Culture is key to successful app modernization projects

During our most recent executive roundtable discussion, the group emphasized the importance of understanding customer culture and open communication for application modernization success.

Applications modernization is more than just writing new software and redesigning processes.

As technology rich as these projects can be, the key to success lies in the customer’s culture. Understanding a customer’s culture drives the first questions contractors need to ask.

The answer to those questions can determine a bid-or-no-bid decision, according to a group of executives we gathered to discuss the challenges and opportunities around app modernization projects.

We operated under Chatham House rules to facilitate an open discussion. The conversation was on the record, but not for individual or company attribution. See the sidebar below for a list of the executives who participated in the February roundtable.

App modernization projects follow the classic formula of people, process and technology.

“But the part that always get skipped is that it is all bound together by culture,” one exec said. “The minute you separate a technical solution from the culture, you fail."

A customer’s culture generally falls into one of six buckets:

  • Mission-focused
  • Budget-sensitive
  • Efficiency-driven
  • Risk adverse
  • Risk taker
  • Fear-based
  • Fact-based

The worst is a fear-based culture because contractors are always reacting to the customer’s fear and the wrong decisions get made, a second exec said.

“If it is fact-based, you can lay it all out there and make a wise decision based on what’s in front of you,” the second exec added.

No matter the culture, the group largely agreed that contractors must enter app modernization projects with a change management plan.

“You need a robust change management plan and you have to constantly work with the end users to help them understand what is coming,” one attendee said.

The last thing you want are end users to be surprised. “When they get something new you want them to say, Oh, yeah, it’s not a big deal,” another said.

A third executive said people may consider change management and culture to be the “soft stuff,” but it is crucial.

“When you don’t get it right, people don’t adopt the new process and they’ll find workarounds,” that exec said. “Then your data goes out the window, your security goes out the window and then it becomes just another failed technology implementation.”

Another exec also added other so-called “soft” areas to the list such as expectation management, customer experience and human-centered design.

“It’s all integrated and related,” that exec said.

“Inseparable,” another added.

A critical component of success is defining what that looks like.

One executive shared a story of sitting down with three people from the same customer and coming to the realization that all three had a different vision of what a successful project would be.

“We said, do you guys need a minute?” that exec said. “We stepped out and after half an hour they apologized and said, We now think we know what we want.”

Measures of success can change as well. In the early days of the move to the cloud, the emphasis was on closing data centers. It was about “lift and shift,” one executive said.

“We were talking about closing doors and turning out lights instead of thoughtfully thinking through a roadmap,” the exec said.

The primary measure today should be customer experience, another exec said.

“We should be talking about velocity and return on investment and not just cost reduction," that exec said, adding that Congress also puts too much emphasis on cost reduction when talking about modernization.

“They expect a check back and there’s not a check."

Agencies have so much technical debt that there is a backlog of things that need to be done, but aren’t getting done.

“Modernization doesn’t really save costs, but it gets better mission results,” one exec said.

The focus on mission is critical, the executives agreed.

One told a story about a customer who wanted to move off their mainframes into the cloud. Instead of doing a massive shift, this company went component by component and modernized applications for a cloud environment.

“We took advantage of the cloud services and got quick wins,” the exec said. The focus early was on simple components. “We got points on the board faster and we saved the complex stuff for later.”

The so-called points on the board helped the company manage expectations and build the contractor’s credibility.

“By moving bit by bit we were more successful from a client perspective, from the security perspective and ultimately we bought down the technical debt,” said that exec.

This kind of relationship with the customer takes time, the group agreed.

They warned about customers who write narrow requirements in their contracts because that makes it harder to innovate and bring new ideas.

“You need a customer who is willing to take a breath before they dive in,” one attendee said. “We try to convince our customers to build a digital roadmap with us.”

Questions to try and answer include:

  • What mission are you trying to accomplish?
  • Where are you today?
  • Where do you want to be?
  • What is your timeframe?
  • What is your budget?

“You need to take the time and honestly it doesn’t take forever,” an exec said.

During our conversation, the topic often returned to the softer skills and in particular the need for communication with the customer.

There should be an emphasis on building and maintaining trust between the contractor and the customer.

“Transparency and constant conversation are two things that can help you,” one exec said.

A contractor has to be able to say that “We’re struggling and here’s why, but here is what we plan to try to do to fix it,” the exec added. “That’s a different conversation.”

If you don’t do that, it’s hard to overcome problems when they occur.

“You can’t hold your cards to your chest,” one said. “That’s no way to run a railroad.”


Mark Adams, VP, Technology and Engineering, Peraton

George Batsakis, CEO, Groundswell

Mike Callihan, CEO, Aegis

Brian Drake, Federal Chief Technology Officer, Accrete AI

Greg Gershman, CEO, Ad Hoc LLC

Margie Graves, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of Government

Joe Kovba, VP, Digital Modernization Transition, Leidos

Andrew Lasko, Federal Alliances, Veeam

Robert Lohfeld, CEO, Sev1Tech

Reuben Maher, Chief Strategy/Growth Officer, A-TEK

Ryan McKeon, Partner, Guidehouse

Kim Pack, President, Applied Information Services

Eric Schlesinger, Senior Technical Leader, Parsons

Nic Skirpan, Director of Growth, Bravium Consulting

Matt Slotten, Principal Solutions Architect, Cloud-Native Technical Partnerships, Veeam

Don Styer, Chief Technology Officer, Serco

Monica Winthrop, SVP, Consulting Services, CGI Federal

NOTE: Washington Technology Editor-in-Chief Nick Wakeman led the roundtable discussion. The February gathering was underwritten by Veeam, but both the substance of the discussion and the published article are strictly editorial products. Neither Veeam nor any of the participants had input beyond their comments.