Application Development and Maintenance

Shifting from accidental accrual to a strategic technical debt approach

With a thorough understanding of technical and operational positioning, organizations can be better prepared to take on technical debt in a sustainable manner.

The impact of rapid digitization on enterprise technology

Technical debt is increasingly talked about as organizations continue adapting to an environment of rapid digital transformation. Agencies and enterprises have pivoted in the last few years, often modernizing and digitizing at rates that were unexpected and they were unprepared for. The result is a considerable accumulation of technical debt and additional work that built up due to quick fixes for the sake of speed.

Because of the shifting digital landscape that has emerged over the past few years, organizations have taken on unprecedented amounts of technical debt, much of which has been unexpected, unplanned, or unintentional. Technical debt is often a side effect of swift development or software implementation decisions that prioritize speed over effectiveness.1

For example, as organizations look to meet rising expectations and improve the customer experience, many have implemented automation as part of their business strategy. While this has considerable benefits for the organization, rushing to automate without being fully prepared can create instances of technical debt in the form of duplicative work, broken code, and more, requiring additional patching and refactoring.

Similarly, as organizations look to modernize their applications, migrate to the cloud, and further improve the customer experience, rushing to do so can contribute to both unintentional and intentional technical debt through a buildup of legacy data and a lack of proper testing, delaying a project’s close.

Instead of operating from a position of accidental accrual of technical debt, it’s important to be more intentional when considering the future state of an organization’s digital innovation journey and include technical debt in all strategic conversations and project planning.

Strategically accrue technical debt to better plan for the future

While in some cases unchecked technical debt can be detrimental to a business’s bottom line, if positioned well it can become a worthy investment that paves the way for growth. Being proactive about technical debt can be the difference between innovation and a constant state of “catch-up.” Though there are occasions where being reactive is necessary, keeping this to a minimum is critical for business continuity.

Here are a few things to consider in taking on new technical debt:

  • Take stock of existing technical debt. With a thorough understanding of the technical debt already being worked on/needing work, it will be much easier to plan for additional costs.
  • Find balance between paying off existing debt and incurring new.
  • Understand the workload and availability of technical teams. Take the time to understand team structure, completion times, and existing workloads. If they are already stretched thin paying off existing debts and completing day-to-day tasks, this will impact the amount of debt an organization can sustainably take on.
  • Hire strategically, include resources with legacy knowledge and new approaches, and find a balance in the work they are given. Identify gaps in technical teams—for example, if certain teams are busy on a new project, consider hiring teams with more availability to focus on planned technical debt payoffs.
  • Consider the following with regard to the proposed debt:
    • What does the organization gain by incurring this debt?
    • What challenges will the debt cause later, and of what magnitude?
    • Why can’t the issue be addressed immediately?
    • What would resolving the debt look like? Will it impact more than the immediate/obvious features?
    • How long is this debt sustainable?
    • Is there a better way to address it in the future with advanced capabilities?
  • Make actionable plans to pay off debts; prioritize maintenance and work it into daily operations. With planned maintenance included in day-to-day work, additional technical debt can be more easily integrated into team workflows.
  • Plan for any known technical debt that will occur as a result of a project, but also understand that things may arise that aren’t planned for—and they’ll need to be paid off too.

At a high level, it’s important to include technical debt in every conversation with both technical and operational teams. This includes conversations about strategy, planning, hiring, and more—building technical debt into these conversations allows for more strategic accrual and payment. Additionally, consider technical debt outside of software development and price it into all IT work. Doing so allows for greater flexibility and visibility into potential issues.

As with paying off existing debt, whether intentional or unintentional, planning for technical debt will vary greatly based on the needs of the organization and the makeup of the teams. However, at all levels, it’s important to consider the implications of new debt and make actionable plans to pay it off. With a thorough understanding of technical and operational positioning, organizations can be better prepared to take on technical debt in a sustainable manner.

Want to learn more about technical debt and its impact? Read our white paper Unlocking the secrets to managing technical debt.


Endnotes

  1. "What is technical debt? How to pay it off (with examples)." Asana. July 10, 2022. https://asana.com/resources/technical-debt.

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