May 27, 2020

The future of IT no longer involves hiding in the basement and pushing buttons. In today’s digital economy, the role of IT – and IBM i – is critical. Internal users and customers are demanding modern, intuitive applications that are easy to access. If you’re an IT leader, you’re likely meeting with business stakeholders, discussing how you can grow and improve your business, and looking at what’s available to satisfy those needs.

As my colleagues have discussed in previous installments of this column, failing to innovate in your market could put your business at risk. Digital disruption is happening in every industry as competitors vie for the customer’s attention and loyalty while innovating to do business better. This is the driving force behind digital transformation, and it can seem very overwhelming if you’re not sure which initiatives to invest in to ensure successful results and provide value for the business.

Focusing on growth areas that are revenue generating or revenue sustaining can uncover key initiatives that will drive value quickly. A first step on your digital transformation journey might involve a web or mobile application. Perhaps it’s a net-new e-commerce or B2B order entry app with mobile functionality. Maybe it’s a modernized green screen application that enables your employees to work remotely during this pandemic. With an average duration of three to nine months, IBM i web development projects give IT departments a real advantage because they’re tactical and can deliver quick wins in terms of ROI.

A World of Opportunity

Modernizing an application and providing a browser-based solution is often highly visible within your organization. If you engage a third-party like Fresche to build a modernized application that looks impressive and delivers real business value, suddenly people in other areas of the organization think, “Wow. If our IT department can do this, why don’t we get them to do ___?” It tends to snowball and generate new opportunities for our clients, and I love to see that.

Quite often our team is tasked to extend the functionality of their ERP, whether it’s a third-party ERP system like Infor’s BPCS, or a homegrown ERP that they’ve developed. One of the common threads we see is organizations looking for B2B solutions that open up their systems so employees and customers can place orders, check inventory, and other self-serve functions.

Michell’s, a horticultural broker that has been in business for more than 125 years, worked with our team to develop a B2B eCommerce website that runs on IBM i over DB2 data. The mobile-friendly PHP application makes it easy for Michell’s customers to place their own orders from anywhere, on any device. You can learn more here.

Michell’s mobile-friendly B2B eCommerce website, as viewed on multiple devices.

We’ve also seen a shift from providing access to customers to looking inward at how they can modernize internal operations. A healthcare company improved operational efficiency by giving their RPG programs a web GUI in partnership with our team. The modernized screens have replaced an inefficient pen-and-paper workflow, which has increased end user productivity and satisfaction, and resulted in fewer data entry errors. You can learn more here.

The initial development, which included a custom skin that matched the organization’s look, took only two weeks.

If you’ve already modernized an application, it might be time for a refresh. MedAxcess is a browser-based IBM i application that is used by MedAxiom’s members to guide key decisions around staffing and equipment. MedAxcess was originally developed in 2006 in partnership with our team and provides members with analytical practice data supported by interactive charts and graphs in dashboards. MedAxcess recently underwent a significant redesign and restructuring to better support mobile devices and improve the user experience for members. You can learn more here.

Solving The Skills And Experience Conundrum

I know it’s easy to talk about these projects, how do you get them done with limited time and resources? A common theme that I hear is that many IBM i development shops are ill-equipped to take on modern browser-based application development in-house. Many IT departments still consist of a few RPG developers and network administrators, but limited experience with web and UI development. Building a team of individuals with both web development and IBM i expertise can be a substantial undertaking that requires significant investment.

I started working in the IBM midrange industry 28 years ago as a developer. In the early 2000s, our company built one of the first IBM i web application development tools. That’s when I started working directly with clients on building browser-based solutions. Today, my team of web development and IBM i experts at Fresche partner with organizations from around the world and across many industries to modernize their IBM i applications and build new strategic applications.

A Smart Approach To Web Development

Most companies have a cloudy vision of what they’re looking for in the area of modernization. You might be saying, “We have to provide self-serve access to our customers” or “We’re working with an outdated interface that’s driving our sales team crazy” but that doesn’t mean you have a list of each technical requirement and consideration. That’s okay. It’s more important to understand your business goals at the outset. The technology and solutions always follow.

In many cases, a two-phase development process yields the most success in terms of value and time to market. The first phase is an application discovery, where our team puts on their business analyst caps. We dig into the customer’s current system to understand their business and pain points. This helps us define their goals and desired outcomes. From there, we work together to build a wire frame and functional requirements that provide a roadmap for the development phase of that project.

As part of the wire framing process, we will present a new user interface as well as the new user experience for the client. In most cases, the proposed application will integrate with their existing systems. For example, you may already have an order fulfillment or inventory management system that’s working fine, but you need the front-end for your sales team or customers. The result is a seamless modernization solution that doesn’t force you to start changing your business practices to accommodate.

The first phase is followed by the actual development, where we build the solution using the agreed-upon specs. In some cases, we’ll take a divide-and-conquer approach to the development. Right now we’re working with a client who is leveraging their internal resources and skill sets to develop RPG stored procedures that will return the data needed by the front-end application. We are decoupling the front-end from the back-end in this instance, using Vue.js. This allows the client to focus on the area that they know so well, and for us to build the area that we’re experts in.

We all hear about software development projects that cost multiple millions of dollars, go sideways, and get tossed. The phased, collaborative approach that I’ve described ensures that the client is involved in building the solution from the beginning. You see the wire frame before we start development. You sign off on it and you understand what we’re going to build and how it will work for your users. Your likelihood of success is much higher because it’s a cooperative process as opposed to a waterfall solution where you may not see the application until the developers are chest-deep in the project.

Advantages Of Partnering With Experts

Partnering with a team like ours streamlines the web development process because we a wealth of experience which includes a broad spectrum of browser-based and mobile friendly application development projects and integrations with various third-party APIs. We have a long history of delivering successful projects using a proven development process that ensures professional results. And of course, we know the IBM i.

This approach also allows you to build a team, get a job done, and then release that team. Your long-term expense profile is minimal. You can get something working and deliver it, then consider what you want to do with phase two without having ten new staff members on board.

I’m fortunate that in my role I get to hear the great feedback directly from users who are using the application and how it has made their job easier. We also hear from CEOs and CFOs about how much money is being saved. And of course, we hear from IT about how the applications are running smoothly, that we are accessible when they need us, and that they are able to indirectly take credit for the fact that a successful new IT initiative was rolled out and completed. That’s success for me and how I know we did our job right.

My advice for any organization who is looking at modernization and digital innovation is to start somewhere. Taking a phased approach allows you to evolve and change over time. You might start by deploying a B2B application today that your customers can access. Maybe five years down the road that application is going to have a slightly different look and feel, or your priorities may change. It’s a stepping stone and taking small steps forward means that you’re moving forward.

If you’d like to explore your web and mobile development and digital innovation options, please visit this link to set up a virtual whiteboard session with our experts.

Kevin Cronin is director of Web development services at Fresche Solutions. Kevin has been with Fresche Solutions for 28 years and has over 30 years’ experience in various capacities working with the IBM i and midrange platforms. He considers himself fortunate to manage a team of talented individuals with an excellent track record of delivering browser-based solutions to customers on IBM i around the world.


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