Five ways to reduce IT's software maintenance work

CIOs might not be able to control all of the factors that lead to continuous software maintenance, but they can follow these best practices to cut down on how much time IT spends on these tasks.


Software maintenance is a major issue for most CIOs because over 50% of IT time is spent on it -- a daunting figure that hasn't changed much though the years. It's also one of the least favorite topics that CEOs and other C-level executives want to hear about.

It's easy to avoid the topic of software maintenance, given the focus on today's problems and pressures that are brought on by a constantly changing business environment. In this high-pressure situation, which relentlessly continues its advance, the idea of going back to "fix things" or to even see why they haven't been implemented, seems pointless.

Nevertheless, CIOs have to care about this, especially when IT budgets continue to remain flat and when half of IT staff is deployed on maintenance every day. These CIOs see their project loads burgeoning, knowing that only half of their staff is free to work on them.

The vicious circle of continuous software maintenance is fueled by various factors, which include the following:

  • In many cases, age-old legacy systems that are characterized by difficult to maintain (and to diagnose) "spaghetti code" that was written in the days when code was free-flowing and unstructured and yet continue to run mission-critical systems. It takes time to untangle this code and to fix or embellish it. The task is rendered more difficult because the code is usually undocumented, and the original writers have long since retired.
  • New code is not as technically solid as it should be -- the reason is enterprise pressure to deploy the code, even if it is imperfect. Consequently, the organization lives with the imperfections until they become so overwhelming that the software maintenance team has to go in and fix it so it can get back into production.

CIOs cannot buck these circumstances, but some are beginning to take steps to reduce the amount of IT time spends on maintaining imperfect and broken systems. Here are five best practices to consider.

1: Use the cloud version of software to sidestep a legacy system

Some enterprise have actively deployed cloud versions of internal systems (like their enterprise resource planning systems) when they bring on new companies through acquisition. The reason is simple: By moving a new organization to the cloud, personnel in this business at least get used to using the same software that the acquiring enterprise uses. Over time, a decision can be made to transfer the acquired organization into the in-house enterprise system.

However, as more enterprises use this strategy, more are rethinking their approach. The result has been a change in thinking to where the ultimate goal becomes moving everyone (including the enterprise) to the cloud-based system. The idea is to push software maintenance to the cloud provider, thereby eliminating most of the time that internal IT has to spend on it.

2: Replace a custom system with a generic package

It sometimes makes sense to replace a custom system in favor of a third-party generic package that has more contemporary capabilities. In a situation like this, IT can also eliminate most of the software maintenance it incurs with the old software. The key is getting users -- and the business -- on board. Many times the customization that has been built into a system over decades can't be replaced with a more generic solution because of the competitive advantage the custom solution provides.

3: Invest in more quality assurance (QA) test bench automation

QA is one of the functions that many organization shortcut in the interests of getting software into production quickly. This isn't likely to change, but new automated testing tools in QA that run automated scripts and check for software deficiencies can change how well software runs and reduce software fix time.

4: Retrain and redeploy software maintenance personnel

As much as CIOs don't like to admit it, there is a pecking order in IT. The employees who often get placed on software maintenance teams are older IT programmers, new employees, or programmers who do not demonstrate proficiency in new app development. If software maintenance is to be reduced, these workers will need to be retrained and redeployed. Despite budget limitations and work commitments, CIOs must demonstrate a commitment to adopt these measures.

5: Set a metric for percent of personnel engaged in new projects

CEOs and other C-level executives might not want to hear about software maintenance, but if the CIO presents (and starts measuring against) a metric that shows the percent of IT staff dedicated to new projects and explains how software maintenance can negatively impact this, others are bound to take notice and view the effort more strategically.

What steps have you taken to reduce your IT department's software maintenance work? Tell us in the discussion.

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...