If you want to evaluate a company, take a look at its computer screens

On August 8, Delta, the world’s second-largest airline, was forced to cancel more than 2,000 flights. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded in airports, the company lost millions of dollars, and it had to deal with the delays and additional cancellations for days afterwards, and all because of a glitch in its computer system.

This is a far from isolated case: on July 20, Southwest Airlines also had to cancel around 2,000 flights due to a software problem; United Continental had similar issues on July 8, JetBlue on January 14, and in October and September of last year, Alaska and American Airlines respectively were hit. Everything suggests this is just the beginning and that we will continue to see similar cases as problems rooted in decades-old technology patched up to try to incorporate new functions start to reveal their weaknesses.

Academics have been writing about the problems created by legacy systems for many years: systems based on out of date technology but that are the backbone of many companies, or as in the case of the airlines, systems that are impossible to update because they share functions with many other companies around the world, and that to make matters worse are hit by financial problems, and that are not able to reach agreement on updates.

In the end, the outcome is that short-term investments are prioritized and they continue using systems designed in the 1960s, patched up on so many occasions that nobody knows who changed what and that use interfaces that open screens that belong in the distant past.

Take a look at the screen that comes up on the check-in desk of any airline or travel agency: whether full or half-screen, you’ll be looking at a screen that is usually blue or black and that is the access to the reservation system used by the majority of airlines, the so-called Transaction Processing Facility, or TPF, a closed-code system designed by IBM in 1979 to take over from its Airline Control Program (ACP), set up in 1965. The core of the original system, SABRE (Semi-Automated Business Research Environment), shown in the image above, is still in use. The last major update by IMB was about a decade ago.

Any number of sectors depends on these kinds of totally outdated systems: airlines, government, distribution, insurance and banking. Can the banking sector really believe that it is ready to join a future based on blockchain, as the World Economic Forum predicts? Do the banks intend to join the future by sticking yet another plaster on its raggedy programs that are still running on System 36? And using staff that still have no idea what a bitcoin is?

It’s not hard to check up. I always have a look at the screens being used by banks and other industries, and most of the time they are running on systems that date back to the beginning of the century and that are impossible to update. Little wonder that the excuse trotted out by organizations so often is “problems with our computer system.”

Sometimes, we see how an industry suffers disruption in part derived from its own inability to update its software. Technology has evolved exponentially over recent years. To be competitive today means using tools from the 1960s is like trying to start a fire with a flint: you might manage it, but is going to take you a much longer time than your competitors’, and you’re going to snag your fingers a couple of times in the process.

If you want to know what how a company is going to manage a couple of years down the road, then just take a look at the screens its employees use.

(En español, aquí)