Modernization can signal an "out with the old, in with the new" technology strategy to enterprise teams. However, taking enterprise technology and throwing it into a crucible to create something new may not achieve the business results teams are seeking. Not everything new can perform certain tasks as effectively as some older systems and code can.
Marianne Bellotti, author of Kill It With Fire, says in helping technology teams navigate modernization projects, she's learned that many of the challenges these projects face are organizational or related to the people involved, not technological challenges. With a deep cultural understanding and nuanced approach, enterprises can define what modernization looks like for their business and meet the needs of their current and future customers.
Understanding Culture Can Smooth Out the Process
A social science background ended up being critical to Bellotti’s technical career. In her first anthropology class, her professor said, "This is the most important thing you will learn in this class: love, sex, and marriage have nothing to do with one another."
The students giggled, but Bellotti says the professor's point was that "culture is a set of associations between concepts.” Bellotti continues, "While the concepts can be somewhat universal, the associations between them are not. Part of education in anthropology is learning how to see that complex pattern of abstractions and understand how various cultures will arrange them differently." Just like mainframers, she explains, "in your own culture, the concepts and associations may feel intuitive and natural, but it’s easy to make assumptions and then be caught by surprise when reality reveals an unexpected outcome."
Bellotti comes into most modernization projects as an outsider, which usually means people working on the project are reluctant to talk to her because they fear “the truth of what's going on with the system will make them look incapable or get them fired," she says. However, Bellotti's training in anthropology gave her a distinct advantage. "In our society, we associate men with technology, women with caring," she points out. "Early in my career when I had no real track record to establish legitimacy, I would social engineer this as much as possible. I would wear a suit to a meeting with engineers to encourage them to assume I was not technical. I would even do my makeup to play up an innocent, wide-eyed, non-threatening look."
According to Bellotti, "A lot of anthropology is focused on how people use cultural associations to communicate with each other. Technical projects — even ones that are not modernization efforts per se — live or die on the strength and flexibility of their communication channels. Being able to use not just the spoken language, but also the language of symbols to win people over and move things forward is invaluable." She explains, "Often I would get more information out of people faster simply because they would forget that I was technical. I would get access to facilities and data stores where others got turned down because people saw me more as a helper than as a rival."
Defining Modernization and Applying Metrics
In her work, Bellotti reminds enterprises that the goal of modernization isn’t to move to new machines, it’s to ensure the technology at hand can be maintained. When organizations start from the premise of "how do we get rid of our mainframes," they need to dive into what the business needs and which technology combinations can achieve that best.
"They assume the best course of action is to get rid of old technology, but the emphasis has to be operational excellence," she advises. "Moving to the cloud may save you money. Rewriting everything into Java may make it easier to add new features.” Bellotti has seen it work both ways: one a complete success, the other where it was a disaster and teams couldn’t explain the rationale behind their decision.
Given the nature of Bellotti’s work, she’s accustomed to starting from a point of conflict or struggle. “A certain degree of counterintuitive thinking is required." She adds, "If the obvious answers were the right ones, the problem would have been fixed by now." Although the term modernization can be misunderstood, because the "newness of the machines and the code is irrelevant," Bellotti says, "you still need to speak in the language of stakeholders."
Without clearly communicated goals and proper metrics, modernization projects don't have a clear path to move forward. "When you can explain in metrics what you’re trying to achieve by removing a mainframe or getting rid of a COBOL application, the conversation with engineering goes much smoother," says Bellotti. "Engineers understand that good technology is built with feedback loops."
Metrics also help teams understand when solutions need to be fine-tuned to achieve the best results, and she notes that the process of refining should happen throughout the life of the system.
What's the Focus of Modernization?
Many of the challenges businesses face during these projects center on organizational and personnel challenges. It's why teams need to focus on how modernization can do the following:
- Add business value
- Build momentum
- Improve performance
- Generate cost savings
From outside the software engineering space, many of these projects take months of work but don't offer new features for the business or its customers. To others inside the business, the effort may look like a waste of time, Bellotti says. "The critical challenge for teams is to figure out how to add value and build momentum. Most modernization efforts fail because they stalled while the work is half-finished," she explains.
Technical challenges are easier to define, with the solutions at hand. Meanwhile, some enterprises will focus on the cost savings these projects can achieve. And while these tangible value adds are understood by those on the business side, Bellotti advises the modernization story must explain why the work is valuable in a way that everyone can understand, so it may continue over the long-term. This is especially important because "modernization does not always save enough money to justify the big investment (read: a surge of costs), which can work against you," she adds.
Achieving Modernization Success
As with most things in life, projects require a certain amount of balance and discipline. According to Bellotti, this means that all businesses face similar choices in which product and sales teams want to prioritize new features, and engineering teams want to stabilize and optimize current systems. "Neither extreme is good for technology," she says.
"Balance has to come from the top," Bellotti says. "If you load your C-Suite with non-technical people who care about sales, you’ll end up with technology overloaded with debt. If you load your C-Suite with former engineers, you’re going to end up with technology that can’t solve problems for actual customers." To mitigate some of the tension between engineers and product/sales personnel, enterprises must rethink their incentives. Some level of education is also needed to ensure everyone understands that no matter how technology is built or designed, it will always require regular maintenance.
"It’s like what they say about planting trees: the best time to start was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now," says Bellotti. Incremental improvements should be made to systems the whole time. "I used to walk around saying, 'the technology is never done,' over and over again at work," she says. "The end result of a modernization effort should be that the organization is reformed to correct the institutional structures that prevented engineering from being able to maintain operational excellence over time."
With computers more and more integrated into our everyday lives, there are fewer people in business who view technology as secondary to their operations. "One doesn’t have to be an engineer anymore to understand that technology needs to be able to adapt to continue to be effective," says Bellotti. However, that doesn't mean that there still isn't work to be done.
Businesses also need to be aware that engineers working on modernization projects are not working to put themselves out of a job, they are looking to expand their knowledge and grow alongside the systems that run today's businesses. "Separating them into the legacy team that just maintains the system while it’s being decommissioned and the team that works on the new stuff is an excellent way to get your best people to quit," she explains.
It's clear from Bellotti's work and experience that teams should be interdisciplinary, using knowledge from social sciences to understand how technical systems behave and how they can be maintained for the future of business.