ago. Have you used any of the next new tools that you’ve learned already from the conference?
Ciara: Oh yeah. I mean they also have recordings, so I’ve been just going through and going back and remembering, going through my notes and trying all—like even just the commands, your keyboard commands. That saves you time so it just makes your work style a lot easier, and it’s something worth doing.
Charlie: So you’ve been in this industry for seven years, a little more than seven years, but what got you into this? You know where did you first even hear of IBM i or RPG? How did that all start?
Ciara: Yeah, I actually never wanted to be a programmer. I was going a whole different direction in the medical field, but it was just my brother—he’s a programmer and he’s like, you should maybe try it out, like get into it. So I attended a class and my very beginning of my IT career as a programmer I was introduced to RPG. It was the first language that I learned, and Jim Buck [laughs]—amazing teacher. He taught me a lot and he was so passionate about the IBM i system, and that passion inspired me. There was a lot of work and I was a very new developer. Everyone in the class they built their own languages, but it was my introduction and I think it was a great start to learn programming. It was very easy to use. And then I just continued my knowledge from there. They taught me how to use the IBM i system and even though it was a little intimidating at first, I stuck with it and I’m really glad I did.
Charlie: So how different is your real-life experience in this—in the IBM i community I would say—based on what you had expected originally? I mean you mentioned a little bit about how easy it was for example, but surely when you first started, you had some expectation that may or may not have been what it actually is. So how has that compared, what you’re doing today to what you thought of when you first got into this seven years ago?
Ciara: I thought it was old. First I was like—when you are introduced to the green screen, you’re like wow, this is not a modern system, like operating system. But it’s been such an amazing experience. Like even though it was developed—or this platform has been around since the 1980s, how it has been able to become modern has really impressed me. The security features—it doesn’t compare to other platforms. And so that was something that I learned later on in my career. I think it’s a beautiful platform. It's beautifully designed and even though I was introduced to other languages and platforms, the IBM i system, it’s reliable. Just working on it and really understanding that level of security is very impressive.
Charlie: And you work primarily in RPG?
Ciara: Correct, yes. I primarily work in RPG, but it’s so easy to implement new languages. Like we’re working with Python and PHP and working on APIs, and some work with other languages as well. But mostly, primarily RPG.
Charlie: So you have friends and maybe some of them are developers and maybe some of them are not, but when you tell them "I work on RPG," what’s the first thing that comes to their mind?
Ciara: Role-playing games. They’re like, role-playing games. I’m like no, no, no—it’s not that. And so it’s really cool to explain to them RPG. It is an older language but it’s you know, fixed formatted too. That can be very intimidating, but free format—you know I work with both and so I try to explain to them, it’s a reporting language.
Charlie: So the two big words that you mentioned: Fixed format and also fully free form, and those are really the big different flavors. They really are very different from each other, certainly. I think that’s always been part of the problem with RPG, because people still have in their mind the old style of the code, but it’s so much more today. I mean the language as it exists today, fully free form, is as modern as any other language I’ve ever worked with or seen. So for me to ask you what’s your favorite version may be silly. I know the answer, but you’ve worked on both. When you work on a fixed format program—or we say, a legacy application—what comes to your mind when you see these things?
Ciara: Yeah, it was just understanding like in fixed format, it doesn’t make sense when you’re introduced to a newer language and you don’t have to worry about the spacing. It drove me crazy, but once you get used to it, you’re able to program it. But free format it is my favorite. It’s very clean, very easy to use, very easy to read compared to even other languages. It’s so much easier to use, definitely, but if you’re working in fixed format, it’s not hard to learn. If you understand free format, you can easily learn fixed. In fact Jim Buck has a book and he teaches you free-formatted RPG, but in the end of the section, he’s like okay, you learned that section. You learned that piece. This is how you do it in fixed-formatted versions, and you can still do stuff that is very powerful that free format can’t do. So I’ve learned that recently, like MOVE—that’s got to go.
Charlie: No, it’s true. Well the good news for everybody is that fixed-format RPG doesn’t have to exist the way it does because there are tools out there that will convert those to free format and make them more modern and more usable today. So I would encourage anybody to look at some of these tools and get rid of the old style code, because just to your very point, fully free format is surely the way to understand applications today and to modify them. That’s where you want to spend most of your time, I imagine.
Ciara: Yes. Oh, for sure, yeah. Don’t be intimidated by fixed format, either.
Charlie: Exactly. Here’s an interesting question for you. One of the terms you hear more now than ever before is the term modernization—and even going beyond that we hear the new term, digital transformation. That’s where I think even modernization has now become an old term. But when you hear those two terms—modernization and transformation—what comes to your mind? Is it the language? Is it the way the users interact with the application? Is it something else? When I just say modernization, immediately, what’s your knee-jerk response to that when I say that word?
Ciara: I think cloud. Everything is cloud-based, and they’ve done AIs, and IBM i has done a great job of introducing that now. Even the platforms that we use—I know we like RDi, but the VS Code, they have that new extension for the IBM i and just modernizing how we program is crucial. I used to program in RDi, but I don’t anymore. I use VS Code and I think like, green screen—that just intimidates new programmers. We’re not used to seeing that. So having a platform like VS Code where people are comfortable with and using, and just going that route and introducing them to programming in that way is extremely helpful for newer programmers. Yeah, I think modernizing and just keeping up with technologies—like the needs of the business world, it’s constantly changing and having to adapt and keep up with those changes is crucial. I think the IBM i system does a very good job of that.
Charlie: I think it goes beyond that, because you’re talking—and I agree with you, by the way. As far as VS Code, RDi and other discussion, I think as long as you’re using a modern tool—whatever it happens to be, whatever you happen to like, or your company uses is fine. Just don’t use the old green-screen tools.
Charlie: That’s the real message here I think, right?
Ciara: Oh yes, I agree.
Charlie: Yeah, but I agree: the VS Code and implementation is really well done. I absolutely agree with you on that too, of course. But sticking with this theme for a second. We talk about modernization. So you touched upon it as a developer, but now let’s turn the tables on you. What do you think end users expect when they hear the term modernization? What comes to their mind and what will make them really love still working on this platform?
Ciara: Making it user friendly. Truly it comes down to that. Like we’re so used to things being easy for us now and so many tools have been developed to make our programming experience more friendly, user friendly. So yeah, for like an end user, maybe.
Charlie: Sure. You know for me at the end of the day, I really don’t necessarily care what the back end server is, and nor should I care. You know I’m in the world of APIs, for example, where we are communicating with different systems all day long. We don’t even know what we’re talking to. It’s just, we got a URL, here’s the API you use, and whatever happens in the back end. I think that’s really what it should be from a user expectation also. They really shouldn’t necessarily know they’re working on IBM i. If they’re working in browser or a mobile app, I think that’s sufficient. It’s only when they’re constrained by the technology that’s not meeting their basic expectation, that’s where they have problems. So where do you fit in there? Where do you see yourself in there? Is having a mobile app or a browser application a very first step into interacting with a system with a program—I should say, with an application?
Ciara: Oh, absolutely. K3S I think does an amazing job with this. We are constantly trying to keep up with just being modern. We make our software very easy for people to use—and using, maybe a Python application or program... and just working with your tools like you said, and integrating PHP in that front-end application for the end user to appreciate or not even realize like you said that they’re using the IBM i system. The architecture is very important for businesses to keep in mind. We don’t want them to see the ugly mess—like keeping the hardware and software completely separate in that way and then like you say, people want things very fast. I think with a green screen they were using everything with their keyboards, but now everything is with GUI applications. They want things to look nice and if you’re not keeping up with that, people aren’t going to want to use your software.
Charlie: I agree, and it needs to be intuitive too.
Ciara: Yes, it needs to be intuitive. Exactly.
Charlie: Easy to use and things like that, and I guess at the end of the day really just giving them what they need in an easy-to-use format, whatever that happens to be.
Ciara: Easier to explain and teach others how to use too.
Charlie: Sure. I totally agree with you, of course. So you’ve been around some good people who really know the system quite well, but if I say to you what makes somebody an excellent developer or a systems person, what’s your definition of that? What makes somebody you would look at and say well, that person has it all going on? What make that person the great person that they are?
Ciara: Definitely having a passion for it and then creating code that is efficient. It’s easy to read. I mean we are constantly using each other’s code, and so having good comments, having good variable names and then yeah, just not making it super complex and just very simple. Making your code like—it has to work of course, but making it so that’s very efficient for other programmers to understand. Because you’re not going to be around forever and so you need to have other people—if there’s a bug or they need to touch it up—your programs. I think that makes a really good developer. And then being a good team member, being able to communicate. If you do have an issue, going to someone—I think just being humble about it and just asking for help. I see a lot of programmers they’re just like no, I can solve it on my own. But especially as a newer developer, it’s okay to ask questions, especially when it comes to older developers. If you have older developers on your team, take advantage of that. They are so happy to help. I work with amazing developers and so I’m very grateful for that. I’ve learned so much from them.
Charlie: Yeah, and actually you mentioned a lot of different things I just want to touch on here. The very first thing you said when I asked you that question was passion, and that has nothing to do with technical ability, but passion is your propensity to want to learn more things. As any employer will say: I can teach you new syntax. I can’t teach you passion. That has to be innate. That has to come from within you. And I think if we can identify as employers or project managers, whatever the case, if we can identify those people out there who have the passion, I think that will get them through to really become great developers. Because they’re the ones who are going to keep learning and—I mean I think that’s one of the most important things, is just learning. I know we talked about this, about you. You’re always on this constant journey of learning education. What resources do you use to keep learning?
Ciara: I love my books. I do. I go back to my books all the time, but even just like working with Liam [Allan]. Liam, he has videos on YouTube, go view those. COMMON has a Boot Camp one of our developers is using to learn RPG. There are just so many ways you can learn. If you have a question—I always have questions—I Google it. There are so many tools out there that you can use. There are different books, going to conferences like COMMON—are all just great ways to learn about programming.
Charlie: And you mentioned Liam Allan. I agree with you. He really does set the standard for passion in the industry and promoting and things like that. I think he’s a great ambassador for new technology, for sure.
Ciara: Oh, for sure. It’s contagious. If you’re passionate about something, you rub it off to others and then they become passionate about it as well, so that’s really great. If you can ever work or talk to Liam, I highly recommend doing so. If you have any questions, go to him.
Charlie: I agree with you 100%, absolutely. So you mentioned that your brother was originally in IT—or is in IT, I should say—and he suggested to you to get into it, but I think so much has happened even along your own journey in that now you’ve developed your own true passion and a real love for programming. So what do you love about it? What is it in programming that really that you just love doing every day?
Ciara: It’s like a puzzle. It can really hard at times, and when you finally fix that problem that you were trying to solve, it’s so rewarding. It’s so rewarding. It’s a great thing. I love like being able to think—I dream in code sometimes, like if I’m stuck in a problem, and being able to solve at the end of the day or maybe at the end of week at times, it’s rewarding. You feel so good about it. You’re constantly learning. You’re constantly—and just like having a passion for it and finding others that have a passion for it. I love talking to people about programming. Especially in the IT world, you don’t see a lot of women programming, and being able to talk to other women about programming, I just love it. I love it all. I do. If you don’t like one language, you can go on and move to another language. It’s a career that’s going to be constantly growing because it’s always going to be here. You have job security. It gives you flexibility. If you want to work remotely, you have the option to do so. There’s a lot of perks in it. I always am telling my friends, just take a class like introduce yourself to it, and don’t get discouraged. At first it can be difficult if you didn’t grow up programming, but just keep at it and one day it’s going to click. It’s going to click in your head and then once you understand it, it’s just a lot of fun. I love my job. I love programming.
Charlie: Well you did touch on something which I think is very important. You mentioned women in IT, and that’s really a very important topic because I agree with you. There are probably more women now in IT than there have ever been, which I think is a great thing. But obviously it was always thought of as a man’s career, which is for no good reason. But I’m very happy that there are so many women in IT. I think they bring a whole other set of skills to the community as well that really have been missing for quite some time. So that’s a good thing. Yeah.
Ciara: Everyone—we think differently. It’s so cool like, working in teams. If we’re working on a project together, we bring out different qualities and success to the table.
Charlie: I couldn’t agree more with you, absolutely, and I think we need to embrace that—for sure need to embrace that. So your passion and your love for programming is very evident and very obvious to me, but what do you consider like a great project? If someone says here’s the task at hand, what would be a project that would really make you say wow, this is going to be a real fun project to work on, whatever it happens to be? What kind of technologies would you be using or what kind of things would you be using that wow, this is going to be a great one to work on?
Ciara: Something different. I’ve been working more with APIs. I think they’re so much fun to work with. They’re very complex, but just like learning different tools—like I’ve never really worked much with APIs, but right now in the API project I’ve become very excited about. VS Code. Oh, right now we are moving to GitHub. That’s huge and that’s a project that I’m really excited about, just getting more used to working with GitHub and integrating into our work environment. VS Code, we’re working with Liam a lot with any bugs, any new features that we are needing. Or working maybe with like extensions. I love working with my team, so anytime I get to work with one of my coworkers on a project or teaching them too about something else, that’s a fun project if I’m working with someone alongside or improving. Man, I don’t know. There’s like so much—now that I’m like talking I’m like improving something. There’s like one way of doing it and we need to improve it. It’s outdated, an outdated way of doing it, improving something and like really coming up with plans on how we can improve the program or the use experience. Sorry, that was—I guess that wasn’t my fav—
Charlie: You don’t have to apologize. I think this is great.
Ciara: There are a lot of things.
Charlie: No, I think it’s wonderful. I love hearing all these different things. I think it’s really important, so no apology required at all, absolutely not. But surely with all the things you’re working on, you must encounter some bumps in the road—some hiccups, some challenges. So what kind of challenges have you—or better yet, what do you think are the most challenging things of your job today?
Ciara: Working with errors. It’s not the most user friendly—like you have to really search like what went wrong. And like I love debugging but sometimes when I get an error, it’s not always very clear what happened, what broke my program, and so that’s a challenge in itself. I mean, that’s just programming. But I do enjoy debugging but right now it’s the RDi. I have to debug in green screen right now and it’s not my favorite thing to do to be honest, but that’s okay. It’s part of the job.
Charlie: Well debugging is always a part of any developer’s job, certainly. So Ciara, I want to start wrapping this up but I have two last questions that I do want to ask you. The first one is for anybody who you think is—I mean you kind of alluded to it a little earlier in our discussion, but what can you tell others who are considering a career in IT, or maybe don’t even have a career in mind. You also mentioned—you know we talked about that earlier but what kind of final advice would you tell somebody to consider a career in IT? I mean it sounds like you really enjoy it, but if I’m right out of school or just entering college for example, what inspired you and why should they look at IT as a career?
Ciara: If I could give any advice, it’s just keep going. I’ve had so many classmates drop out and they were like, this is too difficult or my brain doesn’t work this way. I think you just have to keep going. You have to put the effort and the work because it’s such a rewarding career. I love my job. I love my career and I love programming and IT. It’s constantly growing. It’s always going to be here and you’re not going to be able to get rid of it. It’s just going to keep improving and I think people just get discouraged—especially girls. Like they get into classroom and they are with a bunch of males, or maybe even in your team at the moment, but don’t let that stop you. People might tell you, oh you’re a girl in IT. I was told that all the time. Like, you’re not going to be able to do it, you’re not going to be successful, and that’s far from the truth. So you just got to keep going. You cannot give up.
Charlie: Well—I agree with you, by the way. Thank you, and even though it was a much longer time ago for me—starting out in IT that is—I think I would share the same sentiments that you just expressed there. I think that makes perfect sense, absolutely. I guess my final question is so now you’ve been on the IBM i platform specifically for quite some time now, how has your experience been with the IBM i community at large? Because so many people out there are really experts. What has been your basic interaction with the IBM i community—of which I think you are now an integral part of, and I really believe in my heart of hearts that you are going to make a big impact as you continue your journey in the community as well.
Ciara: I love the community. It’s very helpful. They have helped me so much and everyone is so passionate. You don’t find that anywhere else. People in this community, they truly believe this is the best platform, and that is so cool. I love talking to people about the IBM i system, and they are very passionate about the platform truly, and that’s unique. That is truly unique and it is a bit of an older or more experienced community, and I think that is so cool. They are so wise. I have any issues or problems, I go to them and they will for sure know exactly what my problem is. They are so helpful and they truly want my experience to be a pleasant one, and so they are always willing to help and talk to you. So it’s been a great experience. I love it.
Charlie: Well I’m glad to hear that. The IBM i community is certainly very welcoming for sure, I think. That’s been my experience with it and I’m glad to be part of it. I’m glad you’re a part of it. I’m glad that there are so many people out there who are like-minded who contribute to it and I say it all the time: No matter how much I feel I might put into it, I always get more back.
Ciara: Oh, for sure. That is so true. I completely 100% agree.
Charlie: Great. All right, Ciara, it was really a delight speaking with you today. Thank you so much for making some time to join me today on this podcast. What else can I say? I want to just thank you on behalf of TechChannel and everybody who is listening to this podcast. I hope you enjoyed listening to Ciara and her thoughts, and really take to heart some of the things that Ciara mentioned here, because she really is part of the team that’s going to bring us forward and keep this platform vibrant, moving, and very relevant. So that’s my little word to the wise, I suppose. It was a real pleasure chatting with you. Thank you again for joining me today.
Ciara: Oh, thank you so much for having me, Charlie. I really appreciate it.
Charlie: Absolutely. Please be sure to check out other offerings on TechChannel. They have a whole wealth of resources out there—podcasts and blogs and many other resources—so I encourage you to do that. And until next time everybody, stay well. Take care. Bye now.
About the author
Charlie Guarino // President, Central Park Data Systems
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