The mission-critical software evolution
Thu 9 Jul 2020 | Mike Hughes
From zany Excel macros, to low-code platform control. Here’s how mission-critical apps have evolved
It’s a simple fact of software life. Not all applications start life as mission-critical; but, much like our own process of human evolution, at some point in their lifecycle, they evolve to become more fundamental to the core operations and central workflows that an organisation needs in order to survive.
Initially, many software applications may be created on the basis of an initial deployment rationale for some lower-level functional procedure, perhaps for a specific line of business, or some other more comparatively lesser task.
But, in time, due to market shifts and a range of other factors, those initially quite basic apps start to become mission-critical. So we need to be able to evolve applications that started life differently if we are to ensure security and scalability.
Risk of fragmentation
So, applications often have to grow up and mature, often very rapidly. This creates its own challenge, because where the business function can’t get what it needs from the IT department quickly, it starts to try and solve its own problems with technologies that weren’t bought by IT and thus can’t stand the demands of a mission-critical deployment.
The IT function then ends up with a fragmented set of tools across the technology estate and this division opens up security risks, operational risks and the possibility of wider financial risks.
There are more effective, robust and productive ways to tackle the need to create application and data services that uber-evolve in a short space of time; the low code revolution can form a large part of the answer to the mission-critical evolution.
But let’s use a practical example. A couple of years ago I ran an engagement event initiative which saw me speak to IT managers across various different industries to assess their application challenges. I’d always ask how many people’s business runs on Excel (in one form or other) and you know, most of the room would raise their hand.
Bendy crazy macros
Excel is a victim of its own success for these companies. Business people find that they can use it for a range of functions from business planning, to sales forecasting to actual standard spreadsheet calculations. When firms start to ‘bend’ Excel and come up with some crazy macros that end up in turning output into what is considered to be mission-critical applications and data, then you know there’s some fragile architecting going on.
When these macros break, then the business really starts to realise quite how fragile a foundation it had been operating upon. Nobody has a means of fixing the situation and nobody wants to take responsibility for the cleanup operation.
We’ve now seen the emergence of no-code and low-code alongside different ways for lines of business now to self-serve and not always have to wait on IT to create solutions. Taking a platform-based approach to software solution provision allows us to keep control of information channels and be able to centralise data management.
Simply creating a pop-up web page forms-based application for customer information entry will fail to address data governance and compliance issues; there are no shortcuts with a free lunch here. When disconnected silos of badly (if at all) integrated data start to pop up everywhere, then the whole situation starts to spiral… and not in a good way.
IT to the rescue,… sort of
What happens next is that IT typically looks to assess the user requirements being evidenced by the shadow IT that has been created. The IT function then looks to rewrite the functionality needed in the code structures and language forms that it is accustomed to. This method is typically serviceable, but often at the expense of what the users really wanted.
This offload also often comes at the expense of mission-critical planning, which is where we started this conversation. If the IT function has created what might often be ‘quick fix’ applications to serve the needs of users as fast as possible, the likelihood of a bottleneck quickly surfaces.
All too often, speedy rapid application development platforms aren’t designed to allow simpler applications to become mission-critical. Inevitably, again, we find that these applications (which we might call upmarket Excel macros) are what the organisation uses to run the business. Things have not really moved on.
A more holistic approach
A more holistic approach is to leverage a coding platform that has breadth and depth. It’s usually the non-functional requirements inside any given application that concern IT most. Core aspects of software functionality like scalability, robustness and scope of function are only possible when you’re using platform tools with breadth. Otherwise you’re looking at a lot of hand coding, which takes a lot of time… and as we know, time is money.
This type of progression is a question of technical re-architecting, obviously. But it’s also a question of cultural re-architecting. CIOs will need to manage their team’s expectations and be able to translate deployment plans and progress to the business function in the most communicable way possible.
But it’s a two-way street. As much as low-code powered IT needs to gain closer proximity to business and develop a more tightly tuned appreciation of what mission-criticality means, business needs to realise that it can more productively work alongside IT to help create application functionality going forward.
In a perfect world, if it were possible, this allows us to end up creating cross-functional teams of people that understand the business they talk about and operate within.
No flip & rip switch
We can use low-code platforms to get us to a point where Line of Business managers are no longer frustrated enough to start trying to wire in their own backyard solutions. It shouldn’t happen overnight and we don’t recommend flipping the switch to rip and replace any already-established set of legacy software ‘solutions’.
Instead, companies need to take a systematic approach to auditing their IT real estate, finding the zany pockets of Excel and then strategically bringing in the new software tools that have mission-critical DNA foundations for the long term.
Take the high road to low-code and you’ll reach your destination faster, with less mud on your boots… and plenty of time for your next slice of business evolution.