Challenges of legacy technology in a rapidly evolving world

Every day I get the opportunity to talk to technology leaders and learn more about the projects that they are taking on and the challenges they face.

Most recently, I have been hearing a similar refrain among these leaders around the challenges of dealing with their legacy technology in a world where change is the only constant. They are balancing the pressure to deliver quickly on tighter budgets and more limited resources, with the desire to get more out of the existing systems they have to support the business in becoming more agile.

Four big challenges.

Here are the four biggest challenges I’ve been hearing again and again,  from a few of conversations I’ve had recently.

  1. Tech-savvy employees expect rapid iteration:

“So, Mike, what is keeping you awake at night these days?”, I asked. Mike is the CIO of a large elevator manufacturer in Europe. As Mike paused to ponder, I was anticipating a cliched answer about data privacy laws or machine learning, but the industry veteran and forward-thinking leader gave a more practical response. A new generation of tech-savvy and dynamic people are entering his workforce. He has started to see this generational shift in his customers and partners too. This new generation expects better technology and has no patience for clunky user experiences. He is facing demands for better digital experiences from employees, partners, and customers alike, and he has been forced to rethink just about every digital solution he had worked to develop in the previous 25 years.

What is particularly daunting, according to Mike, is that he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to respond. On one side, he is losing valuable (and engrained) knowledge from a retiring generation. On the other hand, his well-established IT systems can’t catch up with the newer demands fast enough. “The very idea of a digital transformation project sends shivers up my spine,” lamented Mike. “It is time-consuming, expensive, it hijacks our agenda, and produces underwhelming results”. Of course, Mike is totally justified in his sentiment because of the unflattering track record of digital transformation initiatives.

2. Old technology stacks limit innovation:

“So, Sanjay, why not move the entire app to a new stack?”, I probed. As a Vice President of IT at a US hi-tech manufacturing company, Sanjay owned all CRM and customer-facing applications. He was dealing with a typical situation with one of the mission-critical applications in his portfolio. Its global user base has been requesting several feature enhancements only to hear crickets as response. Sanjay’s challenge is that the application’s old technology stack was not allowing his team to innovate and move fast to deliver the user needs. All he has is a recurring maintenance budget line item to apply server patches and deploy browser band aids to ensure the application survives. What’s more, this situation was not limited to just this one application. He had a few of them on life support like this.

I caught up with Sanjay during a steadily increasing chorus of user frustration. “Don’t even think about it”, he interrupted me mid-sentence when I asked him to consider migrating to a whole new application stack. “Dude, this application’s data model and logic has withstood the test of time. We have 20 years of real-life experience behind this. It has changed and scaled with our growing needs. You can’t just rip & replace this with some shiny new object.”  Of course, he was right. The database with millions of records, optimized indexes, triggers, and stored procedures had seen 5 US Presidents, a great recession, and a war. Migrating it would cause such a resource drain and they would have to start the stabilization journey all over.

3. Customers demand a more flexible, configurable, modern digital experience:

“Well, Amy, selling your kidneys on eBay could be an option,” I quipped in the Zoom. Amy is the Chief Architect at a large software solutions provider for banks and financial institutions. Amy’s company had been a reliable software solutions provider for some of the country’s top banking institutions. From Y2K to industry reforms to government regulations, the mainframe banking solution had seen it all. Every data element had a purpose, every batch job had a reason, and every little configuration had a story. But all that rich history, reliability and robustness came at a cost. Even a simple change request would take several months for Amy’s team to deliver.

Obviously, the banks weren’t pleased. They were facing nimble competitors that delivered sleeker experiences to lure away consumers. Their counter strategy of cool television commercials wasn’t really working. The customers’ ask to Amy was simple: We want a more flexible, more configurable, modern, dynamic digital experience. We want it urgently. And build it without compromising the integrity of all that you’ve built for us over the years. Oh, and you can’t charge us a lot of additional money for what we now consider table stakes.

4. Partners provide critical service, but suffer with clunky apps:

“So, Peter, is this one of the top 3 problems for your CEO?”, I prodded. Peter ran service operations for a global electronics brand. Peter’s customers -businesses and consumers- bought products & services directly, but service was delivered through thousands of partner companies worldwide. These partners ranged from mom & pop shops with just 3 engineers, to large service conglomerates that had 1,500 engineers dedicated to Peter’s brand. Reliance on 3rd party companies for service delivery is a very mainstream practice. Recently, I have even seen initiatives to deploy gig workers for service.

The backdrop of my chat with Peter was a negative trend in almost all his key service metrics; SLA, mean time to repair, first time fix rate, customer satisfaction, even NPS. To dig deep, Peter solicited feedback from service partners, and it revealed a surprising culprit that was hiding in plain sight. They all despised the clunky, rigid Service App that Peter’s company had mandated for their use. To make it worse, the partner companies required the engineers to use other apps for their own operational reasons. The partners started to prioritize competitor jobs sending Peter’s metrics on a downward spiral. Peter’s IT can’t just lift and shift the partner-centric service management system – it has hundreds of thousands of users, and configurations and service data of millions of assets.

Why don’t software companies understand? 

Mike, the elevator CIO, summed it up well: 

“Most new technology companies don’t realize it is not easy to dislodge time-tested solutions and IT stacks. I shouldn’t have to choose between a stable existing stack, and modern new offerings. I want both.” 

Reject the false choice

No matter what business drivers you are facing, you are not alone in coming up against these types of scenarios. It is a false choice to have to compromise on your requirements and choose between your existing systems and something modern and new. Technology providers need a better and deeper understanding of the reality in enterprises today and technology leaders in those enterprises have every right to demand it. 

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Written by Hari Subramanian Founder and CTO at Appify. Hari has worked for more than 30 years in Enterprise software in various roles including support engineer, programmer, solution architect, and engineering leader.