Why Wal-Mart's CIO Calls Legacy IT Systems 'Classic'

It's about motivating people with great talent who keep the lights on.
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Wal-Mart CIO Karenann Terrell prefers to refer to legacy IT systems as "classic." Her reason? To make the people tending to those systems feel good about their work.

"Classic is respectful for the people who are actually going to be keeping the lights on," while Wal-Mart goes through a significant IT modernization, Terrell told the InformationWeek Conference last week. "We don't have a choice of alienating people with language. Does anyone here believe they have all the talent they need? … It's really important to keep engaged those who are operating the environment as well as those who are changing it. Both are equally valuable but for completely different reasons."

Don't dismiss this "classic" idea as business-speak political correctness. Dealing with legacy IT environments, and particularly with how well companies connect legacy systems to their modern, often customer-facing mobile and cloud environments, will make or break some companies, and some CIO careers. Beyond the technical problems, though, legacy IT creates an HR and cultural challenge, if the keepers of long-running systems get diminished and only the builders rewarded.

Terrell even warned against thinking of "modernization" as a project with a beginning and an end. "With our classic environment, the moment we roll through the modernization of that, we'll see new trends in technology and new capabilities emerge," she said. "So modernization is just a way of working."

It's clear that the mobile and cloud revolutions will leave a lot of legacy IT firmly in place for many years to come. As the industry gets better at API-driven, lightweight integration with mobile, and Web apps, it might even slow the shift away from those long-running systems.

Again and again at the InformationWeek Conference, we heard IT leaders talk about how important it is for them to tie their existing business models -- and thus legacy systems -- to new, digital channels. Keeping good people motivated and well-trained in these keep-the-lights on jobs won't be easy.

[ Embracing Agile? Read Nordstrom VP's advice on taking the emotion out of agile transformation. ]

At Allstate, the IT organization calls these systems "evergreen," said Andy Zitney, Allstate senior VP of infrastructure, at the InformationWeek Conference.

In a 90-year-old insurance business, these systems might be decades old, including mainframe applications doing transactional work that faces high regulatory scrutiny. A veteran of PayPal, Zitney is driving a major IT innovation effort, bringing in agile development techniques, DevOps, and pushing new infrastructure approaches such as cloud computing architectures. But some of those evergreen applications will be the last -- if ever -- to be rewritten for cloud environments.

IT leaders face a staffing challenge as they modernize and maintain their classic/evergreen/legacy systems. There will be some turnover as the skill needs shift. But leaders can't afford to have a two-tier IT shop, with the cool kids doing the innovative new development work and the dead-end careers propping up the legacy systems the company must have to operate.

CIOs may get hired to innovate, but they get fired in a hurry if they can't keep the lights on.

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