The IRS dominated headlines last month when a computer glitch arose—on Tax Day—that prevented the agency from collecting millions of tax returns and forced a deadline extension. But beneath the bevy of predictable, “embarrassing government snafu” stories lies a greater, more systemic problem: IT modernization. Specifically, the potential consequences of not modernizing.
The advantages of modernization are well-understood: agility, flexibility, innovation, scalability. But it’s also understandable why organizations—particularly large organizations such as the IRS—would be hesitant about modernizing. The organization has been relying on the same computers and systems for decades. And for the most part, those computers and systems have been working for decades. With change comes risk and uncertainty, not to mention extensive time and effort. Though tech vendors say modernization is “seamless” and “easily attainable,” we know that’s not the whole story. The truth is, it gets worse before it gets better.
A Harsh Reality
Cloud migration is a prime example. A CIO I once worked with compared legacy applications to the Egyptian pyramids: massive, complex and everyone with knowledge of how they were built is long gone. On top of that basic skills challenge, you and your teams have to work double duty to keep the lights on with existing operations while migrating to the cloud. The harsh reality is that when you migrate traditional applications to the cloud, the total size and complexity of your workload will increase before it decreases.
Successful cloud migrations begin by confronting the following facts head-on so you’re prepared for what lies ahead.
The Job Will Be Bigger Than It At First Appears
Much like the pyramids, you begin with excavation and inventory. You need to get inside your applications and understand their dependencies as well as their current role within your business. This is time-consuming work—you pull on a thread and it typically doesn’t end until you’ve inventoried most of your applications. The thread quickly gets long, looped and wrapped around you. All you have are knots.
Untie the knots one by one. In time the thread will straighten and you’ll have new insight into your systems. This is valuable with or without the cloud. After inventorying your portfolio, look for quick victories by finding systems that are self-contained yet important to the business and clearly in need of improvement. Tackle systems with complex dependencies after you have some practice and success with important but self-contained applications.
The Day-to-Day Gets Flipped on Its Head
Teams are often initially eager, but will push back when change actually begins. People don’t like altering their responsibilities, there are initially many unknowns and, of course, double duty means more work than ever. Don’t segregate teams working on cloud migration because they will find it difficult to enlist the broad support they need. Make migration everyone’s duty. At this state, leadership is critical. Transparently and specifically communicate objectives and potential barriers. Get feedback and adjust, but don’t lose sight of the ultimate target. Lead by example, whether it’s attending more meetings with direct reports or holding office hours. Keep the flow of information steady to make sure everyone knows “why” as much as “what.”
You’ll Straddle Two Worlds for a While
Successful “big bang” transformations are a myth. In the real world, you can’t just shove your legacy technology aside for the newer, shinier versions all at once. Nor can you make your traditional applications act like cloud-native apps with a few tweaks. You’ll need to maintain the status quo as you modernize toward a new approach. Understand that you won’t become a cloud-native continuous delivery shop overnight. Accept time and cost in maintaining what you have as you modernize toward what you want to be.
Done well, migrating and modernizing in the cloud will improve efficiency, clean up cruft and speed innovation. To realize those benefits, however, you must first understand what you have today then lead your organization to change. Since no business can simply start over, you must plan to maintain existing systems in parallel with cloud migration and modernization. Start your effort assuming you will find unexpected dependencies, unwilling participants and inconsistent security postures of your own systems. Expecting these problems will prepare you and your teams to handle them. Don’t grab a cloud-hammer and treat everything like a nail—use the right solution for each application. The ultimate goal is not to get into something but instead to get ahead of business demands. There is no single route to successful cloud migration, so keep your options open and let your goals dictate your technology decisions. Plan for life to get more difficult before it gets better and the payoff will be well worth the investment.