Putting off a systems update or major technology purchase can seem like a necessary move when it comes time to budget for the new year. But as computer science trainer Michael Gibbs explores, you can only kick that can down the road for so long.
To thrive in the modern business world, technology is a must. Organizations that have the best technology will have an advantage over their competitors. Therefore, businesses are quick to adopt new technologies as they emerge. Unfortunately, many businesses are too quick to adopt a new technology, taking shortcuts to speed the adoption process.
The quick adoption process can provide temporary gains, but it also has its downsides. The creation of technical debt is one of the most damaging of those downsides. If left unaddressed, tech debt can ultimately undermine a business’s efforts to stay productive and profitable.
Understanding tech debt
Technical debt describes the business costs that flow from the failure to fix tech issues. As companies seek higher and higher levels of “development velocity,” they opt to disregard minor issues that don’t immediately threaten the success of the project at hand. Over time, those minor issues accumulate, creating a “debt” of unaddressed issues that must ultimately be addressed.
Messy code is an example of an issue that can create tech debt. Implementing unstructured updates to coding in business systems can cause them to become convoluted and confusing. Messy code often also involves a lack of documentation, which means ongoing maintenance of systems becomes reliant on institutional knowledge.
Simply holding on to outdated hardware or software can also create tech debt. Businesses that choose to delay updates can ultimately lose access to support and limit their ability to scale. Old systems can also have limitations when it comes to integrating with new technology tools.
A more modern form of technical debt is leveraging managed and proprietary cloud solutions. On the surface, they are simple and scalable, but they create interoperability problems. Not leveraging more open solutions makes it challenging to innovate in the future. What’s worse is many IT certifications bias technology professionals to choose proprietary and managed solutions, which may haunt end customers in the future.
Nokia is often cited as a company that suffered huge losses because of tech debt. As smartphones began to dominate the mobile tech market, Nokia had come to rely on an outdated platform that couldn’t keep up.
Experts point to tech debt as one of the factors in the 2017 Equifax data breach that exposed the records of more than 150 million customers. Equifax reportedly allowed known security vulnerabilities to linger, failing to implement a security patch that may have prevented the breach.
Virtually every business is vulnerable to tech debt. If software, technology infrastructure or other digital tools are relied on for business operations, tech debt can build. Outdated payment systems, for example, can create tech debt in a wide variety of businesses. Each decision a company makes to put off debt through continuing to trust in outdated technology raises the “interest” that will eventually need to be paid.
The impact of tech debt
As with any type of debt, tech debt develops when a company chooses to defer expenses. In some cases, a software update is viewed as too expensive, even when existing systems have proven to be insufficient to keep pace with the industry. Tech debt can also result from the reluctance to allocate time for updating systems and the new training it requires.
The impact of tech debt can be significant and far-reaching. In the development space, tech debt can slow down the pace of engineering new features. And it leads to messy code that increases complexity and confusion in ongoing development.
Companies may find tech debt leads to recruiting challenges. Top talent will typically be reluctant to work on messy systems. Dealing with the limitations of high-debt environments can be frustrating for any worker, lowering morale and productivity.
Tech debt can drive up maintenance costs for any business. System updates are often issued to deal with bugs. Businesses that fail to implement updates will spend time addressing those bugs, which can mean more downtime and less productivity. Debt-ridden systems are also prone to more instability, which can also result in more downtime.
System updates also regularly address cybersecurity risks. Taking on tech debt can mean leaving dangerous vulnerabilities in place. Trying to integrate outdated systems with newer tech tools can also lead to security issues.
Reduced agility is another consequence of tech debt. As businesses continue to rely on legacy code or proprietary systems, they limit their flexibility and increase the difficulty of pivoting toward new opportunities. High tech debt often means high reliance on institutional knowledge, which can also limit agility.
While companies may choose to take on tech debt to allow for more efficient and affordable operations in the short term, ultimately it can demand a high price. In terms of tech development, tech debt slows innovation. In terms of overall business output, it causes critical systems to become unstable and inefficient.
Managing tech debt
Managing tech debt begins with conducting regular technology audits. Small tech issues can quickly accumulate. An issue that is not seen as a threat can be amplified by the introduction of a seemingly unrelated technology tool. Audits should consider areas where tech efficiency is flagging as well as every addition to a business’s technology framework and the ways in which they may impact outstanding debt.
Audits should also provide measurements of predefined debt metrics. Showing the quantity of debt-related issues as well as their potential impact can help to drive better maintenance moving forward. For example, showing how many employees are affected by debt issues can help to illustrate how detrimental they are to business operations.
Code refactoring is another step taken to address tech debt. Refactoring involves removing issues in code by restructuring it without changing its functionality. Maintaining tech debt requires committing resources to regular refactoring.
Keeping detailed documentation on all tech systems is another key step to managing tech debt. Documenting all adjustments to systems is essential to effective auditing. It also streamlines the refactoring process.
Embracing processes that limit tech debt
Assuming a certain amount of tech debt may be a strategic decision. However, businesses should generally pursue an approach to technology that avoids excessive debt.
Maintaining a regular dialogue with users about technology issues can also help to reduce the impact of debt. Surveying users about how tech issues are affecting their productivity can be included in debt audits. User feedback can alert businesses to unanticipated consequences of tech debt before it leads to significant issues.
Businesses can also decrease tech debt by optimizing their overall tech maintenance strategies. Components and platforms that pose the greatest risk to security and stability should be kept out of the debt equation. Effective strategies will identify those components and ensure they are kept current.
A strong tech strategy will also define a business’s position in managing legacy systems. Retiring older systems to reduce maintenance and incompatibility issues can significantly reduce tech debt. Including regular employee training in tech strategies allows businesses to be more agile when it is time to upgrade legacy systems.
The extra work associated with mitigating and avoiding tech debt can be costly, but it cannot be ignored. At least, tech debt will negatively impact employee efficiency and morale. At most, it can expose a business to dangerous vulnerabilities that can lead to operational failures or security breaches. To maintain healthy technology systems and drive overall business success, businesses must take steps to keep tech debt at a minimum.