Handling Legacy Technology in Digital Acceleration

Believe it or not, the modern philosophy of integrated systems, extensive documentation, and readable code wasn’t always a thing,
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legacy technology in digital acceleration

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About a decade ago I worked with a sales company that was finally catching up with the times and wanted to get in that “groovy” trend of multi-layered CRMs. For the most part, the project was simple enough: figure out what the sales team wanted, make a web app that helped with client management, and design a robust system to keep track of their inventory.

And then came the final request: the system had to play nicely with their management software since both their client and warehouse database were managed by the program. That’s where the dream ended. The database schema was a complete and utter disaster with lines upon lines of repeated strings choking the server to the point where the whole thing desperately needed an upgrade. 

For some reason, the software added a series of numbers and characters as a prefix to names so it could track metadata about the client. That meant that whatever we designed had to somehow emulate those same prefixes (because the management software would simply refuse to load the data otherwise). To make matters worse, the company that made the software had disappeared and we didn’t have an API or documentation to work with, so we had to play it by ear. It went as well as you can imagine.

I often tell this horror story when I teach my software development courses. It’s a cautionary tale of what one can expect when a company wants to upgrade their systems. And while computers have been a part of our life for half a century now, the modern philosophy of integrated systems, extensive documentation, and readable code wasn’t always a thing, which turns brings about a challenge we have to contend with, especially in a world of digital acceleration.

Covid-19 wasn’t the catalyst that started this trend, but it sure did push things along, as lockdowns happened all around the world, businesses had to quickly adapt and become agile, faster, and virtual, and many of them are seeing the benefits of adopting new technologies. 

 

Why is legacy technology a thing?

Software developers will hardly find a company that’s willing to burn everything to the ground and reengineer their whole infrastructure Instead, they will most often end up having to work with what’s already there, and either improve it or work on top of it. That’s where the concept of legacy technology comes in.

I think that the simplest way to explain legacy technology is with an example. Did you know that the state of New Jersey had to actively look for COBOL programmers because their system was getting overburdened during the first days of the pandemic? Just for the record, that’s a 61 years old programming language. Sure, it’s still getting updated, but no academic program is going to drop C++ or Python to teach COBOL. 

You might think that’s an outlier, but a ComputerWorld survey from 2012 revealed that COBOL was used more frequently in businesses than JavaScript, Java, C++, C#, or Visual Basic. There are obviously more modern and refined programming languages (COBOL wasn’t even object-oriented until 2002), and yet, many companies simply refuse to let it go.

There are three main reasons for companies holding on for dear life to old technologies. First, the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality. Sometimes the technology just works, and since it’s doing what is supposed to do, it’s cheaper and less time-consuming to keep it. Maybe the IT team has to deal with a couple of quirks, but that’s more manageable than having to train your team and migrate everything to a new system.

The second reason is what I like to call a snowball effect. The longer a system is in place, the more data it accumulates and the more it becomes a part of a company’s culture. That lowers the probability of companies actually thinking about replacing it.  It’s like a worn-down notebook from college: maybe it’s full of stains and the pages are falling off, but there is so much info in there that you just don’t have the time or patience to transcribe it.

The third reason has to do with bureaucracy. Banks and government agencies have been stuck with age-old systems because they are the ones officially endorsed, they have been tested time and again and proven secure so they were approved for those specific uses. Adopting new technologies would require a new approval process that could take years. 

 

How do we deal with legacy technology?

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. Having to deal with decades-old technology can be seamless or jarring depending on many factors. For example, working with legacy tech that’s popular or that has an active community/foundation backing it can be trivially easy. Like a friend of mine says, “if more than a hundred people know it, the answer is probably on StackOverflow”. 

On the other hand, less popular technology can be a pain to work with, as fewer people means fewer developers that have tackled the same implementation issues. Also, small scale software, especially before the early 2000s tends to have very poor documentation, if any at all, so it can literally become a guessing game or a tedious process of reverse engineering.

When dealing with legacy tech, we have two options, we either have to change it or work with it. Which option to take depends on many factors, including:

  1. The cost of changing or upgrading legacy tech
  2. The time spent in development
  3. Compatibility with the rest of the infrastructure
  4. The time invested in training people in the new software
  5. The risks and possible consequence of something going wrong

Once again, there isn’t a straight answer. You can be dead set on keeping your current infrastructure only to discover half-way through development that there isn’t a way to go forward without doing some upgrading. 

Remember that a system is as slow as it’s the slowest piece, so it doesn’t matter that you hire a frontend developer to create the best app in the world if the backend is run by a server with the power of a potato. 

 

Be critical and be smart 

Let me send you off with another story. Another friend of mine teaches in a college that kept backlogging computer upgrades, up to the point that the older PCs were running Windows XP and most of them were stuck on Windows 7. 

They seemed perfectly content since the teaching staff only had to check emails and write reports. That was until the pandemic hit them and they had to move their faculty meetings to Zoom, which simply refused to run on older computers. Suddenly, backlogging those upgrades backfired spectacularly. 

If your first impulse when your software developer brings the topic of legacy tech to the table is to stick with your current infrastructure, that’s perfectly fine, but I urge you to think it through before committing to a choice. The more you stick to legacy hardware or software, the more expensive it will be in the long run.

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