In the next three years, an estimated $3 billion worth of federal IT equipment will reach end-of-life status, according to former U.S. Federal CIO Tony Scott. It’s an intimidating number, and one that indicates just how far-reaching the need is for modernization.

With so much focus on the sheer cost of mass obsolescence, many agencies overlook the opportunities that modernization presents and treat is as an obstacle that must be overcome.

While the costs of modernization are intimidating, the problem is actually fairly straightforward: Unless agencies update aging, disparate legacy technology, they will be poorly positioned to meet the rapidly changing needs of the American public. In addition to cost, agencies will face several hidden challenges along the path to modernization. Here, we address a few of those and propose potential solutions to help agencies emerge from this transition stronger, more agile and more unified than ever before.

From stagnation to adaptability

The beast lurking in federal agency culture is an obstinate lack of adaptability. When it comes to upgrading infrastructure, many decision-makers treat compliance as the first, and often the last, order of business. Consequently, they cling to legacy systems and tremble at the prospect of a less-than-perfect upgrade. But exhausting old systems before taking chances on new ones is not only inefficient, it’s also impractical and unnecessarily risky.

Of course, this resistance to change is not entirely without reason. Transforming critical systems is a daunting juggling act in which IT teams are asked to integrate new processes and skills while still keeping an eye on old ones — all while remaining vigilant about threats against highly sensitive data. It’s like trying to change a tire and the oil at the same time, all while still driving the car.

Regardless, modernization is no longer a luxury: It’s a necessity. Leaders should recognize this fact and begin preparing by pushing back against complacency and creating a culture that approaches new ideas and transformations with enthusiasm instead of fear.

From on-site to cloud — or not

Cloud computing will play a critical role in modernizing IT environments. But this doesn’t mean agencies should automatically switch from on-site systems. In fact, it means the opposite. IT managers should take this moment to decide which delivery methods are right for them.

From all sides, agencies are hearing that they should move to the cloud. In fact, they hear this so often that they’re beginning to think they need to make the move across the board. Cloud is a viable and exciting delivery model for many applications, but not every workload or application is best done from the cloud. Modernization doesn’t mean an automatic pivot to the cloud. It means recognizing the evolving technology climate and adapting to it.

Many legacy applications cannot move to the cloud — and even if they could, it wouldn’t make sense. When confronted with obsolescence, IT managers should ask if a particular program can be rewritten for the cloud only after they’ve decided whether or not it should be. Sometimes, existing investments can be leveraged in a modernization.

The cloud can be necessary and appropriate solution for many problems, but its use is not a unilateral rule that applies to every mission objective.

From taskmaster to problem-solver

Federal IT needs an influx of innovative movers and shakers who think differently and know how to keep pace with rapid technological change. After all, simply understanding the technology is no longer enough. As IT systems become more adaptable, agencies need workers who are similarly agile and relentlessly creative.

When bringing in fresh talent, agencies should look for people with both technical skills and business acumen. The new ideal isn’t a career federal IT worker: It’s someone with a private-sector mentality and entrepreneurial, problem-solving abilities. Maybe it’s someone with an application programming background or maybe someone who started in project management. Even in the realm of IT, the focus should be on the big-picture problem and finding novel and effective ways to solve it.

As delivery modes become more fluid, agencies need IT workers who are capable of quickly assessing and addressing challenges.

It may once have sufficed to simply learn the systems in place, but new employees must be ready to strategically assess, modify, test and repeat.

Changing the tire

It may seem unfair to expect rapid modernization when some agencies struggle just to keep driving forward. Even if agencies had unlimited capital, talent and resources, modernization would still be an intimidating process.

But better technology utilization boosts an agency’s ability to serve citizens the way they want, need and deserve. Modernization isn’t just parallel to an agency’s mission — it drives the mission itself.

In the long run, stopping to change a flat tire will save more time than continuing to clunk along at a fraction of full potential. The same goes for technology. The sooner agencies can embrace modernization, the faster they’ll be able to achieve it and benefit from it.


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