An interview with Laura Ubelhor – Making a Difference

“So many people in this community have a lot of passion,” says Laura Ubelhor, and talking to Laura, you can certainly hear that passion as she talks about the history, achievements and vision of SEMIUG. SEMIUG is the Southeast Michigan IBM i User Group and it is one of the network of important user groups dedicated to promoting educational opportunities and mutual support and advancement within the IBM i community around the world.

SEMIUG was started in the mid-80s and Laura joined soon afterwards, becoming a board member and then president of the group, an office she still holds today. Laura also founded MITEC, the annual Michigan IBM i and AIX Technical Education Conference which is sponsored by SEMIUG. Laura explains that the Michigan / Indiana / Ohio region has a large number of IBM i systems in use. The system is used in a variety of industry verticals important to the region, including the automotive trade which has a welcome tendency towards IBM i deployment.

SEMIUG’s founders had a vision of providing a forum to both support and grow the IBM i users and enthusiasts in the region by offering opportunities for education, sharing of new ideas and interaction with colleagues. Although numbers have fluctuated over the years, the roll is looking healthy today with over 100 companies represented, as well as a number of independent individuals. The recent MITEC 2014 conference had over 200 attendees drawn by the popular workshops, topical sessions and world-class presenters – and as Laura is quick to point out “by the very affordable price for a power-packed day of education”.

Laura UbelhorAs many of us know, a critical aspect of the success of any not-for-profit group is the number and caliber of volunteers. Many user groups struggle with budgetary constraints and the reality that the majority, if not all, of the group’s activities have to be undertaken on a voluntary basis. SEMIUG is clearly fortunate to benefit from the passionate and generous leadership of Laura and the other SEMIUG board members who are continually looking for ways to grow both the group and its members, and ultimately the broader IBM i community. They diligently investigate all funding opportunities and regularly seek sponsorship from associated businesses and other members of the IBM i community. Laura encourages others to volunteer for IBM i user groups and highlights the significant satisfaction gained by the volunteers who get constant fulfilment from seeing the benefits they help bring to the wider group, newcomers and IBM i ‘old-timers’ alike.

SEMIUG’s commitment to the IBM i community is shared by IBM partner Maxava, which contributes a pool of funding each year via its Maxava iFoundation program. The funding is specifically available to not-for-profit organizations active in the IBM i community. Over the last 2 years, with the help of the Maxava iFoundation, SEMIUG has implemented a highly successful initiative for its members that has ‘checked all the boxes’ in terms of SEMIUG’s aims of continuing education, expansion (attracting new membership), growth of individuals, and having fun!

 

Using Maxava iFoundation funding, SEMIUG purchased access to the iDevcloud box, which is now also used by three other user groups. The iDevcloud box is an IBM i system used by group members for hands-on activities, to help them learn new skills or to brush up on existing skills. Thanks to the iDevcloud box, user group members have been able to learn or up-skill on RPG Free, SQL, PHP, Navigator, Web Query, Profound Logic application modernization, CLP, Ruby on Rails and more. This ‘sandbox’ has helped participants improve skills by providing a safe alternative to practising on their production box at work and in some cases by allowing independent up-skilling in preparation for new jobs. The task of administering the box has also given valuable, valid, work experience to the volunteer students who are its administrators.

Most recently, and most rewardingly of all for all parties, the iDevcloud box has proved to be a successful means of introducing new blood into the community. Laura is thrilled with the opportunity to help students into careers within the IBM i industry and she and her colleagues have invested much time in planning and facilitating this critical growth initiative. Students range from college students straight out of high school, to mature students looking at a change in career direction. Laura says she has received tremendous satisfaction in watching this play out over the last 2 years. She is now enjoying thinking about other ways to use the box to attract new members to the IBM i community and challenge new and old members alike.

Right now, Laura is excited about the competition that SEMIUG is planning for students as a learning activity in the fall. Students will be given one month and invited to code a game on the iDevcloud box. The only rule of the competition is that the game must be coded using IBM i tools. Each student participant will be paired with an experienced group member to provide any assistance required, and to maximize the learning opportunity. Up for grabs is a cash prize and a number of bonus prizes funded by the Maxava iFoundation and other business sponsors. The competition opens in October; anyone interested in joining SEMIUG and participating in the competition should register via www.semiug.org.

Maxava itself has been most gratified to see the use that has been made of its support to SEMIUG and other similar groups. In offering the Maxava iFoundation funding for 2014-15, Allan Campbell, CEO of Maxava, says “We established the Maxava iFoundation to encourage the continuing growth of the IBM i community and the development of the people who operate within it. We are delighted to be able to extend our support through the Maxava iFoundation for another year.”

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