by Mary Shacklett

What legacy tech teaches IT leaders about projects that last

Jul 13, 20236 mins
IT StrategyProject ManagementTech Support

In today’s transformational business landscape, legacy systems are routinely discredited even as they continue to deliver value. IT leaders can learn a lot about their fundamental lasting power.

Team of young multi-ethnic specialists in glasses standing at server and using tablet while managing network server together in data center
Credit: SeventyFour / Shutterstock

Modernization and transformation are the IT imperatives of the day. Rationalizing applications, reinventing business processes, capitalizing on the cloud — all point to legacy systems as the dead weight and sunk costs modern day IT organizations must move beyond to reach their digital potential.

As an IT professional, I too have at times thought about legacy systems like the high school cafeteria food we all remember — something to complain about even if we know we can’t get through our day without it. The IT perspective is that legacy systems aren’t flexible. They’re resource hogs, and they are or rely on outdated technology. They’re costly and hard to integrate with, and the vendor has you locked in because you’ve custom-built so much code around these systems that you can’t afford to get rid of them.

But there is another side to legacy systems, and it has something vital to teach IT leaders about delivering IT projects that last.

The legacy of legacy tech

A legacy system is commonly classified as a system that is ten or more years old. Mainframes for sure fall under this definition, but so too do servers, smartphones, Oracle databases, and the Microsoft Office Suite, to name a few.

All these systems remain productively employed by companies around the world today. They continue to deliver value, and this value contributes to their staying power.

A CIO acquaintance of mine at a large hospitality chain gives a practical example. “I’ve had a number of servers fail in my data centers, and then there’s our mainframe, running code that was written over 30 years ago,” he said. “It has never failed.” In his operation, the mainframe is the heart of the company. It processes hundreds of thousands of revenue-producing hotel reservations that come in each day.

A similar story can be told about the Microsoft Office Suite, which debuted in 1990.Through the years, a number of Office challengers have attempted to replace it, only to fail in the process. The suite itself has evolved, but its entrenchment persists. In 2023, over one million companies globally use Office 365.

The takeaway? Legacy systems are “legacy” because they last. And to last, these systems share several hallmarks: They maintain business relevance, users know how to use them, they continue to work with the hardware and software ecosystems that surround them in a majority of cases, and they have strong support networks.

As a former CIO, if I could say that my department produced systems and services that remained business-relevant, were accepted and widely used by users, continued to integrate well with new technology we brought on board, and had a robust network of internal and consultative IT support, I would say that we were pretty successful in delivering value-added IT to the organization.

Agility and the new are certainly vital to IT’s remit, but so too are legacy systems, which demonstrate fundamental IT values that these days may be underappreciated.

Reliability’s lasting business relevance

Legacy systems have lasting power because they just run and run. Their reliability encourages companies to adopt them as mission-critical systems, and users have come to know them extremely well.

This doesn’t mean that legacy systems don’t have their issues. What it does mean is that the cost of replacing them is far greater than sustaining them so they can continue to do their value-added work.

This makes legacy systems very valuable. Companies know what they are getting from these systems. And if a system can process and book revenue for transactions faster and more reliably than other systems, why change?

Moreover, even if there are workarounds in use, the familiarity users have with these systems makes them averse to change, and change management is challenging and rife with hidden costs. Even in an era of constant change, the downsides of change must be taken into consideration.

The IT takeaway: Whether you use Agile, traditional waterfall development, or you purchase software and install it, aim to build technology that lasts. This requires extensive quality-testing to ensure reliability, foresight to ensure the solution is designed for today as well as tomorrow, and an emphasis on usability and stakeholder involvement to ensure the solution is easy to understand and use and will quickly become second-nature for users.

The unsung value of support

The best legacy systems have a large ecosystem of third-party consultants and companies that support these systems with technical consulting, software and hardware services, and training. The vendors of legacy systems also have substantial internal resources so they can do the same.

This builds customer trust, to know there is help available when and if it’s needed. Whether it is outside resources to help with training or external or internal help desk systems for issue resolution, legacy systems offer well-established user support. Their vendors also continue to invest in these systems so they remain business-relevant. They do this by publishing extensive APIs to enable their customers to integrate a plethora of third-party software, and they continue to add new functions and features their client bases want.

The IT takeaway: The applications IT develops should use standard APIs to facilitate integration with software that may be needed in the future. Before new applications are deployed, both users and the IT help desk should be trained and have documentation on them.

IT can also grow its own internal ecosystem of third-party problem solvers by working with “super users” who can provide help within their own departments to colleagues who need assistance.

While these ideas might not be new, IT departments often struggle to do them all. Projects fall behind, causing tasks to get dumped. These tasks are often in the areas of training, documentation, and making sure the help desk is up to speed. When these tasks are neglected, it can lead to a bad first impression that is hard for a new application to recover from.

The bottom line

Legacy systems last because of their reliability, large user bases, continuous investments, and ability to integrate with new technologies, remaining relevant to the business as it evolves.

When we launch any IT project, these same goals should always be front and center: lasting business relevance, reliability, end user experience and support. Ensuring these fundamentals will make it much harder for your next IT project to fail.