Overcoming the pain of Technical Debt


Many businesses are hamstrung by expensive and inflexible information technology. To wit: The average firm’s spend on IT has swelled to the equivalent of between 4 percent and 6 percent of revenue, thanks in part to neglect, poorly executed integrations and the breakneck speed of technological change.

While the exact toll of lost productivity and hampered innovation for any given firm is difficult to quantify, it’s safe to say that the true cost IT is greater than what appears on a company’s ledger. Research firm Gartner estimates the total cost of poor systems architecture, design and development will reach US$1 trillion in 2015. Put another way, that’s an average of US$1 million per organization, according to analytics firm Cast Software, and US$3.61 per line of code.

This hidden expense is referred to as “technical debt.” Reining in technical debt is an ongoing challenge for IT leaders because the cost of lost opportunities is tricky to peg while the cost of modernizing legacy systems is immediately tangible and often significant. But understanding technical debt is vital for organizations angling to improve performance through new technologies, improved agility and tighter cost controls.

I first encountered the dangers of technical debt when I did consultant work for a medium-sized manufacturer. In our search for savings, we found that maintaining one legacy system was consuming nearly 85 percent of the firm’s IT maintenance budget while rendering the integration of new applications difficult and risky. Worse, support activities were diverting scarce resources away from growth-enabling automation initiatives.

In that instance the firm was able to successfully phase out the old system while phasing in a new, more effective and cost-efficient replacement. But the question remains: Why did the firm’s IT leaders run up so much technical debt in the first place?

“The challenge is twofold,” explains Mike Grossman, founder IDI Systems, an automation development firm that regularly confronts technical debt in the course of infrastructure projects. “First, how can you economically and practically support current processes and business capabilities with existing — and potentially deteriorating — code, tools and processes? And second, how and when are you going to transition these old systems to support your new business objectives?”

Think of a legacy IT system as an old clunker. The driver understands that buying a new car is cheaper and easier in the long run, but either doesn’t have the down payment on hand or can’t spare a day without wheels. So instead of efficiently getting where they need to go, they’re stuck trying to keep an old car running by repairing old parts and adding new ones.

Where the metaphor falls flat, however, is in underscoring the value proposition of abandoning the old. The difference between a messy legacy IT system and a modern, fully integrated and efficient one is greater than the difference between an old car and a new one. While either vehicle will get you where you want to go, a world-class IT system can take your firm places that your current infrastructure would never allow. This is due to the opportunities for innovation that arise from a top-notch system.

That’s not to say that eliminating technical debt is as simple as hiring a team of developers to rebuild your infrastructure from the ground up. Before any such decision is made, consider the following steps:

  • Calculate your existing technical debt. To do this, compare the capabilities of your current software and hardware to industry-leading versions.
  • Determine your firm’s goals. Consider both the extent to which your current activities depend on your legacy system and what new functionality you will require for future, growth-generating activities.
  • Identify and align around the priority areas for remediation.
  • Find and deploy talent to replace or redesign legacy systems.
  • Measure and track progress at a senior level along the way.

And remember: Even after you’ve successfully upgraded your IT systems, the threat of running up technical debt remains. This is due both to the changing nature of technology and of business. While senior leaders ought not to obsess over technical debt, keeping a vigilant eye on the efficiency and capabilities of IT operations can be the difference between running in place and forging forward.

For more information on our work and service, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.

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