Dealing with legacy systems

Most people in IT have dealt with this situation. For any number of reasons, the software application you are responsible for is held together with the virtual equivalent of duct-tape.  Maybe the person who built the system is long gone.  Maybe you built the system but for a completely different purpose than it’s now serving.  Whatever the reason, you are in the situation where most system changes create new issues because the system resembles one of those 19th century houses that the family kept adding onto…and your the one stuck walking through your sister’s closet to get to your bedroom that’s where the bathroom used to be so it has walls full of mildew.  And when your brother opens his window across the hall, your door mysteriously shuts and locks you in.  You’ve developed a system to catch the door from locking, but what you really need is a new room in a new house.

In an insightful post with a title fitting for the end of October, Fixing Frankenstein, Jay Rollins discusses how legacy systems plaque technology teams and the businesses they support. Some key take-aways from Jay’s article:

  • Become very conscious of responding to new requests and learn to say no, no matter how good it feels to say yes (what Jay calls the “IT Hero ego”).  I’d add that developing a process to get buy-in across the organization to decide on what requests get implemented is also critical.
  • Start identifying and addressing the root causes of software issues. This might take extra time or extra resources…you’ll need to lobby for them.
  • Take a step back and help the business characterize the value of the software application.  Then craft a go-forward plan to ensure the system realizes it’s intended benefits.  This can lead to an informed cost/benefit trade-off discussion between business and IT.

As leaders in technology, we are responsible for more than keeping the lights on and fighting the fires that come up.  We need to drive plans to help our business profitably leverage technology. There are simply too many value-added ways to integrate new technologies into business today for any of us to justify spending the next 3 years simply maintaining our existing systems and building work-arounds to underlying problems.

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  1. The day after writing this post I was reading an April 15, 2008 issue of CIO Magazine, which stated the following on p.18:

    “Up to 30% of employees with legacy IT skills will be eligible to retire in the next three years. At the same time, many artifacts (old programs, databases, platforms, etc) will need to be replaced between 2008 and 2015.”

    Dealing with legacy systems is now CIO’s numb er 4 priority. In 2006 it ranked 10th.



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