This Tech Leader Breaks Down How You Can Avoid Business Disaster With This Often-Overlooked Tactic
If you only visit a doctor once a decade, you're more likely to get a bad bill of health. It's the same deal with software.
This kind of thinking is understandable but dangerous. Survival of the fittest holds every bit as true for businesses as it does for animals. For both, failing to adapt to a changing environment can lead to extinction.
There is one crucial difference between the natural and business worlds: Companies can choose to evolve. If you're running a business, part of adapting means making sure the software that enabled you to succeed in the past can still do so today. Are your current tools still the right instruments to best serve customers, outperform competitors, and generate the best return on investment?
Of course, corporate leaders already have their hands full, as businesses struggle to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, job vacancies, supply chain issues, and an abundance of other challenges. For many executives, the thought of taking on any other task, much less reviewing their existing tech stack (the collection of software and other technologies a company has selected) sounds as appealing as a root canal without an anesthetic.
Most corporate leaders know their own industries inside and out…but they aren't usually tech experts. The process of evaluating technology can be confusing, frustrating, expensive, and downright intimidating. Companies often lack the in-house expertise to evaluate their options and make informed decisions. They may feel that investing in new software is a luxury they can't afford. They may fear that implementing new software will cause expensive disruptions. Or they may simply be unaware of just how outdated their existing software has become.
Whatever the reason, the result is the same: when it comes to technology, far too many people wait until it's too late. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that people tend to delay updating their software, even when told that it's important.
The Dangers of Doing Nothing
While your software may stay the same, everything else keeps changing, faster than ever. This can bring about disastrous consequences. Take Equifax. In 2017, the credit reporting agency announced hackers had gained access to the personal information of more than 143 million people. How did a theft this massive occur? Was it the result of a carefully planned inside job? No. Turns out the company's IT department failed to patch a known security vulnerability in one of its web applications.
Similarly, Target experienced a huge data breach in which the credit and debit card information of 70 million people was stolen, resulting in an estimated financial loss to Target of over $290 million.
The problems are by no means limited to security. Just look at the airline industry. It suffers regular glitches from aging systems. The result: United, American, Southwest, and many other airlines have suffered thousands of flight cancellations and scheduling delays, as outdated software leads to litigation, employee frustration, customer anger, and a general loss of revenue.
So what do you do to protect your company? One of the best first steps is to audit your existing tech stack every three to five years.
Why All Companies Need Audits
Would a trucking company go for years without inspecting its vehicle fleet? Of course not: It needs to conduct maintenance and eventually replace trucks with problems. Or let's take a business with less life-or-death stakes. Would a TV network keep airing shows with terrible viewership year after year, just because it's easier than finding ones that people will watch? In business, set-it-and-forget-it simply isn't an option.
Just as companies of all kinds monitor themselves in so many ways, they need to reevaluate their tech stack every few years to ensure they keep up with changing times.
Think of the audit as a medical checkup. If you go for years without seeing a doctor, you might discover a minor ailment has turned into a life-threatening problem. It's a heartbreaking discovery and particularly frustrating because, looking back, you realize you had symptoms. Still… you were so busy. Why bother? So you put it out of mind until it was too big to ignore.
Computer software is a lot like your health: It's easy to forget about until something's clearly wrong. And by then, it's too late for an easy fix.
The audit can identify areas that need improvement, as well as outright problems. You discover what's working, what's outdated, and what changes need to be made. It's your chance to get a good sense of the latest and greatest tools available and figure out which of them you need now.
Audits Allow for a New Perspective
Audits work best when conducted by an outside company. Ideally, the auditor should be impartial — the company should not have a vested interest in either defending a company's existing software or selling a new software platform. The auditor should have the ability to take a fresh look at the software, as well as the expertise to identify the most promising improvements.
After getting the results of a software audit, it's time for corporate executives to make some decisions. What software are you happy with? What needs to be upgraded? What should be replaced entirely?
Sometimes an audit will show all existing software is working just fine – nothing needs to be changed. That's great news! But there are usually at least a few critical tweaks. And sometimes a massive set of changes must be made.
My company, Plan A Technologies, is frequently asked to lead or help with such audits. As Plan A's chairman, I often see staff at the audited companies cringe when describing their tech stack. Their tools have frequently been cobbled together by a rotating cast of different teams over the years. What's left is a patchwork of both new and aging software that has been duct-taped together to "kinda, sorta work"... except for those times it doesn't work at all.
Here are some of the major problems I witness on a regular basis:
- Companies using software written in outdated programming languages. Few engineers still know it, even fewer want to use it.
- A refusal to take advantage of recent technology leaps, including artificial intelligence, cloud technologies, mobile enhancements, and big data.
- Software platforms within an organization not talking to each other. This makes coordination of tasks difficult, creates information silos and results in repeating tasks multiple times.
- Solutions that don't use the latest security protocols, making them painfully vulnerable to cyberattacks.
- Clinging to software that is no longer regularly updated by its creator. If even its own maker has given up on the software… maybe it's time to take the hint.
The result of all this is that many organizations are currently struggling with a tech stack that may have been great 15 years ago, but today is as outdated as an old flip phone.
After the Audit
Looking for problems is an essential step, but after figuring out what the problems are, you still need to find solutions.
In many cases, off-the-shelf software that has already been built is a great starting point. After all, it's available immediately, it has a proven base of users, and it has a lower upfront cost. In many cases, it's the best choice. (Why would most companies need to create a new email software, for example, if they can use Gmail or Outlook or one of the other major providers?)
But it's important to remember that you're not limited to what's currently available on the market. While there are thousands of amazing software solutions out there, most organizations want something more customized to their unique situation. Fortunately, there are plenty of companies that can build the exact solution you need from scratch.
If a company needs a real differentiator, customized software can be a much smarter choice in the long run. Custom software will cost more upfront and could take months to create. That said, building a custom solution generally requires less annual maintenance cost than off-the-shelf software you license. Modeled out over several years, customized software can result in significant financial savings.
In addition, customized software can give you a major advantage over your competitors. Off-the-shelf solutions are available immediately, but it also gives your competitors the exact same functionality that you have. Working with the right software development partner can result in very powerful new tools that only your company has access to use.
A bespoke approach means you only pay for the features you need. You can create a solution that does exactly what you need it to do, in exactly the way you want it to work. What's more, a custom approach can add significant enterprise value to your company. Indeed, it could be a meaningful differentiator that boosts the company's multiple or sales price if the company is ever sold.
Eventually, all software needs to be updated or replaced. This is not a matter of "if" but "when." Doing a regular audit of your tech stack and taking active measures to update or replace aging software can help you stay ahead of the competition, reduce costs, avoid cyberattacks, and deliver the best possible experiences to your staff and your customers.
By failing to do so, you risk the health or even the continued existence of your company.
Aron Ezra is chairman of Plan A Technologies, a global software development company.
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