Why legacy IT is a government time bomb

Cobol code

The federal IT systems face a massive challenge in the coming years that rivals the threat the Year 2000 computer glitch presented almost two decades ago, according to U.S. CIO Tony Scott.

"We're facing a crisis that's bigger than Y2K," Scott said at the Nov. 16 meeting of the President's Management Advisory Board. He was there to talk about the impact of new legislation on federal IT policy and governance.

Scott made the reference to the Year 2000 glitch in talking about the wave of retiring senior IT personnel and how it would affect legacy IT systems.

"The people who built [those systems] are leaving," he said, which means incoming IT professionals might not be able to easily maintain or understand those older systems.

As those retirements continue, legacy systems will become increasingly hard to operate and maintain, and the search for innovative services must increase, Scott added.

His reference to the Year 2000 glitch raised the specter of the federal government scrambling to update IT systems and head off a potentially massive failure, as agencies and commercial entities did in the late 1990s to ensure that systems that previously relied on a two-digit year would recognize the year 2000.

Scott said shared services and capabilities offer some of the best strategies for managing legacy systems after senior IT professionals depart. Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act rules will accelerate acceptance of those kinds of cost-effective IT services, he added.

Come Dec. 31, the deadline for agencies to implement their FITARA plans, progress toward that more efficient and effective IT environment will begin to show, Scott said.

The FITARA report card handed out by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in early November had a miserable number of D and F grades, but he predicted that agencies will show marked improvement.

The data used in making that scorecard was gathered before FITARA took effect, Scott said. "I expect to see significant progress on metrics" when the next congressional scorecard is tallied, he added.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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Reader comments

Mon, Nov 30, 2015 HarryH

Not surprising story at all. Nobody wants to work with old code. It's akin to re-writing a novel, but you don't appreciate the character interaction. OTOH, professional programmers can and do maintain old code. Sad that newer programmers are not as skilled, or is that a reflection on the hiring processes? Modern code can be incredibly sloppy and actually less maintainable beware the programmer who insists newer code is more maintainable.

Wed, Nov 18, 2015

As long as we take the cheap route we will always have failures or issues with software and Hardware stress. We continue to try to do with in house help only when we need to contract out to get help to get processes accomplished, we stress our IT personnel and expect them to implement projects on timely manners. We have them running around trying to take care of information while still monitoring all there people, sure they are going to tell that it is manageable. Who wants to look like he/she can not do there job. Bottom line is to much on this people plate to get the job done and poor management for not going out an getting all the contractors to help them accomplish this in a timely manner, not all is top secret but it is important enough to get it done right.

Tue, Nov 17, 2015

Didn't everyone get off those dinosaur mainframes when Bill Gates invented computing by writing Windows?

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