• United States



by Phil Murphy

Modernizing Legacy Programmer Skills

Dec 13, 200411 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

CIOs often turn to external consultants to introduce leading-edge technology into their IT environments. While this practice expedites getting the new technology in the door, it addresses only one aspect of three (people, process, technology). Ignoring the impact to people and process creates an entirely new set of problems. In many respects, writing source code is the easiest part of the project ensuring that the system fully integrates to the processes within the environment, that people can support and maintain it, and that operators can successfully run and service it are the most difficult aspects and the ones most frequently overlooked. Amentra offers a new spin on this problem one worthy of consideration by companies seeking to upgrade not only their legacy systems but also the skills of their staff as an integral part of success rather than an afterthought.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

A popular story about consultants isnt particularly flattering, but it provides insight into some of the extreme bias that exists. The story defines the word consultant in the following manner when you ask a consultant what time it is, the consultant takes your watch, tells you what time it is, and then keeps your watch. Humor aside, the story supplies insight into the stereotypes and biases that have developed around IT staffers and consultants.

Battle of the Ages Stereotypes Collide

The largest difference between staff who have been seasoned by several years of broad, practical IT experience and those educated more recently and focused on a single, hot technology is how each perceives the others value.

  • Seasoned IT staffers stereotype consultants as too young to know anything. IT staffers characterize consultants as inexperienced kids, fresh from college, who storm in and earn multiples of staff salaries while they learn what they supposedly already know. While one could argue that the model did exist in some form in the 1990s, it is no longer prevailing or even viable as a long-term model.
  • Consultants stereotype the IT staff as mired in ancient technology. In the opinion of some consultants, IT staff are ancient born of another time, wedded to structured procedural logic at best and spaghetti coding at worst but nonetheless attached to technology that has no relevance in todays world.

Both of these views grew like kudzu weed from the smallest seeds of truth; some IT staffers are permanently rooted in older technology, while some consultants are little more than trainees, driven to accumulate billable hours at egregious hourly rates. However, both stereotypes are extreme and overly simplistic. The important point is this: Without intervention, the biases continue to grow until they consume active projects and doom them to failure. The past 15 years are littered with projects that failed because of the culture clash of these two groups.

Time for a Reality Check

The IT stereotypes are based in thin slivers of truth and, like most stereotypes, blown completely out of proportion. Here is a resetting of the reality of the situation:

  • CIOs dont have the luxury of time. Hiring external consultants to introduce new technology may be the only way to implement a project within businesses time constraints. Remember, IT staffers: That is why IT exists.
  • Internal staff resent lost opportunities to learn and advance. It is natural for staff to covet assignments that will advance their skills and career. When staff feel they will continually be passed over for new technology opportunities, they move on. IT managers should think about how this will derail their other IT projects, forcing them to move resources from their new technology projects to keep operational systems running.
  • Some consultants are experienced in comparatively few technologies. IT managements challenge is to leverage their technical depth as complementary to, not in competition with, internal staffers skills.
  • Internal staffers know the existing systems and business processes. Alienating internal staff will certainly prevent this knowledge from being designed into the new system an event that will harm the final outcome.
  • Some internal staffers are intransigent, happiest with older technology. This doesnt make them useless, only most useful in another area. Use them where they are happy, as well as useful to you.
  • Consultants heighten tension by deferring operational tasks to internal staff. Staffers view this as having the grunt work dumped on them by consultants, but in fairness, there is little point in teaching consultants the deeper operational aspects of the IT environment unless they will eventually assume support responsibilities.
  • IT staffers animosity builds, fueling passive resistance. In the best of circumstances, passive resistance is damaging. When internal staffers have no stake in the success or failure of a project or have incentives but are so jaded that they view the incentives as not attainable, they work against the projects success.
  • Knowledge transfer garners little attention until it is too late. Documentation, training, and knowledge transfer draw the short straw. Occurring at the last stages of project turnover, these items if done at all are often an afterthought and completed in a rushed manner as the main contingent of skilled consultants move on to other assignments.

Legacy Skills Shortage as an Excuse Invites Turnover

IT managers who justify keeping internal staff out of new technology projects, based on a shortage of legacy skills or application knowledge, may as well ask some of their best employees to leave. The implied message is that the internal staff will retire from the company working on those same systems.

The hype around the shortage of qualified legacy technologists grows each day. Pundits would have us believe that 1.5 million COBOL programmers will suddenly disappear one day, leaving any company with legacy technology in dire straights.1 The truth is that there are far more programmers with legacy skills looking for work than there are jobs for them, as evidenced by organizations like Legacy Reserves, which functions as a training and job matching service for unemployed or underemployed programmers wishing to modernize their skills.2

Amentras Model Make Skills Transfer And Process Change Part of Success

Traditional consulting models displace internal staff for development and employ them for integration and operational aspects but rarely throughout the entire project as integral contributors to the design and implementation. Amentra, formerly Distributed Objex, takes a different tack, one that meshes with the goals of introducing new technology at an evolutionary pace. Amentra crafts consulting engagements that are governed by seasoned experts and staffed with the right blend of experience in the legacy technology that companies own and the technology they want to introduce. Client-company internal staff form the bulk of project staff.

With the right mix of staff chosen and assigned, Amentra embarks on an intense and rapid hybrid of formal training, homework assignments, on-the-job training, and mentoring. It uses the completion of real projects as a vehicle to educate programmers and introduce new technology.

A Model For Choosing The Right People

Forrester offers a useful model for new technology adoption and classifying internal staff, called managing the middle third, which fits hand in glove with Amentras consulting model.3 The model posits that one third of staff are happy working in the existing, familiar technology and instructs managers to leave them there. Another third are highly motivated, anxious to use new technology, and require little guidance. The middle third will lean in one direction or the other according to how they are managed, hence the importance of managing the middle third.

Forresters manage the middle third model meshes with Amentras consulting model in the following ways:

  • Leave the one-third that are satisfied with existing technology where they are. Except for design considerations that affect or integrate with existing systems where their expertise is necessary, let these folks keep the trains running.
  • Assign some of the highly motivated staff to be mentored by Amentra. Highly motivated staff are far more likely to immerse themselves in the training and afterhours homework assignments that are key to rapid and intense learning.
  • Attach some of the middle third for midlevel project assignments. A project staffed with nothing but the best and brightest loses efficiency when egos clash. A mix of talent, skills, and motivational levels will more closely match the variety of project assignments.

At project completion, the highly motivated internal staff show clear progress toward their career goals new skills and experiences to add to their resume. Being exposed to new technology, the middle third will go where they are led and where their desires take them. They will migrate toward future project lead roles or to new technology support roles. Those who want to keep the existing systems running with existing technology will leverage their strengths and perhaps take on supervisory roles vacated by advancing staff. The new openings in this model are where they should be: entry-level positions to backfill some of the existing systems maintenance positions. The perfect place to assemble newly graduated recruits is from an in-house training program on legacy skills. Perhaps the legacy skills shortage is more a function of a failure to properly manage our resources than a true shortage.

Whats The Catch?

Amentras model actually makes a lot of intuitive sense. The worst bargain in consulting is when tens or hundreds of consultants are brought onboard en masse. The disruption to the IT environment and the learning curve make for weeks of ineffcient, but billable, time.

Using Amentras model, the company culls the right mix of programmers and runs them through an in-house boot camp environment to get them the skills they need. Amentra immediately puts the skills to work with project assignments to reinforce the training. The project risk is mitigated by the fact that Amentras staff are running the show, yet internal staff are involved every step of the way. Knowledge transfer is continuous, not an afterthought.

It is fair to point out that intense training and on-the-job learning are not new concepts. Amentras method (success = a completed project + skills modernization + process change) is certainly unusual and may be unique in the industry.

The model will be constrained by how many of your best you can afford to have on any one project, the optimum mentor-to-student ratio, and Amentras ability to hire and keep very senior-level staff. So, smaller, important projects are good bets for this model. Massive outsourcing of projects is better suited for more conventional arrangements or a series of smaller, Amentra-governed projects.


Big Bang Technology Change Leaves People and Process Unchanged

One of the many failure points of big bang technical change is the fact that it leaves people and process behind. An evolutionary approach like Amentras gives people and processes the opportunity to evolve forward in pace with technology change.

  • Avoid concentrating risk in the last 10 percent of the project. The more traditional approaches to consulting concentrate risk at the end of the project just when implementation issues take precedence over training, documentation, and proper turnover. Mitigate risk by getting internal sta. involved from day one not to watch consultants do the work but as an integral part of the team that build, test, and implement the system.
  • Manage the middle third. Maintaining the existing systems is an important job that frees other staff to perform new development. Give it the respect it deserves by assigning someone who wants to do that work. Turn the people who are eager for new technology loose on your new technology projects, and manage the remaining third according to their desires and talents.
  • Adopt an Amentra-like mode. Whether the organization has not implemented any new technology projects, has attempted and failed at such projects, has had marginal success, or has had moderate success at adopting new technology, adopting an Amentra-like model will ensure that people and process are part and parcel of successful project implementations.


1 The shortage of legacy programmers has been overhyped by pundits. For Forresters viewpoint on debunking the hype, see the February 20, 2003, IdeaByte “No Monster Shortage of Legacy Skills in 2003.”

2 Legacy Reserves takes seasoned IT staffers looking for work and offers them new technology training as a means of reinserting them into the modern workforce. For more information about the program, see

3 Managing the middle third is a smart way to ensure that people receive opportunities that meet their needs and the needs of the company. For a full explanation of managing the middle third, see the June 20, 2002, Planning Assumption “A Model for New Application Development Technology Adoption.”