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How to convince your CFO to invest in modernising Legacy Systems

Legacy technology is the bane of progressive IT. Primarily, it means that progression is slow and although that clearly means less ability to deliver value for the business as a whole, it’s still difficult to fully explain to your CFO why you need budget to invest in legacy systems.

Make no mistake, you will still need to earn majority support from your board, but as the keeper of the budget keys, your CFO is the judge to your stakeholders’ jury. Here are four pieces of tried-and-tested advice to help you communicate the problem and guarantee that investment.

Understand what you need first

In many instances, especially where you have inherited a legacy system, it’s always tempting to rebuild it from the ground up. This requires a substantial upfront investment and an even more difficult discussion with your CFO. This discussion will be even more demanding if, on the surface, it’s hard to see any issues. Although this can be incredibly frustrating (can they not see your development team losing the will to live?), don’t disregard their opinions too quickly.

As one of our technical consultants, Konstantin Kudryashov puts it, “Legacy systems are even more valuable because they have already proved the core idea behind the project.”

Your systems are still operational, and there can often be enough value within a legacy system that is worth saving, rather than risking its loss during an ill-considered re-write. A more beneficial approach is to consider a business-focused rewrite - modernising the parts of your system that bring the most value to your stakeholders.

Konstantin explains this in further detail in this guide to working with legacy systems.

A leaner approach to legacy projects not only ensures the business-valuable divisions receive the attention they deserve, but it is also an easier sell to your CFO. No longer are you asking for a budget to cover your entire system, but only the parts the business needs, and on which you can demonstrate return on their investment with measurable improvements.

Help your CFO understand the implications of legacy

Once you know what you actually need from your modernisation project, it’s a question of explaining your current situation to your CFO. Although you may be aware of the downward spiral you are in, it can be difficult for someone outside of your department to fully grasp the implications of not modernising - especially if the issues aren’t immediately visible.

A restaurant analogy, coined by Matt Wayne and Aslak Hellesøy, is a useful tool here. Legacy projects are like a busy restaurant. Dirty pans pile high and over time, your business’ ability to serve diners diminishes. You have less room to manoeuvre and your diners leave as they know they can get a better experience elsewhere.

Legacy projects are the same. Behind the scenes, the mess of pots and pans means your systems are essentially starting to stack up until there is no room to deliver anything new, and certainly not when your users need it.

A good legacy modernisation project requires investment, but done well will ensure your systems can cope with both current and future demand.

Explain the problem with opportunity

Although it’s tempting to dive into details of everything your system doesn’t let you do, try phrasing your points so that you focus on what modernisation could let you do.

Crucially when speaking with your CFO, try to use their language. If you’re talking budgets, put numbers against anything you have. If a new feature takes an average of 3-4 months to get to market, calculate the time and resource required to launch it. Try to demonstrate the same situation without the restraints of your current system. For example, the same feature could be delivered within just a few weeks.

Wherever possible, tie your examples to your business’ overall goals. Are you planning an international expansion? Explain how improvements now will mean faster integrations with future systems and quicker launch. If your business is revamping its customer service, show examples of how your competitor’s agility allows them to launch new features based on market demand.

Be aware of other barriers to your CFO and use them to your advantage

Do you know which other departments are asking for budget? Would modernising your systems help improve their operational efficiency as well? Consider any angles you could use to present a united case and a stronger argument.

For example, if customer service is a focus for the business, work with the relevant director responsible to understand their own requirements and map the potential work involved back to your systems.

A modernisation project that is less about technology and more about shared value and opportunity across your organisation is much more likely to win approval.


It's a tough sell, but not impossible

When you begin discussions, your CFO will undoubtedly expect for you to ask for significant investment for a full system rebuild. This approach not only comes with a high budget, but also high risk.

Centre your proposal only on the most valuable parts of your system and manage risk within small iterations and staggered upgrades that won’t compromise day-to-day operations. Ultimately, this approach is not only more visibly valuable to your business’ bottom line (and therefore attractive to your CFO), but also more valuable to you as you can be confident you can still deliver daily value.



Read more: How to work with legacy systems