Money For Nothing: Why COBOL Conversion Projects Fail

Successful COBOL conversion is all about managing risk- of staying on legacy systems as well as the risk involved in moving to new ones. We asked two of our senior leaders, VP of Engineering Florin Sunel and VP of Delivery, John Regan to weigh in on what makes conversion projects fail. Sunel helped design and build our translation software and has been part of conversion projects for more than 10 years. Regan has been working in the field since the mid-90s. Both agree the reasons are basic and get right to the core of what it means to modernize.

Technology Tunnel-Vision

There’s more involved in COBOL conversion than modern languages, IDEs, components, and platforms. Large organizations often have millions of lines of COBOL. It encapsulates decades of business processes, lessons and protocols. “There are definitely productivity improvements in going from structured languages to object-oriented languages, tools, components or frameworks,” says Sunel. “But that perspective is all about value for IT – not business-centric modernization, aligning business with IT. When is the last time you saw a business stakeholder go through Java code or use Eclipse?” “It’s always a good idea to catalogue your business logic and technical use cases,” adds Regan. “It’s costly and frustrating to address this challenge after the migration.”

Modern Systems’ solutions guarantee a 100% business logic and functionality match between the legacy and target environment. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Sunel. “IT gets their new environment and the business doesn’t lose any of the critical processes collected over the years.”

Unrealistic Expectations for COBOL Conversion

Setting a clear path for success starts long before contracts are signed. Modern Systems is careful to set expectations in the sales process for what it will take to make the project a success. “It’s not always the popular thing to do,” says Regan. “But transparency is critical for success. In the middle of a sales process it is easy to promise more than can be realistically delivered. When this happens projects get into trouble.” To make sure we keep everyone honest, Modern Systems involves delivery staff in every sales cycle. “The delivery staff ensure we can deliver what we promise,” says Regan. “They lay out clear steps to the customer so they understand exactly what’s necessary to make the project work.”

Relationship Melodrama

For a COBOL conversion project to be a success the customer has got to want it to work. This sounds obvious, but at large organizations politics often become a factor. If a project is sponsored by one group but opposed by others who need to be engaged for the project, it’s doomed. “Internal infighting is a recipe for disaster,” says Regan. The boundaries of a successful relationship must also be respected by the vendor and customer. “There needs to be some element of give and take,” adds Regan. “If one partner is inflexible and refuses to engage in whatever is needed to make the project succeed then the project is likely to run into problems.”

Remember the End User

Most legacy systems are highly transactional and automated, but still elevate exceptions to humans. Managing exceptions can be the critical to the daily operations of the business. If the COBOL conversion effort is solely focused on the operational or system areas without looking at the enablement of the human participants who handle exceptions, the result is partial and incomplete conversion. “Since employees are trained on familiar systems, replacing them without understanding the modern solution doesn’t make their lives easier,” says Regan.

Our Automated Conversion solutions include the Presentation layer. “We actually reproduce the mainframe look and feel in HTML,” says Sunel. “The business and IT can educate users without the shock of a new visual experience and users can get the enhanced functionality of the new platform without a steep re-learning process.”  Be sure to make a concerted effort to involve and educate the end user. Your new systems are only as good as the people using them.

We hope this helps with your COBOL conversion journey.

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