Legacy to the rescue: Well-tuned foundational systems make cutting-edge projects possible

The savings gained from efficient management of legacy systems can be used to fund projects that explore innovative new technologies.

rescue recovery data binary sea ocean [Thinkstock-99694205]

AFLAC still uses technology that was developed using assembly, the old programming language. It's part of the mainframe system that runs the insurance company's policy, administration, claims and billing functions, and it works just fine.

But senior vice president and CIO Julia Davis is looking ahead, and she says it's time to upgrade.

The way Davis sees it, the declining supply of assembly coders increases the risk that sometime down the road she could be stuck with a system that no one can maintain or fix.

Julia Davis, CIO, Aflac [2016] Aflac

Julia Davis, AFLAC

So Davis is upgrading the component under her legacy modernization project, an overhaul with a price tag just south of $1 million that will bring peace of mind to the IT organization at the Columbus, Ga., company.

"It's not going to save me money, but I'm not going to have outages," Davis says.

And helping the company avoid outages may be the project's chief benefit, because Davis points out that the cost of a daylong outage would be higher than the cost of the upgrade.

The buzz in IT today is all about innovation and digital transformation. But Davis and other leading CIOs say that doesn't mean they can let legacy systems slide. Instead, they say they keep diligent watch over their foundational systems, pushing their teams to find ways to make them work more efficiently and effectively. That focus on bringing efficiencies to legacy and core technologies in turn frees up money, time and talent that can be devoted to innovation projects.

"One of the things we focus on is how can we run better, faster, cheaper and then reinvest those savings [in] future-state technologies," Davis says. (To hear more of Davis' thoughts on innovation, check out this video).

Eyes on everything

Achieving efficiencies doesn't happen by chance, say leading CIOs who shared their strategies on this front. They say they make it a priority to run a top-notch environment that values efficiency, effectiveness and innovation for all technologies, not just the systems that engage customers or are the newest pieces of their technology stacks. That means their legacy systems and the other core pieces that are fundamental for running their businesses get equal attention.

"You have to continually look at how you do what you do," says Paul Friedman, vice president of business technology at Humana, a Louisville, Ky.-based insurance company.

Paul Friedman, vice president of business technology, Humana [2016] Humana

Paul Friedman, Humana

Like Davis, Friedman says he keeps a close watch on the older systems that handle much of Humana's bread-and-butter functions, such as processing financials. He says he and his team look for ways to both improve the way those applications run and use them to optimize business processes.

"It's doing more and better and driving down the costs of doing things," he says.

As an example, Friedman cites one recent project where his team moved to a new vendor that provides converged technology for Humana's data warehouse because the new appliance offers more-efficient processing and better overall use of horsepower. As a result, he says, financial reports that used to take days to process can now be completed in a matter of hours.

"That's a real benefit for us as a company," Friedman says, explaining that savings are seen in both the financial and IT departments because employees in both places are spending less time on the financial reporting task.

To ensure that they get results like that, Friedman and his team look for ways to improve older systems. Sometimes that means shifting to the cloud or switching vendors, as was the case with the data warehouse. Other times, it means taking a different management tack, illustrated by a recent move away from strict waterfall processes to DevOps practices even in his organization's legacy environment. All of those efforts involve an expenditure of resources with an expectation of a return on investment.

"There are certainly reasons for wanting to keep a more traditional approach to maintaining these systems; they have to be stable and reliable," Friedman says. "But that doesn't mean you have to always do things in that big way. Leveraging some of the techniques that have evolved through digital transformation and applying it to a legacy space can be beneficial."

Friedman and Davis both say they invest in automation and tools to optimize their legacy and core systems. Davis, for instance, targeted processes within her team's approach to software change management. Manual processes were creating bottlenecks, she says, so her team started using tools that automated that work.

Metrics support preventive maintenance

Keeping an eye on metrics is a key element of any plan to keep core systems running efficiently. CIOs who embrace this approach say they measure how they're doing and, perhaps more importantly, measure the ROI that improvements deliver.

Raji Arasu, senior vice president of platform and services at Intuit, says she, too, focuses on strong performance management throughout the company's technology portfolio — whether it's the newest product on the market or the oldest system in use at the Mountain View, Calif.-based maker of accounting and financial software.

Raji Arasu, senior vice president of platform and services, Intuit [2016] Intuit

Raji Arasu, Intuit

Arasu says Intuit's technology teams (which focus both on the internal systems that run the company and on customer-facing products and services) measure system hygiene in four areas: performance, reliability, quality and security.

"If you focus on those hygiene metrics, you get more time on proactive things," she says.

It goes back to the old expression: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

In other words, maintaining and optimizing legacy and core technologies to ensure that they run smoothly not only delivers productivity gains but also prevents crises down the road. And teams have more time to innovate if they don't have to be pulled off projects to put out fires.

"We try to minimize fires by building great services," Arasu says.

But Arasu points out that strong management is about more than good maintenance of legacy systems. It's also about innovation within a company's core technologies. (She defines legacy technologies as "technical debt" and core systems as those that customers use as part of their daily work.)

"Innovation is everyone's job," she says, noting that she and other leaders at Intuit emphasize innovation by reminding technologists how those efforts affect customers.

Davis and Friedman express similar attitudes, and all three say they haven't divided their technologies into separate operations and innovation groups — the so-called bimodal model. As Friedman says: "We want everyone to have an innovator mindset."

Davis, Friedman and Arasu all also acknowledge that the time and money gained through optimization of legacy and core systems produces more time and money to put toward cutting-edge projects.

"We want to invest more in strategic big things, like digital transformation, and less in the incremental and improvement space," Friedman says. "So doing things to optimize legacy frees up money for us to do bigger and better things."

Of course, he says, it's not a simple transfer of savings from the line item allocated to legacy systems to the account used to pay for, say, skunk works. But because the total cost of ownership for legacy and core systems is trending down, there are more resources to put toward innovation.

"We're very deliberate about how we spend our investments and how much we want to put into strategic investments versus tactical," Friedman says.

The three IT leaders also point to another return that's perhaps even more important: Efficient, effective and well-maintained legacy and core systems give companies the strong foundation they need to support the newest, most innovative, customer-facing technologies.

"Running a strong legacy and core system is what keeps us in business," Davis says. "It's the engine that's going to run the business day to day. Without it, transformation isn't even possible."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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