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Jon Backus
Tech Group University


Planting Seedlings of MPE Experience

Jon Backus is repaying his rewards from years in the 3000 community, building classrooms for the platform. Last year he formed his own outsourcing, consulting and remote system management firm for HP 3000 sites, after years of service with a national catalog fulfillment company serving the 3000 market. While his new Tech Group built revenue for Backus, he started another project more unique in its mission. Tech Group University began to offer the most complete slate of classes in MPE expertise, including specific training in many of the third-party tools that have been the bedrock of the platform’s success.

After several semesters, the educational offering has a curriculum including COBOL programming for the 3000, advanced MPE security, an ODBC Boot Camp, performance tuning, system management, IMAGE and MPE fundamentals — even a course on VPlus, taught by Backus himself. Compared to the slim listings of HP’s official education offerings, the Tech Group University lineup bristles with opportunity for the IT pro who wants to leverage years of 3000 experience. Classes are taught in the Advanced Technology Center of Hagerstown, Maryland’s community college, a location that’s a complete alternative to the Western US classroom locales of HP courses.

In addition to the coursework, Backus has spearheaded a certification track for HP 3000 skills, drawing on input from a collective of seasoned HP 3000 experts. The MPECert program is expected to have tests in place by next year, offering nine different certifications in areas like security, the Internet and system management — skills with broad value tailored to an environment that includes the 3000.

Backus began like plenty of MPE graybeards, cutting his teeth on programming Classic HP 3000s, along with HP’s pioneering 125 and 150 PCs linked to the early systems. He did consulting for 3000 customers while working at a DEC shop, then served as a programmer analyst at manufacturers using 3000s. He created a security subsystem product (HSS/3000) but the experience didn’t lead to more development. When he formed his own company last year, he returned to a longstanding dream of offering education for the platform. Why offer classes for a mature platform’s technology, in competition with HP’s? Why put effort into certifying at such a detailed level, when HP itself offers only one broad certification for the 3000? We caught up with the fast-moving Backus at HP World 2001 to learn what’s motivating his drive to educate the community, and see what might be up on the whiteboards next at the university.

Starting something from scratch like a university seems to take a love of being an entrepreneur. How has your time in the 3000 community fueled that drive?

I don’t consider myself an entrepreneur. Tech Group University and the certification programs were born out of a passion for the platform. I perceived things that were shortcomings in the paradigm of the 3000 world, things I wanted to attempt to address. I spent the last 19 years working on this platform, and it’s by far my favorite computer. I don’t think it can do everything, but for its niche it’s extremely well suited. I had a desire to give back to the community I’ve taken from for the last 19 years.

What made you think you’d like to make training such an essential part of your career?

Even before I was in the 3000 arena, I was a lab rat in college. I liked the academic environment. Having taught, it was clear to me that you never really learn something better than when you teach it. When I went to teaching somebody else, I drove home my understanding of products.

Hagerstown is far from the beaten path of 3000 training sites. Was that by design?

Most of the 3000 utility vendors and consultants had very limited resources for training. So wherever their classes sprang up, it was typically closer to HP on the West Coast. Being on the East Coast, it was rare that I had the opportunity to take these classes. I had to figure it all out on my own, and there are limitations to that.

How did your experience as an IT manager help create the University?

As director of IT for a national fulfillment company, I’d evaluate what my team had done successfully, and where our weaknesses were, and what we could do better. For 1999 we needed to bring our staff more in line with industry-standard salaries. I set out to spin off a consulting company for the national fulfillment company, but when the fulfillment company didn’t want to go in that direction, I revived my longstanding dream of a training facility in the East. I contacted HP 3000 application and tools vendors and asked them to send someone to teach a class.

When did you put the first class up?

In the fall of last year, and the first was a Suprtool class taught by Jeff Kubler of Kubler Consulting. We had three classes come off out of five we scheduled through that year.

With so many classes in your lineup, does everything you schedule actually get taught?

There’s a cancellation rate, as with any training facility. I struggled with that at first, coming from the other, IT side of things. I only wanted to offer classes that I thought would happen. After the first two semesters I sat down with the college partner in Hagerstown. They said I was watching the wrong indices. I needed to look at how many students we were serving in a semester, not the ratio of successful to cancelled classes.

That made a tremendous amount of sense. Anytime you offer a brand-new class, your cancellation rate is going to be higher until the user community gradually accepts it.

How did the 3000 community react to the offerings?

For education to take off, it required an entire paradigm shift. What had to happen was the legacy attitude had to be broken down. The 3000 has been around for almost 30 years, and people had figured out how to do things 15 or 20 years ago. The operating system has evolved, and the third party utilities have evolved, but people continued to do things the way they always had. New people would come into the shop, and they’d be taught that way.

You gradually have a mind-drain of how to use the operating system to the fullest, how to use the third-party utilities to their fullest. You end up stuck in a legacy mind-set. Just because the 3000 was created 30 years ago, doesn’t mean it’s frozen in time. It’s evolved. The paradigm shift is that your knowledge of the platform needs to evolve right along with the platform.

People bash HP for not offering more training. But until you push the boundaries of what your 3000 can do, you don’t have any right to pick on HP for not doing more. HP has been evolving the operating system, while users have a legacy attitude. HP can turn back and ask, “Have you used what I’ve given you in the last five years?” For a lot of shops, the answer is no.

You had some budget resistance to training for the 3000, I’m sure. How’s that coming along?

It’s a slow process. As I continue to evangelize, people are starting to come to me and talk about their training budgets. They can see the worth in it, and want to know how much they should budget to send someone to three classes, for example.

In shops with mixed technology, [MPE] people see others going to training courses every year. People are waking up to the fact they need to do this.

I’m willing and able to wait. For the platform to survive, you have to do this. Otherwise the people of 20 years ago will retire, and companies won’t have anyone who knows much about the platform. Then they put an NT or a Linux system in. The only way to bring fresh new blood into the 3000 arena is to show them it’s a viable career path: changing, alive, with opportunities. Things like certifications.

What kind of advantage does getting certified brings to a professional in such a mature environment?

It’s that evolutionary growth path in your knowledge of the 3000. Starting in January, one of my desires is to create an annual certified salary survey. I’ll contact people who are certified and identify many of the usual indices: region, years of experience. I’ll stay away from some things like, “Are you male or female?”

I hope to show them, “Here’s what you can make if you pursue the 3000. It’s dynamic and evolving with Java, Apache and all the sexy things.” You show them you’re current with the platform.

What if HP gets into the 3000 education business more aggressively — does that worry you?

I would actually welcome the day. I am doing this from a passion perspective, not as an entrepreneur trying to make a lot of money. The University was never envisioned as being a big cash generator.

HP has not given me any grief over offering independent classes. They recognize many of our courses go well beyond the scope of what they teach. There have been instances where people have approached the 3000 division, and they’ve told them to look at Tech Group University classes. They were a proponent of outsourcing their training to the University, but the division of HP that does training has been non-reactive at best.
I’d love to see the day where HP says, “There’s value in this, and we should do this,” and jump all over it and run me out of business. If they do that, and put enough resources behind it to service the community with education — that meets my dream.

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