Most App Modernization Projects Fail
February 08, 2023

Bob Quillin

In today's business climate, CIOs, CTOs and application owners are under immense pressure to move faster, do more with less, and stay ahead of the competition. Facing an ever-growing backlog of technical debt that's dragging down innovation initiatives and digital acceleration mandates, it's no surprise that frustration at the pace of application modernization projects has hit an all-time high.

Organizations have struggled with application modernization for years now, and many projects are just stalled out, stuck in the mud, or fully abandoned. They suffer from unclear requirements, lack of best practices, and slow, manual processes. These tend to be long, complex, expensive, and costly, and the failure rate is staggeringly high.

To understand why app modernization projects tend to fail, we need to take a closer look at the different perspectives of those involved. We partnered with Wakefield Research to survey 250 architects and C — suite executives to better understand the views of both groups.

On one side are the architects and developers closest to the technology and the ones that do the day-to-day work. As expected, they tend to say that projects fail because they don't have the right tools or enough support for the projects.

On the other side are the executives responsible for setting the direction for the project and driving the compelling business objectives. They tend to cite that projects fail because the requirements are unclear or keep changing.

Executives and Architects Have Different Priorities

It can be challenging to align the goals of executives and architects. Executives are often focused on short-term outcomes and ROI, while architects are more concerned with long-term sustainability and technical Debt. As a result, application modernization projects can be hampered by divergent priorities.

Clear communication and alignment between executives and architects is crucial to navigate these challenges successfully. Executive sponsorship ensures that application modernization projects get the resources they need to succeed. At the same time, architects need to be able to articulate the long-term benefits of application modernization to executive sponsors. Only by aligning their priorities can organizations hope to achieve success with application modernization.

The Perils of Application Modernization Projects

The survey points to many reasons application modernization projects fail, but the most common include unrealistic expectations, lack of funding, and inadequate planning.

Given the inherent difficulty, why are CIOs keen to embark on application modernization projects?

Almost every organization has technical debt, long test and release cycles, and is running monoliths that aren't easily broken down into microservices. These problems make it very difficult to be agile and scalable, increasing costs, limiting deployment speed, and in the end, hurting business objectives, which is why many companies are turning to app modernization projects.

App Modernization is Costly, Challenging, and Time-Consuming

The typical application modernization engagement costs $1.5M and takes 16 months to 2 years to complete. There are several reasons why it takes so long. App modernization can be a daunting task for even the most experienced IT professionals. When an organization decides to update an aging app, they're not just dealing with the codebase but also with years of accumulated business knowledge and process improvements. Often, the team who wrote the code has left the company or moved on to other positions. This can create a serious problem when it comes time to make changes or add new features.

In addition, legacy systems tend to have a code base that has grown over time, and changes to that code have not always been well documented. As a result, it can be difficult to determine how certain aspects of the app work or why they were implemented in a particular way. Dependencies are often hidden within the code base, making it incredibly hard to change any aspect of these mission-critical apps without risk.

These factors can lead to significant delays and cost overruns as the project progresses, which can cause frustration and impatience among stakeholders, ultimately leading to the project's demise.

Projects Face Internal Push-Back

Both architects and executives agree that the main reason for internal pushback against application modernization projects is that they are inherently risky. These projects come with a high price tag and an even higher risk of failure and involve changing critical business systems that can have far-reaching consequences if something goes wrong.

The Challenges with Refactoring

Both executives and architects stress technical issues and the time required. Refactoring takes months of manual work, requiring teams to scour through millions of lines of code, looking for dependencies, dead code, and documenting the system architecture. Not to mention the design, rearchitecting, testing, and deploying of microservices.

Guidance for Executives

With app modernization projects as a top priority for so many companies, what is the best course of action for executives and architects as they move forward?

The survey responses indicate alignment between executives and architects on what it takes to execute a successful application modernization project.

Executives must provide active sponsorship, support, and funding throughout the process to increase the likelihood of favorable outcomes.

Build a Business Case

One way to create greater alignment around goals is to help architects build a business case for the project. Start with the application portfolio, analyzing each app for architectural complexity, technical debt, and aging frameworks. Include the compelling business event — is it a cloud mandate, a growth strategy, or a customer retention issue driving the modernization project? Try to quantify the successful outcome in these terms. Then use all of this data to inform modernization priorities. From there, each modernization project can be scoped for time, budget, and team members required.

Define Budget & Resources

50% of executives and architects agree that securing the budget and resources is the most challenging step. Armed with a strong business case, acquiring the funding and resources needed to succeed may be easier — especially when tied to the strategic business outcomes expected.

Provide Ongoing Support

Given app modernization projects often take 16 months to 2 years to complete, consistent support from executive management is crucial as business priorities shift. Faltering on this commitment will often stall, stop, or end projects.

Align and Train Your Team

The first step is to assess your team to understand what skills are in-house and what skills you need to add. Your team may need external training to achieve the objectives set forth by these projects. Give it to them. Then focus on gathering stakeholders and putting the right people in the roles.

Architects Need Intelligent Tools

We heard from many architects that they are using outdated analysis tools and tools designed for application monitoring, not modernization, to try to decompose their monoliths. They suggested that having access to more robust automation tools speeds up release times and improves modernization processes. Having the proper tools for the job is key to success.


The time has come when a tightly coupled system architecture is no longer serving the business and is becoming increasingly detrimental to success. Moving to a loosely coupled, microservices architecture to take advantage of the elastic, scalable architecture is now table-stakes for market competition, customer satisfaction, and business operations. But getting there is not easy. Our study validates the pain of these long, complex, and complicated manual projects and shares some key elements to successful projects. Given that application modernization projects can make — or break — the career of CIOs and Software Architects, it's critical to understand both the causes of pain and the elements of success

Bob Quillin is Chief Ecosystem Officer at vFunction
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