This recession has most organizations worrying about financial debts, but IT should be focusing on another debt – “technical debt.” The term was coined to describe an obligation that an organization incurs when it decides to forgo software and hardware changes. These changes are either not implemented at all or alternative quick solutions are opted for instead. An example would be delaying a software upgrade due to lack of resources. Another common example would be an application design change that ends up more as a “quick fix” because the ideal solution would require too long an implementation cycle and miss a project deadline.
Technical debts come in two kinds: short term and long term. Short term debts occur when technical solutions are revised to avoid smaller point releases and simply providing one final release. Long term debts are usually carried for years. These include postponed hardware upgrades, applications running on older, no longer supported versions, and lower performing applications running on older technologies. Long-term debts are mostly seen in organizations where IT is primarily for back-office operations.
Short term technical debts can easily turn into long term debts. “Band-aid solutions” when applied on top of one another result in systems that need to be re-written from scratch. We have seen a number of organizations that have continued to maintain outdated commercial software or old applications developed in no longer supported development languages. Long term technical debts like these add serious risks to the overall organization. These could result in significant system outages and large costs to replace the existing systems as the institutional knowledge leaves a company either through retirement or moving on to another job.
How to get out of technical debt? Just like any other asset, IT assets require constant maintenance. There is a need for governance to carefully design and evolve your IT footprint. Enterprise architects must pay attention to best practices and checkpoints to make sure technical debts are not deferred too long. This does not mean organizations have to use cutting edge technologies but, best practices still need to be followed. Existing long term debts usually require larger financial investment and buy-in from C-Level management. In these cases, IT strategy needs to be revised, key risks identified and actions taken to upgrade resolve the technical debt.
Every organization probably carries some sort of technical debt. Just like any financial debt, short term technical debts are acceptable and sometimes more practically acceptable solutions as long as they are monitored and controlled and do not end up as long term technical debts. Next budget cycle make sure technical debt is considered as you evaluate your IT initiatives.