Thoroughly Modern: What To Pack For The Digital Transformation Journey
October 16, 2019 Emmanuel Tzinevrakis
Welcome to a new column called Thoroughly Modern. The name is meant to convey the idea that we need to define the desired – if ever-evolving – end state of our businesses and the people, processes, and programs that encapsulate how everything works when we get there.
It is a given that everyone understands that digital transformation is sweeping every industry, with incumbents being challenged by upstarts – and each other – as they try to create new and better ways to provide products and services to customers in a modern, digital world. We accept this as a first principle in 2019, and there is no point in elaborating further on the fact that digital transformation is the number one priority at companies today.
Fresche Solutions, the sponsor of this column, wants to help get as many IBM i shops on their journeys through application and database modernization – key aspects of digital transformation but by no means all that needs to be done to embrace the concepts and technologies that the most advanced companies on the planet have created or acquired. Through many years of engagements, Fresche has had the opportunity to touch on everything from developing strategies and aligning IT initiatives with business objectives to fully-blown transformation projects that convert code and data, bring in new architectures and the many approaches taken by clients of all sizes for projects that let them take advantage of modern or emerging technologies. This column shares real stories, lessons learned and brings in the voice of experts on key topics that surround this emerging digital transformation journey.
To introduce the column is an article written by Emmanuel (Mani) Tzinevrakis, who is vice president of client solutions at Fresche Solutions. Mani, is one of the key explorers and guides at the company who help IBM i shops get over the technological, economical, and cultural mountains separating them from the promised land of modernized systems. We hope you enjoy this regularly appearing column, and invite you to give feedback, engage with the writers and share your own experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Timothy Prickett Morgan and Alex Woodie, editors of The Four Hundred.
Digital transformation is not a destination but a journey, and one that will never end because businesses constantly innovate and the technologies that support this innovation are always evolving.
When planning your journey, you want to look ahead as far out as you can. You want to try to chart it upfront with what you know today: Where you are standing in terms of technology and as a business, what your competitors are doing, and what you want your business to grow into. Once you have all that mapped out, you are ready to prioritize so that you can execute in incremental steps in order to deliver business value as quickly as possible.
Businesses that are looking for help in this process are at one of three different crucial steps on their digital transformation journey:
- They are in the middle of their digital transformation, are encountering some problems or are seeking external validation that they are on the right track.
- They have already attempted some kind of modernization, had a failure, and need help to move ahead.
- They are in the planning phase, looking at what they have and how they could modernize.
It is important to not get overambitious with digital transformation. Taking on a big project without the right tools, skills and experience often ends in failure. Manual application rewrite projects usually fall short of expectations. Incremental digital transformation is the popular route these days – hiring people with more modern skills and adopting some degree of Agile methodology with accompanying DevOps tools. Most companies start by augmenting their systems of engagement (SoE), namely the front-end client-facing parts of their applications. This offers short-term visible wins to their business stakeholders. You can see these as low-hanging fruit that can need relatively less investment and time to deliver. Once this is done, they often turn to their systems of record (SoR), namely the backend code where the business rules and corporate data are held. These systems are usually at the heart of their operations and processes that run the business. When companies tackle the modernization of their SoR, this is when challenges surface. These core systems are represented by a monolithic architecture that dates back 20 or more years.
These monolithic architectures are usually characterized as housing a large degree of technical debt that makes it increasingly difficult for developers to continue to enhance them, thus leading to a decrease in agility and time-to-market. In addition, taking advantage of emerging technologies such as machine learning and predictive analytics in order to delivery digital transformation to businesses is a tougher without efficient access to that core. Therefore, to unleash maximum innovation out of all those future projects, the core system has to undergo modernization eventually. Unfortunately, modernization and rearchitecture of the SoR can be a daunting task for most people.
Even if you are willing to live with the actual architecture in your applications, the majority of RPG, COBOL and CA 2E Synon developers are close to retirement. One of our clients in the wholesale and retail distribution industry was left with only a part-time 71 year old developer, working from home to maintain the company’s entire core business system. Such a situation is very risky from a corporate perspective, having core systems managed by one or two people. Anything can happen, and unfortunately it did for some of our clients and that’s the reason they contacted Fresche. Losing such individuals can mean parting ways with key knowledge if that was never transferred to other resources.
Digital transformation, despite the technical wording, is still all about the business. Digital transformation is how a business delivers value to its various stakeholders – customers, employees, partners, and owners – through the application of digital technologies and methods and across the entire enterprise. So it isn’t just about IT, it’s about the business as a whole.
More than ever, CEOs are wondering what their company should look like in the future and how it will get there. CIOs often describe their digital transformation challenges in technical terms, but agility is not just a concern in the datacenter. Time-to-market pressures are mounting. Ensuring better access to talent and skills is a growing concern. Companies need resources to maintain their systems while at the same time adding new people to evolve and improve them. Integration and connectivity are also key concerns in this interconnected and self-serve virtual society. Another important question is how current systems are able to scale for business growth. Growing companies organically put strains on existing systems. Adding new divisions or groups as a result of acquisitions adds to the mix by having multiple systems and databases needing to integrate with each other. The above situations offer a glimpse into just some of the reasons companies come knocking on our door to get some help. Whether clients already have ideas, or if they have been trying something new out, what’s important is that we work collaboratively together to find the best solution for them.
There are four essential elements to consider when going through a digital transformation project.
- Make sure you bring value to the business: Digital transformation projects tend to be larger sized projects that don’t easily fit within standard IT operating budgets and therefore need approval by the business. Technical people will describe challenges in technical terms. This often results in projects that lose out to competing ones that are able to demonstrated value-add to the business. This is about building a business case. Aligning to top business priorities and showing rapid added value from the project will put your modernization project one step closer to getting approved. We tell our clients to ensure they are not going to build something today that will be thrown away tomorrow. Mapping out the digital transformation journey on the longest horizon possible will make it as holistic as it can be. We see too many companies taking the trial-and-error approach which more often than not results in throw-aways. Part of thinking longer term is building a target reference architecture that’s capable to survive the test of time. Picking low hanging fruit for low cost, more immediate benefits is a good strategy as long as it’s something that does not get throw away down the road.
- Conduct a forensic current state assessment of your assets: Doing a factual assessment of what hardware, software, application, data, and people assets you actually have is a key element. Most companies don’t really have a handle on what they own because their systems were built over 20 or 25 years ago and these have been touched by many different people, some of which may have left long ago. Getting an accurate picture of how much code you have and how much is actually still being used today is a necessary step to assessing how much effort your digital transformation journey will need. This is the only way to get a budget and a timeline that make sense. Hardware configurations and upgrade schedules, imminent retirement dates of key resources, and a skill set inventory are just a few of the additional elements that can complete the picture of the starting point of your journey.
- Adopt better tools and processes to optimize your productivity: You’ll need a set of modern DevOps tools. We often see teams that are using tools that are as dated as the code that they are maintaining. Companies who upgrade their DevOps tools and their coding practices and development methodologies can attract and retain younger talent with newer skills. You don’t want your RPG or COBOL programmer with two decades of experience spend time training a replacement, only to have them leave because they don’t have access to modern DevOps tools on the IBM i platform. Having a practice that captures and centralizes the knowledge and then facilitates ongoing sharing and collaboration will ensure business continuity no longer relies on a few key individuals who can leave on a moment’s notice.
- Don’t forget the need for change and talent management: It always was and always will be about attracting and keeping the right talent while managing change. It’s about getting the right expertise. Retraining is important because you can’t afford to lose the people that know your business really well. You also must ensure that the people you have are in the right roles. As an example, everyone on the programming team might want to get involved with the new Java project, but the ones that know RPG really well have to keep the lights on as well as being part of this project to keep them happy and motivated. Automation is key here. If there is a tool that can do a job while taking less time, costing less, and yielding higher quality results – use it. Reserve the manual work for the more creative and tougher jobs while leaving the tools to do a lot of the heavier, repetitive and automatable jobs.
If there is one thing that is in short supply on a digital transformation journey, it’s time. The time to act is critical. Sometimes, companies start their modernization projects too late, after they have lost key people. While getting started sooner than later is critical, I caution people to not jump in before they have a plan of their own unique step-by-step journey. Knowing what your journey looks like as quickly as possible is an important element of success. You don’t have time, or people, or money to waste. So get started. . . today!
The Thoroughly Modern column is sponsored by Fresche Solutions every month in coordination with IT Jungle as part of its sponsored content program. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to reach Fresche Solutions right here.
Emmanuel Tzinevrakis is vice president of client solutions at Fresche Solutions. During his 30+ years working for companies across the globe, Emmanuel has held various postions in sales, engineering, customer support, and services delivery. Today, Emmanuel leads a global team of client solution advisors and strategists who help organizations find creative ways to meet their business, technology and organizational goals. As an IT strategist, Emmanuel facilitates visioning, strategizing, and planning for the modernization of mission-critical business applications to maximize organizational impact, value creation, and ROI.