The power of legacy in the technology industry
- A company’s legacy is its foundation
- A firm grasp of the past fuels innovation
- Legacy isn’t a hindrance to progress—it’s a change agent
Lately I’ve been thinking about the word “legacy” and the way we use it in the tech world. How did a term that has such positive connotations when we refer to people come to mean old, stodgy, obsolete, and in need of replacement when referring to software or infrastructure?
Merriam Webster defines a legacy as a gift passed from generation to generation. The word is often used to describe people and achievements of great historical significance. It even implies progress to a certain extent – as a legacy is no mere relic meant to gather dust on a mantle or shelf, but rather a living thing to be grown, nurtured, and built upon by those who inherit it. “Legacy” articulates none of these attributes in the technology context – and, for the first time, I’m having trouble understanding why.
Perhaps it’s that tech is a relatively young industry where meaningful legacies are in short supply. Maybe it’s because we work in a sector where products and companies often come and go before a lasting legacy can ever take shape. It could be that we are programmed not to see the past as prologue, for fear that looking back will distract our attention from what’s next. In the end, I suspect it’s a combination of all these factors that have made the new, derisive meaning a staple of our industry jargon.
But make no mistake – this is no innocent question of semantics. For when we contort the word, we also corrupt the powerful idea it represents. We minimize the compelling role that insight plays in innovation. We trick ourselves into believing that superior technology is possible without taking the time to truly understand the people it serves. We deemphasize the importance of self-reflection and learning from our mistakes. And we devalue the notion that today’s lessons are essential building blocks of tomorrow’s solutions. It’s a slippery slope that begs the question: “Just what kind of future are we building if it isn’t informed by what we’ve learned in the past?”
For years, I was among the host of tech industry leaders who never grasped the fact that our slant on the word “legacy” was indeed a contradiction in terms. But nine months ago, I came to work at a company that has served higher education – and higher education alone – for nearly 50 years. What I saw changed my perspective for good and all.
I didn’t see an outdated business that time and technological advances had left by the wayside. Quite to the contrary, I met people who are deeply passionate about the mission they support; who truly appreciate the uniqueness and complexity of the operations they enable; and who exhibit an incredible ability to adapt as their customers’ needs change. Not only are these assets invaluable in a time of incredible transformation in higher education technology; they are traits that any tech company would covet.
Most important, none of these attributes would exist absent the rich history, profound knowledge, and lasting relationships that define the Ellucian legacy.
OK Jackie. That sounds interesting, but I’m not sold. What are the tangible, real-world benefits of embracing a legacy in tech? What practical good can come when a company that should be looking to the future falls back on its past?
Take institutions’ journey to the cloud for starters. For years, providers sought to sell colleges and universities on a cloud that simply wasn’t built for the complexity or specialized needs of higher education. If you weren’t willing to go multi-tenant, you weren’t ready for the cloud. If you wanted to maintain private databases, you weren’t ready for the cloud. The back-and-forth was entirely vendor-centric and too focused on preconceived notions of what the cloud is supposed to be; not what it could be if we put the institutions first.
Like others, Ellucian recognized the significant benefits cloud held for students, staff, faculty, and administrators – but our legacy of passion for higher education meant that we couldn’t rest until those benefits were realized. So, we walked a mile in our customers’ shoes, put them back in control of the conversation, and came to the conclusion we needed to adapt to them, rather than the other way around. The result was flexibility in hosting options, migration paths, and scale – and campuses that are better able to deliver on the promise of a modern, connected experience.
Next, consider the ways in which a firm grasp of the past translates into anticipation and fulfillment of future needs. Ellucian has spent decades building the enterprise applications that colleges and universities use to manage everything from student information to human resources – and we have spent nearly as much time working hand-in-hand with the people that use them every day. That dynamic afforded us early insight into the fact that these systems needed to communicate with one another more effectively to better serve our institutions and their goals – and provided us the acumen to get the job done.
Our familiarity with the thousands of processes and personas that comprise higher education powered us to build its first data model and open platform, which enable unprecedented levels of integration for Ellucian and other systems alike. Because Ellucian was guided by a legacy of unsurpassed domain knowledge amassed over decades of experience, higher education can now eliminate blind spots it never knew existed and ensure that every corner of the institution is working off the same page.
Finally, consider John Maxwell’s thoughts on legacy, which he articulates in 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Maxwell notes that “A legacy lives on in people, not things. Too often leaders put their energy into organizations, buildings or other lifeless objects. But only people live on after we are gone. Everything else is temporary.”
When a company’s legacy lives in its people – as it does at Ellucian – those people are more open to change and more able to evolve – because the underlying mission always takes precedence over comfort, security, or the way things have always been done. Of all the characteristics a tech company wants in its workforce, I can’t think of one that is more critical to success.
In an industry that is always changing, a legacy provides the anchor we all need to remember what the world would lose if we were not in it. That gives us the courage to try new things and make mistakes until we get it right. It keeps the customer front and center as solutions, products, and services come and go. And it ensures that innovation never happens in a vacuum, but in the context of all we have learned.
In this respect, a legacy is not a hindrance to progress; it’s a change agent – but only if it drives us to keep learning, growing, and to develop a sense of responsibility and ownership for moving that legacy forward each and every day.
So rather than scoff at the notion of legacy in the tech world, I encourage you to find yours and cling to it tightly. It may seem counterintuitive, but embracing a legacy is the best way to ensure your solutions are anything but.