Why legacy tech skills are a point of concern – and how leaders can keep them alive

A wooden desk with a retro monitor, keyboard, and floppy disk sitting on top to represent legacy tech skills. Decorative: the desk is warmly-lit, with cold green light entering the frame on the right-hand side.
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Legacy tech skills have to be handed down as crafts have throughout history, with each generation passing on vital knowledge to ensure the working world can continue without disruption.

Those with so-called legacy tech skills are seen as increasingly valuable to the workforce, especially when it comes to understanding older programming languages or now defunct and legacy tech such as  servers and computers.

Right now the tech sector is suffering from a cyber security skills shortage and AI skills gap, but these could soon be joined by a serious lack of workers equipped with the legacy tech skills needed to keep the lights on. 

Petra Tesch has 30 years of experience in IT, the last 10 spent as a chief information officer (CIO) at several firms. Now CIO at storytelling company Vizrt, she concedes certain tech skills are now “obsolete” or were “awarded a best before date due to technology advances”. The task of transferring these to Millennials and Generation Z should not be underestimated, she says. 

“Enabling the next generation to be part of – and have a relevant influence on – an organization’s work and requirements will ensure a much more natural and seamless understanding of the knowledge needed to ensure continued supply of the technical skills for the years to come,” Tesch explains.

This can be achieved, Tesch says, to a certain extent through passing on “abilities, approaches, and strategies”, given they are technology agnostic. But amid an “evolving landscape”, Tesch also acknowledges that certain skills that must be handed over.

COBOL programmers are a good example of in-demand skilled individuals, yet there is a growing skills gap,” she adds. “This is a big problem for organizations like banks and insurance companies that are essentially stuck with huge, complex COBOL-based systems. 

“Many of these businesses have so far failed to find solutions to replace these systems without major disruption to the company’s day-to-day operations.”

Legacy tech skills: Key areas of focus for leaders

Michael Smets, professor of management at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School, says transferring expertise in a multi-generational workforce should be a critical focus for leaders. 

“They must make sure younger generations of workers have access to legacy skills. If they fail to do so, they risk severe interoperability issues, security risks, and challenges to their strategic resilience,” he warns.

Smets also believes organizations and their seasoned tech staff must cut through current hype around ‘unprecedentedness’. 

“There is a temptation and risk that current and future generations think everything they do is novel, that no one has experienced anything comparable before,” he explains. “They must understand there are lessons to be learned and relevant skills to be maintained from the past. They should not be required to learn those skills but understand their relevance and how to access them.”

Another way to bridge the gap according to Smets is for older tech workers who give up their full-time roles – only when they’re ready – to remain loosely connected to their organization as freelancers.

Michael Cantor, CIO of Park Place Technologies, adds the likes of C++, Visual Basic, and older versions of Java as other skills joining COBOL on an in-demand list. Others often cited by experts also include knowledge of the object oriented programming language Pascal, as well as FORTRAN older and fragile mainframe systems – common in government – or massively parallel computers, plus cabling or power management in traditional data centers.

“The advent of software as a service (SaaS) and forced upgrades is removing another area of skills that are in-demand and hard to find: packaged software,” Cantor says. “Companies on older perpetually licensed packages may find difficulty in finding skills to handle those packages.”

Cantor warns companies to be vigilant about the need for application migration, while noting that there are always options for keeping legacy applications running in their current state. “Generally if there’s any market at all, someone is serving it. While it may become more expensive, I have not found something I couldn’t mitigate the risks of continued operation with.”

Cyber security and internal vulnerabilities are other key areas where legacy skills might be desperately needed at short notice, fixing up chaos after an attack. 

Charlie Cox, commercial director at SThree, a FTSE 250 STEM specialist, sees lifelong learning and mentorship as valuable here. “Pairing experienced professionals with newer counterparts creates dynamic partnerships that benefit from diverse perspectives, enhancing problem-solving and creativity,” he says.

“Failure to pass on legacy skills can lead to system shutdowns and security risks. Businesses must identify critical legacy systems, document architectures, establish redundancies, and invest in training to prevent catastrophic failures.”

Legacy tech skills: SQL is seeing a resurgence

Apratim Purakayastha, chief product officer and chief technology officer at Skillsoft, highlights how traditional industries like financial services, transportation, and manufacturing can use corporate e-learning providers because they still provide training in certain legacy areas.

“Businesses can prevent skill silos by fostering cross-training programs, standardized documentation, regular skills assessments, and succession planning,” says Purakayastha. 

“By implementing these, organizations can mitigate risks associated with locking skills away in little pockets of their workforce.”

For Demed L’Her, chief technology officer (CTO) at DigitalRoute, skills such as the half-century-old SQL might not appeal to younger computer science students learning today. But he warns: “SQL databases still power many cloud systems. In fact, SQL appears to be making a resurgence. Some of the fastest growing new technologies make extensive use of it.”


With this in mind, SQL courses could be a quick route for keeping legacy tech skills fresh in the mind of their workforce. Christian Reilly, CTO at HashiCorp, says that across the financial sector the 60-year-old language COBOL still powers 70% to 80% of the world’s business transactions.

“Despite the pace of new technology, it is a fact many organizations around the world are reliant on technologies of yesteryear that still form a critical part of their computing estate,” Reilly explains.

“Although cloud computing theoretically makes applications and infrastructure simpler to develop and deploy, traditional skills like enterprise architecture and systems integration actually become more important as the size of the applications shrink, but multiply.”

Reilly cites the concept of ‘people, process, and technology’, which has been used as a cornerstone of enterprise computing for decades, as a concept that is still evolving. Reilly notes that the next generation will be different at all three points of the triangle and urges companies not to “underestimate the long tail of legacy” to ensure operational risk is reduced.

Legacy tech skills: Departmental barriers

Michelle Harris, senior manager, product services and development at Macro 4, a division of UNICOM Global, is an expert well-versed in that risk having 30+ years of experience within mainframe and distributed computing environments.

Harris says her company currently has people in mainframe roles who have chosen to stay working well into their 70s. 

But she says: “It’s not because they feel they have to. With IBM Z, you can go deeply technical meaning highly experienced technicians find they are still learning and being challenged.”

Harris advises those looking to achieve a successful legacy transition to reconsider their team structures: “If you want to ensure important mainframe skills aren’t locked away in pockets, ensure you break down departmental barriers. Set up your IT organization so more people get exposure to the mainframe – don’t run it in a silo. 

“While Assembler and COBOL are not for everyone, there will be some who really enjoy the challenge. If you never let them near the mainframe, you’ll never know who in your team has a natural affinity with it.”

Looking forward, leaders may turn to new technologies to help address this generational gap. The relatively recent development of generative AI, particularly tools for AI code generation, could greatly help leaders in the push to ensure legacy tech skills aren’t entirely lost.

For example, Google’s Gemini Code Assist has specifically targeted code translation, with its ability to process entire codebases in one go. At Google Cloud Next 2024 Nenshad Bardoliwalla, director of product management for Vertex AI at Google Cloud, told ITPro that the tool could be a helping hand in addressing the problem of those with proficiency in COBOL or other legacy tech skills “passing away”.

But even with AI assistance, workers will need to use a combination of software and collaboration to ensure legacy tech skills don’t die out altogether. As generative AI can be excellent for summarizing complex instructions and data, this could go both ways: models could be used as tutors that teach human programmers the ins and outs of old languages or skills, to ensure this information outlives its originators.

Jonathan Weinberg is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in technology and business, with a particular interest in the social and economic impact on the future of work and wider society. His passion is for telling stories that show how technology and digital improves our lives for the better, while keeping one eye on the emerging security and privacy dangers. A former national newspaper technology, gadgets and gaming editor for a decade, Jonathan has been bylined in national, consumer and trade publications across print and online, in the UK and the US.