Why I Enjoy Working on Legacy Software Applications

Today I realized something about myself, I actually really enjoy working in legacy applications. This may seem odd. It’s common to hear complaints about “how bad this old code is”, so why would I enjoy working in a difficult environment?

First, it would be useful for me to define what makes an application a legacy application. I realize this may not be a universal definition for everyone, but here are the core elements I think of that make an application qualify as “legacy”:

I’ve really painted an attractive picture, haven’t I? Why on earth would I find joy and satisfaction working in something that could very objectively be described as a mess?

First, the application is successful. The fact that it has been in production so long, limping along, but providing value to the business is quite a testament. Personally, I find more contentment working on one thing a long time versus jumping from project to project. (I’ve done both in my career)

Second, I find that if managed properly, these sorts of projects can really help a team grow together. If you wallow in how bad things are, that causes low team morale, but if instead you focus on progressively making things a little better every week together, it shifts your perspective. Bonus points for reflecting on these small wins as a team, and taking pride in leaving the code a little better than you found it.

Legacy applications also engage problem-solving skills and careful analysis unlike a brand new application would. You have to rationalize what out-of-date documentation says with what the tests say with what the code comments say with what the code actually does. This attention detail takes effort, but I find it extremely satisfying when done successfully.

Sure, it can be frustrating, and you definitely have to move slower and more cautiously, but working on making a legacy application better brings a kind of satisfcation you can’t get from building out a fresh, shiny application from scratch. Am I alone in feeling this way?