Is danger lurking in your code?

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Could you be headed for unexpected trouble? If your business depends on legacy homegrown apps, the answer may be yes.

Does your company have applications that were written in-house? If so, who wrote them? In what language? And how long ago?

The answers to these questions could alert you to a concern facing a growing number of companies as the Baby Boomer generation of IT marches steadily toward retirement. “How do you deal with the fact that your human capital has a lifespan?” is how one consultant put it to me recently.

If you have complex kludge-ware out there, written in COBOL or other near-extinct languages, you’re putting your company’s business processes at risk. The time to do something about it is now.

  1. Take inventory: Gather a list of all your company’s homegrown applications, along with the language they were written in and any other supporting information. Knowing the size of the problem will be the first step to solving it.
  2. Replace what you can: Once upon a time, when these applications were written, there wasn’t have the amount of choice in off-the-shelf or software-as-a-service offerings that there are today. So take a look at each of these applications with an eye to replacing it with something someone else created. The more you can use vendor provided products, ideally with little or no customization, the more efficiently you’ll be able to run.
  3. Document what you must keep: Way back when I took a programming course in college and even then I quickly discovered that documenting my creations was a major drag. I’m not the only one who feels this way. So if you have homegrown applications that you must keep, make sure you have enough supporting documentation to change or maintain the software when you need to, even with no involvement from the team that wrote it.
  4. Line up the right talent: Do you have anyone in-house who can rewrite and update these homegrown applications? If not, do you have contractors on hand who know how to deal with them? If the answer to each of these questions is no, take a little time now to find a person, team, or company who can provide support or updating for that software as needed. If something goes wrong or needs to be changed on a tight deadline, you’ll be glad you did.

What about your organization? What homegrown applications are you counting on to run your business?

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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