by Nathan Brown

Millennials say no to legacy software

Aug 03, 2018
Enterprise ApplicationsIT LeadershipIT Skills

For your upcoming software purchases, think beyond the feature set and cost axes. Make it a strategic goal to have a modern ecosystem using ubiquitous, current technologies. Top talent wants more than high pay. Give them something to get excited about.

A young business man, text messaging at his desk.
Credit: Thinkstock

For the last 30 years, technology was seen as a part of the support structure for the delivery of products and services. Technology was primarily used to help increase efficiency and drive down costs.

That was yesterday. Modern product creators are not just product companies, they are product and technology companies. Technology is an expected part of the end user experience. For products from the Nest thermostat to a Tesla car, the software on the product is as valuable as the product itself.

I recently bought a coffee weigh scale that reports my morning brews on a community forum with pictures, ratings and reviews. The app experience allows me to discover new coffees and tweak brewing method. Just like my coffee scale, the next generation of products and services will be software enabled.

This connected, open, value enhancing technology approach is the new normal. Whether your customer is a consumer, a business or an internal customer, you are serving people. And modern technology is changing the expectations and creating new opportunities to serve people better, faster and easier.

Previously established enterprises are realizing that technology is not an afterthought or organizational support; it must be a key part of the growth strategy. This kind of transformation is putting more strain on an already tight market for technical talent.

In this tight market, enterprises are finding it hard to compete for top talent with the likes of Google or a ground-breaking Silicon Valley startup. The top talent is going to the exciting, sexy opportunities.

This is a mission-critical challenge for CIOs because success is directly dependent upon finding, motivating and retaining top talent. Any HR expert will tell you that creating a desirable workplace extends well beyond salary. Company mission, culture, insurance, equity options, vacation policy and office location all contribute to creating a desirable workplace that can attract top talent.  

Top engineers are motivated by using effective tools to solve interesting and meaningful problems. While the problem being solved is paramount, the technology ecosystem used to solve it is a very important part of the appeal. Your current technology ecosystem is the product of all of the previous tech decisions – from software and tool selection to architecture and strategy. The software you choose to run your business has a direct and significant impact on the level of talent you can attract and retain.

Currently, business software is purchased by line of business units looking for a functional feature set. I believe that the ability to attract top talent to your tech ecosystem should also be a key factor in software buying decisions.

By selecting a closed, proprietary or niche technology, you are immediately adding a technological drag to the company. In the software industry, this is known as “technology debt”. A large technology debt is a turn-off to talent and creates resistance to organizational agility.

The framework career trap

Enterprise software is typically made on closed, proprietary frameworks. These frameworks were designed to create screens quickly and efficiently, display and manipulate enterprise data, and enforce development standards across a wide range of development talent. They were purposefully made as closed systems by publishers who see their frameworks as a competitive edge in the race to create features.

The typical career trajectory for technical talent in this environment looks like this: a CS grad comes out of school, takes a job working with a specialized framework, and quickly makes a nice living. Once the employee is adjusted to the above average pay for a specialized technical stack, they cannot move to another stack without taking a serious pay hit. They are stuck.

This is a career trap. It is also a trap for the companies who purchase these systems, because the pool of talent they have access to is small and expensive.

The younger generation of IT talent has an intuitive aversion to the proprietary frameworks that were all the rage 20 years ago.

Using an outdated, closed framework means that an organization will always have to settle for B-level talent. With IT professionals in such high demand, there’s little appeal for them to work on legacy or niche technology that is not relevant outside of a limited ecosystem as it doesn’t serve them in the long term. The cream of the crop want to grow their skills, so they seek out the most innovative technology companies for that opportunity. If they feel that what they learn and do at your company is not helping them get to the next level of their careers, they won’t waste their time.

A technology stack for the future

What does a modern stack look like?

  • A REST based JSON or web socket-based service layer that is used for all access to the system, not just as a side channel for integrations. I.e. the core application uses the same service layer that integrators use. No specialized SDK should be required to hit the primary service layer. Xml is last-gen and SOAP is 1990s. You want syntax that is minimalist, ubiquitous and reduces friction.
  • A client UI stack that uses generally available technologies – Angular, React, Electron, things that have lot of Google results and are not tied to a specific publisher. You want things that current startups are using in their stack. Many scaling startups have tech blogs and will describe their architecture. These startups that have a clean slate are intentionally choosing the tools that give them the most leverage and ability to attract top talent.
  • Core logic in common languages like Python or JavaScript. Some would say Java, but Java is stuck in the 2000’s. It is widely used in the enterprise, but it is last-gen, not next-gen.
  • Open-source use and involvement. Using open source code in the development and deployment stack lets developers know that their skill investment at your company will be valuable outside your company.
  • An app UI that looks like it was designed by designers, not engineers.
  • It is real code, not some UI generating meta-data framework populated by filling in boxes and clicking the mouse. Coders want to punch keys, not click the mouse.

Appealing to an ethos

The modern technologist embraces the idea that they are at the center of something much larger than themselves. Like the industrial revolution before them, today’s programmers, designers and product managers have the sense that they are changing the human experience on planet Earth. They see change rippling out to the world from Silicon Valley. As noted VC Marc Andreessen famously said, “software is eating the world.” Rather than standing alone in a walled garden, those within the IT community want to feel like a part of this all-encompassing digital transformation. They want to feel like they would fit in talking shop at some hipster meetup in San Francisco.

When you’re writing code for a 20-year-old framework, you don’t feel connected to this transformation. Existing enterprise software publishers are feeling this pinch. While talking to an executive of a large software publisher, I was told, “We have a really hard time attracting engineering talent. They don’t want to work here.” Ouch.

For your upcoming software purchases, think beyond the feature set and cost axes. Make it a strategic goal to have a modern ecosystem using ubiquitous, current technologies. Top talent wants more than high pay. Give them something to get excited about.