Director of Avenga Labs
Reflections about managing the lifecycle of applications, in the context of inevitable changes in digital transformation.
This article is not about another Application Lifecycle Management methodology; that can be the subject of another conversation.
It’s about reflections, about the forces behind change, and the fears that work against changes in the IT systems, all in the context of digital transformation.
Let’s begin with the state of the art approach to IT systems development.
We are seeing a major shift from the traditional IT project approach to the product approach.
The idea of a project was that it ends with a big bang, deployment, user training, but with inevitable problems at the beginning that are quickly resolved. Then it goes into the maintenance period, with a constant but low volume of work to remove bugs and provide small improvements over time.
In ancient times (>10 years ago) that was the idea – it’s done, has to be ‘serviced’ and kept alive, but that’s it basically. Well, until the next project starts which has to add a significant amount of new functionalities or the old systems won’t be relevant anymore, and a new one would have to be created from scratch (the cost of changes is higher than starting from a blank sheet, using the old system as the source of some requirements and data for the migration).
Haven’t we all heard the stories about one of those ancient systems that nobody was brave enough to touch, except when it stops working? This is because not enough attention was paid in treating it as a product instead of, well, like a hammer that once long ago was created; in other words it will serve the business purpose until it breaks.
The new approach treats the system as a product that is always ready to serve its business purpose, is stable, secure, and efficient but always under development. The pace of change is much higher than in the traditional ‘low maintenance’ mode, and therefore we are able to deliver new functionalities and adapt systems to new realities and needs on a regular basis.
Traditionalists don’t like this approach because they miss their 1990’s corporate-style “When is it done?” as it’s never done unless you want to be out of business. Or from another perspective, it has always been done since release number one, meaning it’s production is ready and useful.
This also includes technology migrations for newer tech versions, refactorings to minimize technical debt, and replacing technologies when their life cycles end. But what is the business value of that? The value is that it will enable your product to work for you much longer without the necessity of crossing it out as a ‘legacy – do not touch’ system.
Microservices architecture, cloud and DevOps done properly help with the constantly adapting system and its integration into the rest of the infrastructure.
The moment you need to create a new solution or a new product, it will come eventually, but much later than in the traditional project approach.
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I remember organizations that were happy with the deployment of a new business system, while the project team was a little bit exhausted after the last final sprint before deployment. Everybody started immediately dreaming about a quiet relaxing period as it was time for a change.
What has just really happened? If your new system is really good, the news will spread very fast and your competitors will be even more motivated to catch up with you, or they may quickly run ahead of you, in terms of the efficiency and experience they deliver to their customers and operations teams.
You might just stir up the hornet’s nest, so if you think you’re done . . . really you’ve just begun!
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We don’t need to use the medical C-acronym to prove the business environment is changing all the time, sometimes very rapidly.
The first wave of digital transformation was to enable the clients and business partners to buy products and services in digital channels. The next wave minimized customer support costs with self-service options through better collaboration with business partners due to API economy done right.
You can do a lot of good for your business by improving client or partner facing digital solutions, but do not make the mistake of neglecting the back end systems that support your business.
The true digital transformation applies not only to the visible, interactive, and shiny surface, but also to the core systems of your business. If you don’t do this, and very quickly, the old backend systems will become a bottleneck for your business growth and will bring your digital transformation to a screeching halt.
All the business environments change, not just the consumer facing ones.
So again, if you think you’re done . . .
Technologies change all the time. Some of them seem to be with us forever (Java, DotNet, relational databases), while some are shorter lived (front-end) and many are even ephemeral.
Even if you choose the right technology stack and toolset, some of their elements will have to be replaced eventually, and the later is the worst for your product. It’s inevitable that this will happen and it should be part of the product development, and not a surprise or something nobody wants to talk about.
Even if the technology used is not disappearing, there’s a much better alternative with better developer experience, features, and future proofing. Give it a chance. Allocate the budget and resources that gives it a real chance.
Companies merge, split, and change business models, markets, product and services, as well as the people, organizational structures, and processes. Change happens all the time. A new person always wants to make changes, because they came specifically to carry out change, to transform the business, and to not to keep things just as they are.
Also, long term employees will see the limitations of the current solutions for their business efficiency, and if they are denied a chance to influence the products and systems that support them, the best case scenario is they will give up and become less motivated, but the worst case scenario is they will go to your competitors with their ideas for improvements.
This is probably the number one change stopper. It may be old, it may be ugly, it may be not very useful and supported by tens of Excel sheets and manual steps, but it’s here and the cost of maintenance is low (so it seems on paper in the financial reporting system).
It is a common disease which is based on an invisible cost. It exists, is significant, and is slowing down your business. And it may not be as visible as the cost of change which has money numbers attached to it, but it’s there.
This invisible cost is under the rag and doesn’t hurt so much, at least at the highest reporting levels, but it drains the energy from your business every day. This drain gets bigger every month because of the inefficiency cost it accumulates. Good managers see it and raise the alarm by asking for support.
It might not even ‘work’ as the business model is already so different that this old system is like an ancient wooden calculator and the majority of its functionalities are not used anymore. It becomes a sad witness of what the business looked like five or ten years ago.
Changes are always associated with risks and the risks are usually true. But, their significance is very often inflated, because everybody likes change unless the change applies to them.
Very often people complain about the existing system and vote for a change loud and clear, but when it comes to starting over again suddenly the old system has this nice feature and the new one doesn’t, etc. The key is to determine what the real problem is to be addressed before it’s too late. Listening to those who are just louder and more frustrated is not the best thing to do.
The vendors and internal delivery teams are also to blame here. Overpromising and under delivering makes people more cautious, or even paranoid about the new system; for example, its initial instability or having to unlearn their comfortable habits.
The pressure for the lowest price promotes price wars, which can lead to the selection of the cheapest vendor. Those vendors may not even have delivery capability or don’t even embrace the complexity of the project, which is why they offer the lower price and initial enthusiasm.
It doesn’t have to be as ‘adventurous’ as it was in the past. It can be done much smoother with the right partner.
Impossible project? Nobody seems to really want it, too many risks, too much money, what a relief… it has just been cancelled!
But what if your competitor can make it possible, because their fears were turned into proper risk management and not visions of doom?
There are moments when a major step has to be taken and it has to be done now or the competition will surge far ahead. Very often they are unplanned, not budgeted, and not in the yearly plan of IT expenses.
For example, stores who enable purchasing their products online, or insurance and banks who enable access to their services online, are winners. Nowadays it’s obvious and it’s plain and simple: whoever doesn’t have a digital channel is clearly a loser. Yet there are many examples of those who either overslept (less likely) or were too afraid to make the bold move (more likely).
A similar thing happened in the mobile revolution. It was said, “No, people won’t want to use it on their smartphone, the screen is too small, and nothing beats the keyboard and mouse”, and what happened? Clients moved to their competitors who enabled them to enjoy an incredible mobile client experience.
We need evolution, not a revolution. How many times have we all heard that? It might be true in the majority of situations, but it’s not the universal solution for adapting to new business realities.
Don’t be afraid of the revolution because the revolution will eat you up if you’re not part of it. Failing to recognize the major trend because ‘everyone was too busy with their current activities’ is still all too common.
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Avenga, with its thousands of engineers and business domain experts with their skill and experience in different fields of IT and business sectors, is always glad to help with these ambitious, complex, and at the same time exciting journeys.
Even when it seems too hard, too big, or too late, talk to us about what the MVP can be and how to deliver an intermediary solution that can evolve into a viable business solution, that will become a useful product for now and for many years to come.