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Unicorns And Legacy – The Hidden Cost Of Two Speed IT

Tuesday 07 January, 2020

Creating the right blend of digital skills can be a significant challenge for organisations, who need to balance the need to attract and retain the right balance of ‘Unicorns’, those highly sought-after, business- and IT-savvy staff, while keeping the ‘Legacy’ crew feeling appreciated.

Legacy’s Image Problem

I recently spoke to a large bank who described the trouble they were having attracting and retaining staff to support their extensive legacy estate. The grey hairs were cashing in their pension pots and heading off to Spain while they still can. Meanwhile the bright young things (I will resist the M word) thought it all a bit dirty and very un-gig economy work with which to sully their resumes.

Worse still, this contagion has spread and the problems with attracting talent are now evident in their offshore vendor teams who will try equally hard to give their legacy work a wide berth.

It’s not fair to be too critical, however. People born after a certain date are very savvy folk. They recognise the pace of change and that it will quicken inexorably. Picking up iron age skills like COBOL for short-term gain is a dangerous game that could create a toxic CV in the not very distant future.

Then There’s The ‘Image’ Image Problem...

Even having a mountain of new tech to be delivered in a new way won’t guarantee a queue of applicants.

There was a time when getting a position at ‘the Bank’, the Post Office or the Gas Board was a dream job for a young IT worker. Nowadays, however, large established organisations have to compete with ‘bright new upstarts’ such as the Netflixes or Spotifies. The Ms will even endure (reportedly) brutal delivery expectations in the gaming industry just to be tagged to a cool brand.

No matter how ground breaking the gamified user interface that the electricity distribution business plans might be, at the end of the day they are still a utility company…and we don’t play Monopoly so much these days! The outcome can mean either being unable to attract the talent or paying over the odds to do so.

Two-Speed Turmoil

Meanwhile in Happy Valley, the creatives turn a blind eye to the solid-state core of their businesses and focus on the sparkly digital future, where ‘agile and scrums and sprints and devops’ mean we don’t need to worry too hard about where we are going or where we have been.

Two Speed IT was the slightly unimaginative moniker given to this phenomenon a few years back. Then it seemed an entirely manageable coexistence of the old and the new.

In practice the fissures between the two are exposing commercial and practical challenges for almost every organisation on a digital (or even legacy) pathway.

Market Forces Should Prevail

Lionel Robbins defines economics as “A science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.”

The behaviours we are seeing are creating scarcity of supply in legacy skills, so the price of those resources will hold up despite falling demand.

In theory, there ought to be some balance on the digital side where a plentiful supply of eager labour is available for all the new stuff.

In our experience the reality is somewhat different, with virtual fist fights and bidding wars in the battle to secure the most capable resources.

A parallel issue in the eternal drive for a decent PxQ is the craft movement that Agile ways of working can encourage. With no definitive end-point for a pre-determined deliverable, there is a default towards unbounded T&M, trust and some crossing of fingers that the baby will be healthy. It can feel like P and Q are on a perpetual rave with the grown-ups in charge contemplating their feet when the Board asks what they’re getting for their money.

Bedazzled By Unicorns

In the new world we don’t want too much hierarchy or stove piping of skills. We want business integrated, multi-skilled, solution-oriented, self-sustaining teams that move relentlessly from one sprint to the next. Or to use the native vernacular, we want Full Stack, T-Shaped, E-Shaped super heroes. We want them to be all wise and to have the capability to tackle every issue from business strategy and enterprise architecture down to load testing and GUI designs. In other words, we want multi-faceted creatures who are, unfortunately, as rare as their namesake…we want Unicorns! Or, at least that’s what we think we want.

The problem these new ‘behaviours’ create are threefold:

• Firstly, we look to resource teams almost exclusively with Unicorns. Great for getting anything done…no matter how mundane, but an expensive one size fits all approach.

• Secondly, this quest for the perfect assembly of super-beings can overlook the importance of ‘the team’ which needs a mix of capabilities and time to grow into something powerful. Unicorns are sensitive creatures. It’s not uncommon to find them ruffling each other’s feathers with churn and disruption the dominant outcome.

• Thirdly, real Unicorns are tricky to identify, but not hard to imitate. We think we’ve bought a box of Unicorns only to rip open the packaging and find we got flamingos instead…very showy but light on delivery!

If you’re actually all flamingos and no Unicorns, but your flamingos think they are Unicorns, you can find yourself in a real mess with poor architectural, design, build or sourcing decisions creating your next Legacy of technology debt or worse.

Economics can’t cope. Both Demand and Supply are corrupted with price the victim.

Back To Basics

The solution? Well, that’s the boring bit. Value the old as well as the new, so you at least retain your capacity to keep those legacy systems and your business functioning.

For the new stuff, build truly mixed teams with fewer exotic creatures, a broader range of capability and headroom to grow, but maintain the excitement that makes digital projects rewarding places to be.

Marketing to Millennials (oh no, I said it) is becoming a necessity if you’re not one of those glamour brands. This is the case in all business functions, but perhaps especially true in tech roles.

Whether it’s old guard or new vanguard, check you have the right mix and pay the true market rate for the skills you need.

Then there’s the thorny issue of how to get off the new tech addiction to unrestrained time and materials working. That’s where Coeus can help build the structures, governance and commercial models that bring back accountability. The solutions we are creating allow appropriately mixed internal teams to work seamlessly with eco-systems of suppliers on agile contracts that deliver outcomes at last comprehensible to the Board.

Read more about our Sourcing capabilities here