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Making modernisation work: the expert’s view

Making modernisation work: the expert’s view


Modernisation programmes can deliver amazing results for the organisations that undertake them. At the same time, they can be dizzyingly complex and hard to manage. How do you keep projects of that scale on track? How do you get them over the line and ensure that they deliver?

Just recently, I had the pleasure of chatting to John Fredrickson, director of platform engineering at FreeAgent, a developer of SaaS-based accountancy software. Over the course of a 25-year career, John has seen all manner of modernisation projects through to successful completion, leaving him with what he described as a good balance of grey hairs and good stories.

Here are a few of the highlights from our conversation.

More than anything else, modernisation is about opportunity

It’s rare for there to be one single factor driving a push towards modernisation. While some events in isolation might force an organisation to change tack – the expiration of a datacentre contract, for instance – it’s more likely that a modernisation programme comes about because a number of smaller issues have begun to snowball.

In John’s own experience, the realisation that there’s a need to modernise typically comes about because things aren’t working as well as they used to. Systems might be approaching the end of their lifespan, technical debt might have begun to build up, and reliability and capacity problems will start to become more commonplace. It’s usually fairly clear that a big change is needed.

While modernisation might be borne out of necessity, though, smart organisations will acknowledge it as an opportunity. 

As well as remedying any existing problems, a well-thought-out programme could tackle skills shortages associated with legacy tech, reduce costs, enhance sustainability, or even address an imbalance in workforce diversity. If you want to realise that potential though, says John, you’ll also need to spend time upfront thinking about everything you can accomplish through modernisation.

Selling the message (and sticking to it) is critical

Big changes – modernisation projects included – have a tendency to make people nervous. That doesn’t just apply to customers or external partners, either. When your internal teams are used to working in certain ways, the idea of having to adapt to something new doesn’t always go down well.

That, according to John, makes exec sponsorship all the more important. Having a strong leadership team who agree with the changes you’re proposing and are committed to seeing them through is critical.

Support from on high isn’t the only thing to have in place before starting out, however. It’s important to bring the rest of the organisation on the journey too, which means having a bold and clear message about the path you’re on. 

More than anything, you need to believe that message yourself – because you’ll be repeating it often, and probably over a fairly long period, notes John.

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Don’t be afraid to replan

Coming up with an accurate end date for a modernisation programme can be tough. Not only are there a huge number of moving parts, many of the tasks that need to be done will be brand new for the people carrying them out. Then, there’s the danger of being overly ambitious; it’s all too easy to believe that you can get things done faster than you can in reality.

Because of all that, replanning is something that you should be ready for. And if you do end up needing to reset expectations, John has some helpful advice: make that process fun.

When it became clear one of the projects he was working on would miss its initial delivery date, for example, he introduced a brand new planning technique. Using PERT (the Program Evaluation Review Technique, which originates with the US Navy), he and his team split the overall project into a series of epics. Against each of those, they took a guess at how long it would take – from the best and worst case scenarios, through to the most likely.

As it happened, the replanned project ended up landing within a day of the team’s new estimate. Less important than coming up with an accurate forecast, however, was coming up with one that everyone contributed to and felt part of.

Make sure there are wins along the way

The bigger the change, the longer it takes. As a result, it’s important to show people that things are moving in the right direction.

That could be as simple as spinning up test suites to give people a feel for what’s coming. It could be something a little more intricate; on one of the programmes John looked after, his team made the switch to cloud servers without telling anyone. Only a few days later, when people started noticing that things were running faster, did they reveal the change.

On a long journey, even small wins can make a big difference.

Don’t underestimate the value of a blank sheet of paper

Planning your own modernisation project? Then one of the most powerful things you can do is to write down exactly what you want to achieve and why, reckons John. 

You don’t have to outline every goal. You don’t need a concrete answer to every question. But taking the time to state some objectives will help you work out what “good” looks like – and the best way to get there.

Looking to get your own modernisation project off the ground? We can help. And if you want to hear more from industry experts like John, check out our dedicated modernisation podcast series.


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