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Hey, Where's Everybody Going?

Hey, Where's Everybody Going?

Over the past year, there's been an undeniable undercurrent swirling around based on the rumor that PowerBuilder may have run its course.

Accordingly, there's been a mass exodus of programmers away from PowerBuilder. The regular monthly meetings of user groups were suddenly packed to the rafters with executives, programmers and recruiters. While the recruiters set about courting the executives over dinner, we developers have tended to form a protective pack in the far corner, doing our best to avoid both groups.

Since then, attendance at meetings has been reduced to a mere trickle. Some groups have merged with other user groups. Other groups in small markets have closed their doors entirely. In my hometown, Chicago, monthly meetings used to draw hundreds of people. The atmosphere was more like that of a social event than of a dry technical meeting. As a product was unveiled, over a buffet dinner and a soft drink, we would all look on excitedly. And every fall, we'd hold a training conference in Chicago, attracting many hundreds of attendees from around the Midwest. Because of its size and exposure, the best PowerBuilder minds around would come. Now, attendance at monthly meetings has fallen to only a few dozen and the annual conference has been canceled.

For those of us left, we're beginning to feel like the last guests leaving a large party. The important folks have mostly left already and only the discarded party favors and half-inflated balloons are left behind. Folks often quiz me "you're still programming in PowerBuilder?" - to which my answer's an unequivocal "Yes." In my opinion, this mass exodus of programmers from PB is based on the fear of investing time and energy in a language that's been perceived to be falling out of favor. It's not a reaction to anything actually happening in the business world. In reality, most markets have experienced an increase in the demand for PowerBuilder programmers. So if you're currently programming in PowerBuilder, or are looking to do so in the future, don't worry: your job is safe.

You have to understand the life cycle of new technologies. When any new language reaches the mainstream, it generates interest and the same was true when PowerBuilder was introduced. As a language matures, however, people perceive it as yesterday's news - the buzz fades and the crowds move to the next "flavor of the month." With technology moving as fast as it is, this cycle becomes more rapid.

But when a language matures, it also becomes more stable: so, although they may be less "cutting-edge," applications written in PowerBuilder are a safe bet; they're solid and reliable. While PowerBuilder may have fallen off the front page, it hasn't fallen from favor in the corporate world.

If you're a project manager, your job is to develop a robust, airtight application on time and on budget. Are you going to use new technologies or are you going to use proven technologies that have established themselves as reliable sound building blocks? With your reputation, budget and perhaps even your career on the line, most likely you are going to take the latter choice. When our neck's on the line, we usually opt for safety. Most organizations prefer not to be "first on the block" when building a new application. PowerBuilder used to be a Ferrari; now it's a comfortable and very reliable minivan.

A common misconception is that, when languages are developed, they replace previous ones. If you remember, client/server languages were going to displace mainframe applications. The very thought sent shivers down the spine of the mainframe community. But guess what? It never happened. At the time of writing, the demand for COBOL programmers is greater than that of PowerBuilder, C++ and Visual Basic programmers combined. The current big boom is undeniably Internet programming, with Java leading the pack. Will it displace PowerBuilder? Certainly not. Just as client/server programs didn't displace the mainframes, Java won't displace PowerBuilder. The two languages fulfill different needs. What has emerged is three programming tracks: mainframe, client/server and Internet. I know many companies that use COBOL, PowerBuilder and Java - all for the correct reasons.

In large markets, the demand for Visual Basic over PowerBuilder programmers is about four-to-one. However, PowerBuilder projects are longer-term and better-paying than Visual Basic assignments. PowerBuilder and Java are neck and neck. There are about three times as many jobs for Web developers as there are for PowerBuilder programmers, but Web developers aren't usually programmers and so earn only about half as much as their programming counterparts.

The demand for PowerBuilder training is as strong as ever. I like to talk to managers and developers, to get their feedback on PowerBuilder. In the evening, over a beer or two, we talk about their projects and how they are using PowerBuilder. Some companies complain about the lack of qualified PowerBuilder programmers within their market. I know of one company that dropped PowerBuilder because they couldn't find enough programmers. Not a good sign.

This exodus has left the remaining PowerBuilder programmers very busy. Although PowerBuilder is no longer making headlines, it will remain a strong and viable language. Sybase has recently taken a proactive step in marketing PowerBuilder, entering the trenches to join battle against the largest marketing machine in the world, Microsoft. It's important that Sybase continues to support and market PowerBuilder vigorously so as to safeguard its future.

If you have left PowerBuilder behind because you thought it was going away, think again: PowerBuilder will remain viable for years to come. If any of you would like to contact me to discuss the future of PowerBuilder, please drop me a line; I'll still be here!

More Stories By Bob Hendry

Bob Hendry is a PowerBuilder instructor for Envision Software Systems and a frequent speaker at national and international PowerBuilder conferences. He specializes in PFC development and has written two books on the subject, including Programming with the PFC 6.0.

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