Tim Jones, managing director of application modernization, Advanced, joins Neha Kulkarni to discuss why CIOs should look at modernization if legacy languages are necessary for critical business apps. Jones talks about the steps that CIOs can take to bridge the talent gap during and after modernization initiatives.
In this edition of Tech Talk, Jones explains why these legacy systems aren’t one size fits all. He also shares which programming languages will be in demand in the next decade and how CIOs should prepare to stay ahead of the curve.
Key Takeaways on Why CIOs Must Upgrade Legacy Systems:
- Organizations are concerned about having access to the right IT talent to maintain their legacy systems
- Adopting modern development practices and tools by using Java, Python, or C# is the only way to tackle the next wave of innovation
- The longer CIOs wait, the wider the gap between their legacy systems’ capabilities and the capabilities of modern development tools gets.
Here are the edited excerpts from our exclusive interview with Tim Jones, managing director of application modernization, Advanced:
SWNI: Amid a growing tech skills gap, companies are faced with the challenge of updating legacy systems or maintaining them. In what ways are legacy systems shaping these challenges?
Tim: While today’s IT budgets are now focusing heavily on cloud and automation solutions, most leading organizations across all sectors are continuing to run their mission-critical applications on legacy IT infrastructure like the mainframe. Unfortunately, this continued reliance on rigid and cumbersome, legacy technology has increasingly become riskier in today’s digital-first world – whether around operational inefficiencies, system failures, or the general inability to compete with emerging, cloud-native startups.
“One of the biggest challenges comes with the shrinking talent pool of those well-versed in supporting them. Mainframes rely on complicated, six-decade-old programming languages such as COBOL, Assembler and Natural. In addition to higher education not teaching today’s emerging talent about these legacy systems, these new programmers have little desire to work on old, procedural languages. A reason that leads to 89% of organizations concerned about having access to the right IT talent to maintain and manage their legacy systems.”
Mainframes have also been dubbed “black boxes” of information for future IT managers, due to the millions to billions of lines of undocumented, entangled code written by various developers, who have retirement on their radar (80% of COBOL developers are 44 – 55+ years old), creating a perfect storm if not properly addressed.
As organizations look to make the inevitable leap to a more modernized IT environment, leaders need to prioritize cross-training practices and tactics such as mentorship programs and job-sharing, which help build versatility, agility and skill intersections in team members. Without historical knowledge of how application functionality has evolved, or accurate and current documentation, a digital transformation program without the help of experts and their tools will be inherently slower, filled with frustration and potential failures.
SWNI: There isn’t enough talent for this legacy technology that powers the infrastructure. As a result, mainframes are becoming too pricey to maintain. Can you explain why these legacy systems aren’t one size fits all?
Tim: There are more than 300 types of programming languages and millions of lines of code today. Each of which keeps organizations running and operating. All these types exist because programming languages are not universal across industries or in function.
“For example, COBOL is frequently used on mainframes, but languages such as Natural and CA Gen offered functionality that was difficult to replicate in COBOL. They’re less common but depending on the heritage of the system and the task developers were trying to accomplish, there could be a myriad of outdated programming languages to deal with. No matter the industry though, it is universally difficult to find resources to work on most of these languages.”
The issue therefore has diverged away from the language itself, and instead poses the question: is it efficient or functional to continue to work with applications and languages when they have what amounts to a looming expiration date?
SWNI: COBOL turned 63 years old this year. Although it’s one of the oldest programming languages out there today, COBOL is powering nearly 80% of all business transactions worldwide. Why should CIOs look at modernization if legacy languages are necessary for critical business apps?
Tim: Back in 2020, both the state and federal government learned a hard lesson on the pitfalls of relying on legacy technology. Vermont, New Jersey, New York, California, Oregon and other states for example, experienced this all-too-real reality when the pandemic-induced unemployment claims skyrocketed unexpectedly and caused their systems working off 40 plus year-old coding language and mainframes to crash under the uptick in volume. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of citizens being left without access to necessity during a time of need.
The pandemic’s ripple effects on all things digital has shined light on the fact that the world we live in today, and the technology required to power it, is far different than the world that gave rise to the mainframe and its coding languages. And unfortunately, these types of system crashes and outages are just one of many that have – or will soon inevitably happen – across various industries that process large volumes of users, transactions, and data still run-on legacy systems.
“According to data from IBM, this includes 45 of the top 50 banks, 4 of the top 5 airlines, and 7 of the top 10 global retailers, among many others.”
Most of these organizations put off modernization for a simple reason: mainframes get the job done, they’re highly reliable, and capable of handling certain workloads incredibly well. However, the core of mainframes’ problems lies less in the programming languages themselves and more in the architecture; when these cumbersome systems were developed more than six decades ago, the languages to run them were never designed to integrate with the internet. The legacy systems therefore continue to inhibit the ability of power to meet unexpected surges or to adopt innovative solutions.
The banking industry, for instance, has 86% of all credit card transactions still running through mainframes today. But with cloud native FinTech startups like Stripe and Venmo or DeFi emerging and swiftly advancing the industry forward, it puts in motion an entirely new shift towards digital capabilities. While some banks have already looked to adopt these offerings to keep up, the reality is they can’t even consider competing with or adopting these technologies if they’re still shackled by the limitations of legacy mainframe applications.
The amount of evolution required to compete with agile, cloud-first startups is exponentially harder and impossible with legacy languages – requiring a level of innovative agility that cloud adoption never have dreamed of. Complete modernization away from monolithic systems and architectures and adopting more modern development practices and tools by using Java, Python, or C# is the only way to prepare them to tackle the next wave of innovation.
SWNI: Gartner reports that another key challenge with legacy systems is new tech talent is reluctant to pick up the disappearing skills. What steps can CIOs take to bridge this talent gap during and after modernization initiatives?
Tim: With the skills to support these systems aging out—and the pipeline to fill these roles is diminishing, there are proactive initiatives that CIOs can take to bridge the skills gap between old and new.
Four considerations include:
- Leverage legacy and DevOps expertise – By tapping both seasoned IT programmers skilled at COBOL or REXX, with and emerging, DevOps expertise will help enhance the team’s performance and build versatility and skill intersections in team members.
- Reproduce the training modules – By establishing a central repository for information sharing, organizations can ensure training is continuous and that they’re capturing each employee’s expertise.
- Create a formal mentorship program – A mentorship program with seasoned employees and new talent fosters alignment on the overall goals and strategies and DevOps culture.
- Ensure training programs remain agile and scalable – Training programs that offer the ability to conduct self-paced learning gives leaders the power to control how IT teams engage with specific courses at scale. This approach also empowers teams to personalize their training experiences based on employees’ roles and goals.
SWNI: Why should organizations take modernization seriously? After all, the disappearance of legacy programming languages has been an ongoing issue in the tech industry for years now.
Tim: Mainframes are the root cause of the Fortune 100 from stepping truly into the digital age. While digital transformation is happening worldwide with mobile apps, chatbots, robotics process automation, and other emerging technology, back-end systems are essentially constrained to 60+-year-old systems.
“As our world becomes increasingly reliant on digital and new, emerging technologies like Web 3.0 and Metaverse around the corner, it’s more critical than ever for CIOs and IT leaders to look towards modernization to remain relevant, competitive and keep up with customer demand.”
Today’s enterprises are on a whole new battlefield, with cloud-native entrants challenging the market. The most agile organizations will be the most effective at keeping up against competitors – and for those that have modernized – have generated potential savings at an average of $40 million. Those impeded by the mainframe, however, will have a much rougher time to scale and remain nimble in the face of change. What’s worse, the longer they wait, the wider the gap between their legacy systems’ capabilities and the capabilities of modern development tools gets.
If there’s anything we can take from the government’s experience regarding limitations to their applications, it’s that it’s only a matter of time before major issues continue to arise in these industries – if left untouched. Modernization is the key to a successful organization.
SWNI: In this dynamic IT landscape, which programming languages will be in demand in the next decade and how should CIOs prepare to stay ahead of the curve?
Tim: There are dozens of popular programming languages in use today, but there are a few that are considered the most in-demand languages that modern enterprises need to embrace to become more agile.
While all the following languages are solid considerations, it’s critical to also realize there’s not a one-size-fits all – the programming language a team uses should depend more on the goal of the application, rather than its popularity.
With that, the top three languages today include:
- Java – Today, Java is considered the king of all programming languages. And for a good reason. It’s the foundation for other languages and it’s solid and easy to transition into other languages. Java’s popularity as a language is anticipated to stay strong throughout the next decade.
- Python – This language is trending across startups as it’s fitted for data analytics and emerging technology like machine learning rather than enterprise applications that handle massive workloads and transactions.
- C# – C# is rising in popularity due to its ability to support a spectrum of applications and systems, allowing organizations to remain agile and nimble, which is critical today as new, emerging technologies are adopted in the market.
Tim is managing director of application modernization at Advanced, helping organizations to maximize their investment in critical legacy applications through transformation to modern operating environments, ensuring they remain competitive and ready to take advantage of new and emerging technologies. With more than 30 years’ IT experience, Tim has a strong track record in business growth and developing high performing teams who are positioned to succeed. His experience covers a broad range of competencies, including general management, sales and marketing, solution delivery, P&L control and M&A.
Advanced is a leading international provider of application modernization services with unique expertise in the legacy modernization market. With more than 500 modernization projects completed worldwide, and over 2.5 billion lines of code processed through our solutions we have been driving IT efficiency, agility, and competitive advantage for customers through core application and database transformation for more than 35 years. Over that time, we have helped organizations across all sectors including the UK Department for Work and Pensions, FedEx and the New York Times.
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