Legacy apps biggest challenge for CIOs, says former Portugal Telecom tech chief

Former Portugal Telecom CIO Manuel Rosa da Silva was addressing delegates at Forrester Research's Forum for Technology Leaders in Lisbon

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Legacy applications must be culled in order for large businesses to survive in a fast-changing competitive landscape, according to the former CIO and CTO of Portugal Telecom.

“Legacy has been the single largest difficulty [for Portugal Telecom]. Unless you take a machete to legacy and start killing it, you are not going to make any way forward,” Manuel Rosa da Silva told delegates during a keynote at the Forrester Forum in Lisbon today.

“It is great to be optimistic that the future is greater than the past, but one of the biggest problems I have found as a technologist are the things we built yesterday.” 

Da Silva - until yesterday the technology chief of the Portuguese telecom firm, which has 100 million customers, both domestically and in Brazil - was responsible for the largest technology budget in the country, spending $10 billion in the past few years (“Most of it overspent and half of it probably still underused,” he quipped to the audience of CIOs and IT decision makers).

He explained that the complexity caused by company’s extensive legacy environment was the biggest barrier to the business as it modernises its operations. “It is not just the websites that have too much content, it is all the code that we have got as the largest technology operation in the country. A lot of the stuff that is making your phones work today is pre-COBOL.”

The telco, which also provides television and fibre broadband services, has been moving from mobile into the internet of things and supporting machine to machine communications, for example.

“A telco is like other industries - the pace of change is accelerating," he said. "History has ended, and we are in a post-modern, very complex world, where the normal dialectic of history trundling along country to country is no longer with us. And so unfortunately, I think things are going to get a lot more difficult for technologists, and not easier."

Taking the axe to legacy apps

In order to address the company’s legacy environment, da Silva created a team tasked specifically with ‘killing’ applications, and another separate team whose focus is on removing products and services. 

“They are called the 007 team - they have a license to kill,” he explained. “They actually get their variable compensation based on the number of applications they take down, and the number of products and services they manage to migrate onto more modern products and services."

He said that the number of enterprise-wide applications has now been reduced from 420 to “the high three hundreds...and we are keeping going”.

Da Silva also pointed out that the legacy environment has required a complex array of orchestration software to manage it.

“I have several different orchestration systems that orchestrate my orchestration systems,” he said.

“I spent ten years exposing services on legacy platforms. We now have IBM bringing in orchestration platforms, we have Outsystems also working on orchestration systems. So [we are] actually trying to hide all of this legacy. I feel like I am trying to put cosmetic cream on to hide all the wrinkles but obviously it is not working.

Addressing cultural challenges 

In addition, da Silva said that attracting a pool of talent and keeping them away from the lure of Silicon Valley is also a major headache for a large telco, particularly in terms of creating a common ‘culture’ across the business.

“We have agile teams, waterfall teams, they try and work together. They speak together, but like the English and Americans they are divided by a common language,” he said.  

“The way they work, the way they approach a problem, trying to migrate infrastructure onto the cloud - this cultural problem is probably the single largest management problem I have in terms of spending money on technology today.

“It is not choosing which software platform, it is not choosing which technology provider, or choosing which architectural team should design the next generation of services of my company. It is actually creating a talent pool of likeminded individuals that have a common view on where the company should go and what the technology should be doing.”