Rewriting business processes key to SSA modernization

Rewriting business processes key to SSA modernization

Although the cost of maintaining legacy IT systems is commonly the biggest driver for modernization, the Social Security Administration is more concerned with who will manage its infrastructure once those who built it retire.

The SSA still runs about 60 million lines of production code in COBOL, one of the oldest computer programming languages, according to SSA CIO Robert Klopp.

”What scares me is that these systems that were built 30 years ago were built by staff that still work, for the most part, at SSA,” Klopp said in a panel at the Acquire Conference and Expo on June 8 in Washington, D.C. However, 37 percent of SSA’s IT staff will be eligible to retire in the next five years, meaning the people who understand the legacy programming languages and environment will soon be leaving.

Before all that knowledge walks out the door, SSA must step up its modernization efforts.

When Klopp first joined SSA, modernizing meant taking giant, monolithic COBOL programs, rewriting them in Java and continuing to run them on the mainframes. Yet modernizing legacy IT isn’t about the programing language, Klopp said, but rather the architecture. Modernization should be about improving the business processes rather than incremental changes like upgrading a paper-based process by rebuilding the same processes with electronic forms, he said.

For example, SSA recently upgraded an online transaction processing program to HTML5. “It’s the same 80-year-old business process, it’s just electronic forms are getting maybe a little bit more intelligent as we go,” Klopp said.

According to Klopp, modernization should involve “extremely scalable software applications that can run on a very large cluster of commodity hardware,” like the cloud.

In order to modernize in SSA, Klopp said he believes the agency must rethink its business processes and change the way it engages with its citizens. “We need to understand the business rules and business processes that’re embedded in these legacy systems and just rewrite them,” Klopp said, rather than continuing to rework them.

In fact, it may take more effort to migrate a 30-year-old system into a modern environment than it would to rewrite a process from scratch with agile development, Klopp said, because we should think of modernization as “a product instead of a project.”

When a project is complete, it moves into maintenance mode and begins accruing technical debt. A agile product, however, is maintained and upgraded continuously, depending on user-feedback and changing user stories. “Maintenance is just what you do” to keep it running, and "functional enhancements are actually development,” Klopp said.

Modern systems also need a modern data architecture where data is shared enterprisewide, subject-oriented and highly integrated, Klopp said. Data used for online transaction processing and reporting should also be used for analytics. This way, an agency can do highly scalable transactions and analytics against the same data and won’t need to replicate data for two separate processes.

Another approach SSA is taking to speed modernization is enhancing the technical skills of its employees to reduce its dependence on outsourced expertise. According to Klopp, the agency already does 75 percent of its software development with federal employees and 25 percent with contractors, but it is launching a 90-day coding boot camp to immerse its staff in agile, continuous integration and more modern coding programs.

“We’re going to try to transform our existing workforce to be the kind of people that can go do this modern stuff for us,” Klopp said.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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