How do you maintain your company’s programming skills on legacy systems?

The future of many legacy applications are frequently determined by one or two decisive events that happen during the lifetime of a critical application and it is usually not related to the performance of the software itself. Normally, the software lifecycle tends to conform to two bell curves as related to return on investment (ROI) and risk (of failure). Over time, the return on investment and subsequent risk rises as a significant amount of time passes. This is displayed in the graphic below:

Application Return on Investment and Risk over time

More often than not, it is the risk is associated with keeping the skills needed to keep the application healthy that is the biggest issue. Often an event occurs related to the software maintenance or management staff that causes problems for the future of the application. As an integrator with many years experience, we have seen this dynamic play out many times before: a company’s critical application that was developed and maintained for many years very successfully suddenly reaches an impasse on its future. It can be traced back to one or two events:

1. a key developer/engineer with in-depth knowledge of the application retires or leaves the company. Suddenly, the company in unprepared to handle future maintenance on the application.

2. There is a radical management change due to promotion, M&A or retirement. New management comes in and decides that the old system has to go.

As a result of either of these scenarios, the management decides to re-evaluate the worthiness of keeping the application and cites rising costs as the driving factor. While this can be used to drive management’s agenda to replace the application, it is usually the risk or loss of technical expertise that seals an application’s fate. Replacing the skills of a long time developer or maintenance analyst is difficult even if the application is well documented and maintained. If you add the requirements of a legacy language like COBOL, Fortran, C, Pascal or Basic, the task becomes very challenging since these programming skills are scarce and with very few exceptions, they are not taught in universities or colleges. Add to that the liability of using a legacy platform, and you have a good case for application replacement. In addition to the risk, the biggest problem is cost, which is sometimes ten to twenty times the cost of yearly maintenance. Totally replacing an application that is working smoothly but has a foreseeable maintenance issue in the future makes it very hard to justify immediate action to upper management. They are averse to spending money on an application that hasn’t cost them a lot of money over the years.

So you are stuck with maintaining an application with little or no programming expertise on the platform or the language the application is written in. You have the departing analyst’s salary in your budget and if you can find a consultant with the expertise, you can hire them part time, but even that is a temporary fix. So what do you do?

If a programming course for the language does not exist, you can try to get your consultant to teach your new developer the application language basics. How do you get the newbie trained in the quickest possible manner?  Here is a solution: use the Eclipse-based NXTware Remote for COBOL, Fortran, C, Pascal and Basic development. NXTware Remote provides the ability to develop in legacy languages with intelligent editors on Windows, Mac or linux in a distributed development environment. Specifically, the NXTware platform contains an engine that runs on the legacy system and communicates with the desktop IDE, interprets commands to manage the source files, compile, debug and execute the binaries (executables) on the legacy platform remotely. The process of learning a new language becomes simpler since the newbie is using an environment they already know from Java developer classes. The interface breaks down the barrier to learning and provides an environment with which the developer is already comfortable. The new developer learns to program in the legacy language remotely without having to learn the legacy job control language or any of the infrastructure of the mainframe.

By modernizing with NXTware Remote you extend the ROI

In this way, a neophyte can learn the structure of a legacy programming language and not worry about the mainframe infrastructure necessary to compile and test the code.  Using this distributed development environment can jump start your legacy application’s entry into newer development technologies.

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