Are You Honest with Your Organization (and Yourself) About Technical Debt?

August 21, 2017 4 min Read

Are you honest with your organization (and yourself) about technical debt? Let’s start with a definition. Much of the historical discussion about technical debt is in software development, even though technical debt can exist across the entire technology environment.  Technical debt is often described as inefficiency that compounds over time, like inefficiency related to maintainability, problems, performance or architecture.  Some describe technical debt as the run cost for maintaining the current state of technology, which can be as much as 90 percent of the operating budget in extreme cases. Sometimes acquiring technical debt is the result of good decision making, or perhaps even a necessary – and acknowledged – evil.  Immediate return on investment might cause you to use tools you’re familiar with rather than the best tool for the job. Need for a quick project delivery might cause you to build a specific architecture that helps you meet the goal but won’t suit the next few clients.  Lack of time and resources are often root causes of technical debt. There is often shame around technical debt. It can be difficult for engineers to get specific about the source of the debt because it’s difficult to explain the technical details, or because it may make the engineer seem incompetent in the eyes of the business. How do you get honest about technical debt?  Leadership and team members need to inventory technical debt throughout the technology stack.  The team should discuss technical debt openly and regularly to formulate a plan that addresses and reduces it. Abizer Rangwala recommends a four-point plan for strategic planning to reduce technical debt:

  • Replace “buy and hold” technology investments with “asset light” investments. Cloud infrastructure and other agile business technologies are huge enablers.
  • Identify and isolate debt and pay it down via a good debt/bad debt approach. Being open and honest about addressing bad debts help companies eliminate them faster. Good debt is more common than you might think; many companies are finding new transforming value in legacy data from old systems.
  • Keep driving innovation by investing in new systems or greenfield programs while winding down debt. Balance innovation projects with technical debt reduction so you don’t slow down innovation.
  • Realign ownership of technical debt across the entire C-Suite, and rethink the CIO’s role to get everyone involved in debt vs. innovation decisions.

Deloitee Touche Tohmatsue Limited Global CIO Larry Quinlan recommends splitting the IT budget in two:  one side for core infrastructure and the other side for business-driven investments.  This approach lets the business prioritize investments while letting the IT organization prioritize the architecture, platform and technical debt investments that supports the investments. Finally, help the organization understand that technical debt is avoidable.  Adam Berlinksy-Schine points out that sometimes technical debt is critical to the life of a company, especially startups.   We all get what we pay for. But not everything is a rush, and resources and priorities often get ignored in the heat of the moment. Looking for easy opportunities to reduce technical debt?  Cloud infrastructure from a well-aligned provider is one of the easiest. 

Read the case study about how First Insight used cloud infrastructure to reduce tactical IT workload and deliver faster service to clients.

Doug Theis is the Director of Market Strategy in Expedient’s Indianapolis market focused on engaging with and improving the regional IT community through planning, sponsoring and attending community events, facilitating IT-focused continuing education opportunities, and sharing strategies, tactics, and research to help IT professionals stay abreast of best practices and industry trends. Connect with Doug at and follow him on Twitter.

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