3 Strategies for Mitigating Technical Debt
CIOs should invest in modernization efforts to keep technology infrastructure up to date, reduce inefficiencies, and support growth initiatives.
No matter whether you’re the IT decision maker at a small business or the CIO of a global enterprise, technical debt affects your IT infrastructure’s efficiency, security, and scalability. As technical debt accumulates in organizations in all industries it is critical to consider some practical ways for understanding, managing, and eventually reducing these liabilities.
What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt is when a business opts for quick and easy solutions in their IT infrastructure, rather than implementing a more robust and sustainable and future-proofing option. This concept is akin to taking on financial debt, where the immediate gains are offset by future obligations. It is a compromise between either a rapid deployment or an optimal solution—a crucial choice in a business IT landscape where agility and scalability are paramount.
Technical Debt Business Examples
For instance, a company might choose to keep using an outdated version of a legacy software platform because the upgrade process is time-consuming and resource intensive, not to mention costly. While this decision allows for immediate operational continuity, it leads to increased security vulnerabilities, compatibility issues, and future maintenance challenges.
Another example is a business implementing a patchwork of independent systems for different departments. Initially, everyone is happy because each department head gets a very specialized system for their needs. But over time, the lack of integration leads to data silos, inefficiencies in communication, and increased data reconciliation and system maintenance costs.
In both cases, the short-term benefits are outweighed by long-term drawbacks, which is the essence of technical debt in a business context.
What are the Types of Technical Debt: How Does It Accumulate?
Technical debt can sneak up and accumulate in various business settings, often with far-reaching consequences. Here are a few ways tech debt affects organizations:
- Bug Debt – Rushed Development: Imagine a retailer launching an e-commerce platform under tight deadlines. To meet the launch date, the development team decides to skip thorough testing and best practices in coding, opting to “fix it with patches later.” This results in a platform with frequent outages and security vulnerabilities, requiring extensive (and costly) updates that bring online sales to a halt every time.
- Code Quality Debt, or Lack of Standards: Consider a financial services firm where each department independently develops its own IT solutions. Without unified coding standards or architectural guidelines, the firm ends up with a mix of incompatible systems, leading to increased costs and time spent on integration and maintenance.
- Architecture Debt – Legacy Technology: A manufacturing company continues to use an old inventory management system, avoiding the cost and effort of an upgrade. Eventually this system becomes incompatible with new software and hardware, leading to inefficient manual processes and increased risk of errors.
- Infrastructure Debt – Deferred Maintenance: A healthcare provider postpones regular updates to its patient record system to save on immediate costs. This delay leads to a system that’s not only slow and inefficient but also vulnerable to cybersecurity incidents that ultimately cost more in terms of both finances and patient trust.
Each of these scenarios exemplifies how technical debt can accumulate in different business environments, often leading to more significant issues and increased expenditures.
The Ripple Effects of Technical Debt
For any CIO, the ripple effects of technical debt should be a major concern. These effects can extend far beyond the IT department, affecting overall business performance, employee morale, and the ability to innovate and respond to market changes. Some of the consequences of tech debt include:
- Security Issues: In my dual role as both CIO and CISO for Blue Mantis, I have a unique perspective about how holding onto legacy IT hardware and software too long contributes to potentially catastrophic cybersecurity issues related to an organization’s accumulation of technical debt. For instance, holding onto unsupported legacy software systems makes you a target for zero-day attacks because the attackers know you have no chance of receiving a patch from the software vendor. Outdated APIs are another concern—especially when you factor in all the APIs used by software-defined networking equipment—as you risk not only increasing your cyber-attack surface but also software incompatibilities as you try to introduce a new must-have software solution. Each of these factors can lead to heightened security risks, creating multiple points of failure, and a guaranteed increase in your technical debt.
- Diminished Productivity: Increasing technical debt can divert focus from innovation to maintenance, especially critical in hybrid architectures where integration and efficiency are key. For example, a software development company, burdened by legacy code and outdated systems, realizes its developers are spending more time fixing bugs, addressing compatibility issues, and shoring up security than working on new features. This delays product development and diverts resources from strategic projects.
- Escalating Costs: The longer issues persist, especially in interconnected systems, the more costly they become to resolve. Imagine an online retailer that ignores database system updates. Over time, the system becomes inefficient, leading to longer loading times, frequent crashes, and security vulnerabilities. The cost of overhauling and hardening the system later, coupled with lost sales due to poor customer experience, far exceeds the initial savings.
- Reduced Agility: High technical debt can impede adaptability, a critical setback in hybrid environments where flexibility is essential to respond to market shifts. Many companies using a patchwork of legacy and modern networking systems often struggle when implementing new technologies quickly. This lack of agility would hinder that company’s ability to adapt to new market trends, resulting in lost competitive advantage and revenue opportunities.
- Lower Morale: Teams grappling with high technical debt in complex systems may face demotivation, impacting overall productivity. For example, software engineers at both tech startups and established DevOps teams often are “firefighting” issues in a hastily-built application. Without a cloud-native solution for platform engineering, the ongoing stress and frustration will lead to decreased job satisfaction and higher turnover rates amongst their developers, which in turn, affects the company’s ability to innovate and grow.
Strategies for Mitigating Technical Debt in Hybrid IT Architectures
No matter the size of the organization, there are three practical ways a CIO can mitigate their tech debt:
- Always Stay Current: It is a CIO’s job to understand where technology is going, and for decades technologies were generational. That often meant a CIO bought into the v1 generation, skipped v2 for economic reasons, then scrambled to adopt v3 for security or other reasons. However, using software as a service (SaaS) solutions helps break this cycle. Because SaaS feature upgrades and security updates are delivered to all customers via the cloud at the same time, CIOs are always on the most current version of a system—making system-wide IT updates iterative rather than generational.
- Dedicate Refactoring Time: Most organizations have hybrid IT architectures with a combination of SaaS and non-cloud systems. Allocate regular intervals within development cycles for refactoring and addressing technical debt, crucial for supporting the health of today’s hybrid IT architectures. By thinking of IT modernization as a continuum, setting aside resources for paying down your technical debt also prevents it from building up again.
- Security, Security, Security: Modern IT architectures should start with a zero-trust security foundation. The zero-trust framework requires strict identity verification for every person and device trying to access resources on a network, regardless of whether they are inside or outside the network perimeter. When CIOs begin every IT project from a zero-trust security foundation, it reduces technical debt by minimizing attack surfaces and often eliminating the need for IT teams to deploy (and manage) disparate security tools.
While managing technical debt is an inevitable part of any IT strategy, it doesn’t have to be a daunting task. As a CIO or IT decision-maker, you can turn this challenge into a strategic advantage. As technical debt accumulates in organizations in all industries it’s critical to consider some practical ways for understanding, managing, and eventually reducing these liabilities.
Regardless of the underlying reason, technical debt can accumulate. Investing in your company’s technology can only help reap future rewards. The cost of inaction is high, so reach out to Blue Mantis and we’ll help you tackle any technical debt head-on.