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A pragmatic approach to reducing the complexities of IT modernization

Focus on: Ray Lefebvre

Ray Lefebvre spent over 33 years serving as an information technology executive within the IRS. After retiring from the agency, Ray has served as an executive consultant helping organizations, including the IRS, with their IT modernization efforts. Larry Reagan, who oversees our Finance portfolio for the federal government, spoke with Ray to get his perspectives on how an agency can utilize a unique approach to effectively implementing IT modernization initiatives.

First some context: The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website states, “In 1959, Congress and the Secretary of the Treasury approved IRS plans to install a nationwide automatic data processing system. By January 1962, automated data processing entered full operation, processing up to 680,000 characters per second.” That event introduced technology into the tax collection process and modernization has been an ongoing effort since.

Electronic filing, used by almost 200 million tax filers every year, began in 1991 and is now the backbone of the tax filing process. The U.S. Tax Code continues to evolve with an estimated 800 different tax forms spanning all industries, types of businesses, and individual filing statuses. It describes how to process tax credits and receive and issue refunds in both paper and electronic formats. The size, scope, and continuous evolution of the tax code directly reflects and drives the complexity of the systems required to process taxes.

Implementing modernization initiatives in an infrastructure this complex is difficult, challenging, and, in some cases, risky. Every year, tax legislation changes – some years more than others. Those changes create impacts throughout the complexity of the systems to ensure tax filers are treated responsibly and refunds can be processed effectively. The cascading effect of one tax code change can require updates to many forms, systems, and business processes. Modernizing these systems, while doing annual updates for legislative changes and processing tax forms, is, to steal an old cliché, like modernizing a plane while in flight. The approach IRS has taken is what we refer to as pragmatic modernization.

LarryRay, in your own words, would you describe the concept of pragmatic modernization?

Ray:  Pragmatic modernization comes from the understanding that there is no realistic way an organization can modernize everything all at the same time. That approach is simply too risky and prone to failure. Pragmatic Modernization takes an approach of identifying elements of the organization which can be modernized a step at a time and focusing on those in a deliberate timeline that allows for incremental modernization efforts that prioritize the elements that matter most.

LarryAre there key methodologies incorporated into pragmatic modernization?

Ray: Yes, pragmatic modernization works hand-in-hand with Agile methodologies. Similarly, an organization needs to approach its most complex systems using some form of the Strangler Pattern.

LarryStrangler Pattern. That sounds ominous. Can you describe that for us?

Ray: You can think of a complex system as an onion with many layers. At the core are your most mission-critical functions, with each outside layer built around that core over time. The Strangler Pattern approach takes those outside layers and decouples them from the core one at a time. This allows an organization to modernize individual layers while continuing to deliver its core mission-critical functions. The modernized functions can be introduced to production incrementally with the corresponding legacy solution retired. Over time, the size and complexity of the legacy base is “strangled”, reducing both the size and complexity of the technical debt.

Larry: How can an organization, such as the IRS, use this Strangler Pattern?

Ray: It needs to be an integral part of a framework for modernization. We have developed our own framework for it, that combines the key elements of Agile and the Strangler Pattern so that an organization can be more successful modernizing in a pragmatic, safe way.

LarryWhat does it take for an organization to implement this or any modernization framework?

Ray: One of the hard lessons learned we have found is that you can’t unpeel that onion without having mission system expertise. These mission-critical systems have changed year-over-year to respond to tax legislation – some at the very last minute, so the code is very complex. To fully understand each layer, an organization needs the experts who can describe upstream and downstream impacts of each layer. It is critical to identify severable functions within the scope that can be implemented as new modernized services with the corresponding legacy code retired. Trying to modernize without this legacy expertise has led many organizations to frustration and failure. Adding new, without retiring the old, just builds complexity, cost, and sustainability risk.

LarryIf you were talking to an organization about modernization of their complex mission-critical systems, what is the first advice you would offer?

Ray: Get started and start small. Measure your successes, learn, grow your skills, and keep moving. And adjust frequently. Oh, and retire legacy solutions as you go.

Larry:  But can’t this approach result in a dead-end design?

Ray:  The guiding principles prescribed in our approach require alignment to the organization’s target state architecture and technologies. So, the incremental approach must be informed, aligned, and built toward the target state. Most organizations have robust strategies, but the challenge is how to get there. Few can afford to build a completely new solution in parallel. And historically, industry has showed taking a “big bang”, multi-year approach is high risk rarely delivers as intended, and when it delivers the solution, it might already be dated.

LarrySo how does this approach support the availability of these next generation technologies?

Ray:  Our approach recognizes that most organizations that have been in place for decades have large infrastructure investments in disparate technologies. This is because technology and processing capabilities continue to increase in leaps and bounds. Smart phones and laptops have more storage and processing capacity than some mainframes in the 70’s and 80’s and servers of the 90’s. Leading edge technologies back then were limited by what and how solutions were delivered. Jumping from a 1990 architecture to a cloud-based event-driven capability in one fell swoop is high risk at best. Our framework evaluates the legacy “as-is” to determine what changes should be made to minimize the target state re-platforming risk and to help make that migration safer.

Larry Any other key points?

Ray:  Yes, modernization is not an end state, it is a continuous process. The IRS ecosystem is so large, heterogenous, and complex, that it is impossible to complete a comprehensive top-down plan that addresses all eventualities. The Agile methodology stresses empowering legacy IT and business experts, while working with experts on newer IT processes, tools, and technologies, to develop an integrated project team. The team can deliver working code that is demonstrated frequently to ensure progress is both being made and on target. Our approach applies those same principles tailored to the challenge of how to replace and modernize large complex solutions that have evolved over time in a reliable and scalable manner. Funding, priorities, and technology keep changing. This approach aligns and realigns to evolving organizational realities while progressively delivering a pragmatic, safer modernization approach.

Learn more about how our approaches to IT modernization, Agile methodologies, and robust technology capabilities help agencies delivering on their mission: https://maximus.com/technology