Skills shortage

Adapt or die

No one phrase is better at encapsulating the truth when it comes to modernising legacy systems. But the same adage also applies to the skills required to run these systems. Now it’s true that many technologies like OLE objects, Java applets, Corba and Flash have all either bitten the dust or fallen into obscurity. But a surprisingly large number of older legacy systems, many run on code written decades ago, are still in use. The only reason they haven’t been ditched is because they’re seen as business-critical (see Legacy Systems Modernisation). But as programmers and developers of these monolith systems retire or move on, it becomes increasingly difficult to operate these systems and access knowledgeable support.

What’s more, these older technologies don’t get taught on university courses, resulting in a lack of awareness among “younger” SW developers (see Ageing Technologies). As a consequence, the technical skill set required to maintain these outmoded systems can become equally obsolete. The fact is big Cobol-based mainframes, key modules written in C/C++ or Perl, and even more recent core systems based on ASP.NET or Java 5 have all become IT burdens. But they don’t have to be. The problem is not everyone knows how to shoulder them. So how do teams address this gap in skills?

Never let it happen in the first place

This is perhaps the most obvious, yet most neglected, piece of advice. Just as a system needs continuous modernisation, so do the skills of the team responsible for maintaining it. In other words, the system should never be allowed to degrade from the get-go. Instead, it’s actively maintained, upgraded and enhanced. If this kind of working culture is already in place, you can be sure a dedicated modernisation team and sound budgeting plan are there to back it up. Like yin and yang, theses supports complement and evolve with the system and technologies used.

Opt for versatility over expertise

Having experts that specialise in one domain is not in itself a bad thing. But when there are too many “one-trick ponies”, teams can lose sight of the bigger picture. A simple generalisation perhaps, but if there is a lack of diversity in your employee skillset, your vision for what is possible is severely limited. To address this deficit, understanding your staff culture is just as important as understanding your legacy system. Modernisation is contingent on knowing how potential dependencies and programming paradigms integrate with each other. A skilled software engineer educated in the principles of computer science knows this intrinsically and can adapt accordingly. The more of these “all-rounders” you have on your team, the more agile your capabilities. And the more you focus on innovative legacy solutions, the likelier you are to attract new talent.

Upskill all the time

A culture of regular staff training goes hand in hand with a versatile workforce. Just remember that career upskilling applies to old-timers as much as it does to up-and-comers. For teams not used to this environment, a rethink is on the cards. Also, don’t forget to tap your own resources as well as those from outside. For example, old pros experienced in mainframe or proprietary systems can share their knowledge or mentor new recruits. Broaden your horizons by joining software communities, take part in meet-ups or learn “application trades”. For inspiration, check out our Upcoming Events.

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