It’s Time to Take Closer Look at Legacy Systems for Career Opportunities
Nick Denning is CEO of Diegesis Limited, a business technology and IT systems integration company and Nick is an acknowledged relational database expert.
There has long been a perceived skills shortage in the IT sector but, as 2020 draws to an end, factors are coming together to change the dynamic in the industry. Jobs in cutting edge technologies, new business systems and the latest apps are what make the headlines. However, sectors such as healthcare, government and banking are often reliant on large legacy systems which have been in place for decades.
In a world where change is constant it is inevitable that establish business applications will need to be web enabled. Application interfaces may be the primary point of interaction between both employees and customers. Reduced costs, resources and most importantly improved agility can only be achieved via web enabled applications, which means many legacy systems will be either web enabled or replaced.
However, there are great careers to be had helping to keep these systems running and then working on projects to transition mature applications to the web, embracing new technologies over time.
Replacing core systems can be risky
You would be forgiven for thinking that every organisation is continuously striving to move their operations to the ‘latest and greatest’ technology options. In reality changing the software and database technologies, on which businesses rely for their day-to-day operations, is really hard to successfully accomplish.
Over almost 4 decades many innovative applications have been written in what is now deemed ‘legacy code’. For finance, retail and public sector organisations especially, there are large systems which have evolved over years to form the bedrock of their business operations. These systems have shaped ways of working including the data, policies, procedures and the documentation needed for legal, compliance and analysis purposes.
Technical expertise has been invested into some really interesting solutions. These have evolved and been enriched with rich business logic over time. It can therefore, prove very difficult, risky and expensive to move away from robust legacy systems especially if it is done too rapidly and without the correct skills in place.
New careers in legacy systems
Many systems were written to exploit the first-class capabilities offered by relational databases such as DB2, Ingres and Informix. Business applications were developed in a range of 4GLs or fourth generation programming languages. The underlying technologies remain market leading but a major issue is emerging around the lack of the necessary skills to maintain these mature enterprise applications developed in “Green Screen” and Windows development tools. The people with the knowledge to keep the systems running are coming to the end of their working lives and are disappearing from the jobs market. This presents an interesting and unexpected opportunity for people at the start of their IT careers.
The metaphor “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” should recommend a strategy to develop and extend legacy applications by service enabling underlying logic and re-engineer user interfaces rather than having a ‘rip and replace’ approach. All systems, up-to-date or legacy, require a regular yet modest amount of effort to apply security patches and provide support. There is often a requirement to implement changes to comply with changing legal obligations and to upgrade applications and OS to maintain a supported platform. Development of alternative architectures, progressively adding technologies such as BPM, MDM and enterprise search can provide an evolutionary path to extend the use of legacy applications indefinitely, as long as the vendor maintains support.
This provides career opportunities for a new generation of UK developers. By joining a team that supports legacy development environments, people will learn the enterprise strength technologies deployed in large organisations and the methodologies, such as agile, used in those environments. They can then earn the right to develop new web interfaces in those “cool” new technologies.
That is because service-enabling legacy code exposes rich business logic for reuse and adding new user-friendly web front-ends enhances functionality, preserves value and will extend the life of established enterprise applications. These value-adding projects allow new developers to get to know how the systems work and fit together, highlighting which application areas are vital to operations and what functionality may no longer be needed. This will become valuable knowledge when it is time to finally retire systems.
Hybrid skills give long term career opportunities
There are excellent job opportunities for developers willing to learn and embrace a mix of legacy and new technologies. For example, it may be a niche market at the moment for Informix or Ingres 4GL skills, but there will still be demand for this technical knowledge for years to come. Similarly, for a whole range of databases and programming languages currently perceived to be outdated.
Contrast this with skills in some of the latest technologies which often have a much shorter shelf life. They may be in vogue and needed for a while but can be completely redundant within a few years as the technology is surpassed and replaced. Knowledge of legacy technologies can therefore provide opportunities for those who might need breaks at some points in their careers. It is unlikely their expertise will go out of date in a couple of years and they will therefore still be in demand when they are ready to return to the workforce.
Working for established organisations reliant on legacy systems offers a chance for young people to work on large, interesting, long term projects at the core of operations. They can develop a mix of legacy system skills, teamed with knowledge of the new technologies used to expose established business logic as services. They’ll also become the go-to experts to support migrations and replacements in the future.
Build an attractive CV
UK figures show that almost a third of the UK workforce has been furloughed at some point during the pandemic and unemployment rates are rising rapidly. IT jobs are seen as relatively secure and hence even more attractive.
With IT jobs looking good, there is likely to be an increase in applications for every vacancy. The Independent newspaper recently reported that there were 4,228 applications for a single entry-level paralegal position. IT jobs might not be quite so popular, however, competition for roles will increase. Having a CV featuring hybrid skills ie “cool” new technology with those rare skills in legacy tools will make an individual stand out and therefore deliver wider career opportunities.
Competition from Europe
Organisations requiring legacy system skills have often looked eastwards for good value and well qualified outsourced IT resources. Central and Eastern European IT professionals often have in-depth skills in analytics and salary rates are lower. However, many legacy technology projects are in the public sector where being a UK citizen and holding government security clearances is a prerequisite, so UK candidates are at an advantage when applying for many IT jobs.
A combined knowledge of underlying legacy development technologies together with modern web technologies and how the two integrate can be an entry path to attractive IT jobs that might otherwise be carried out by nearshore resources. UK citizens who can also show their hybrid skills will earn the right to be deployed on large scale, long term, interesting projects that will lead to attractive stable careers.
Developing careers for developers
To attract new entrants into these hybrid careers, employers should develop and demonstrate what the long-term careers could look like. The Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) is an excellent initiative for employers to use to help create these career plans and to document the skills and training needed.
SFA groups the competencies needed in IT careers into categories:
- Strategy and architecture
- Change and transformation
- Development and implementation
- Delivery and operation
- Skills and quality
- Relationships and engagement
People can develop valuable skills with a focus on legacy and new technologies in each of these categories. Diegesis is a member of www.bcs.org, The Chartered Institute for IT and will be supporting the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) to help employers show that there is value and career longevity in developing hybrid expertise.
Diegesis provides new entrants to the workforce with opportunities to build careers in tech by learning skills in mature, tried and tested technologies. This will help reduce the IT skills gap, develop long term careers and assist companies avoid risky and expensive forced migrations for systems that continue to work and deliver.