5 ways to tackle technical debt

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Technical debt (tech debt) is a significant concern for global businesses across various industry verticals. It’s the label for the end-product of development teams working at speed in software to hit delivery timelines – bugs, legacy or misplaced code, erroneous documentation, and more.

Tech debt is significant because it acts as a barrier to progress against increasingly important business transformation objectives. Fundamentally, this limits a business’s ability to scale, operate at speed, and respond to evolving market demands.

Addressing tech debt requires significant investment. Accruing tech debt is unavoidable but it can’t be left unchecked. That’s becoming increasingly clear to more organizations whose past technology sprints are catching up to them. Maintaining code that tends to break is costly and can reduce agility and restrain innovation. The situation is more acute in regulated industries, where outdated systems and inflexible software are commonplace.

To contextualize how widely the impact of tech debt is felt – nearly 70% of organizations view tech debt as having a high level of impact on their ability to innovate. Pair this with estimates that 40% of IT balance sheets are allocated to tech debt and there’s no wonder that the issue is escalating up the priorities list and becoming the domain of not just IT leaders but the broader C-suite.

CIOs can no longer delay taking decisive action. The typical approach to tech debt of revisiting products and services post-launch to remedy issues can’t hold. With a massive accumulation of tech debt, it’s not enough to address symptoms without also addressing underlying issues. Instead, organizations should consider implementing the following strategic steps to manage tech debt effectively:

Rupert Colbourne

Embrace automated software testing

Historically, software development has focused on releasing minimum viable products. However, this focus on speed has increased tech debt levels. IT must focus more on quality. AI-tools that power test automation can help identify, predict, and fix issues before releasing software. Continuously monitoring applications in production helps improve quality and prevents problems from being introduced by updates.

Consider tech debt as a business risk

Tech debt is often viewed solely as an IT issue. However, it’s a problem for the entire organization. Having visibility and tracking tech debt makes it easier for everyone to grasp the magnitude of the problem and how it could impact the organization. Understanding the cost in specific business areas creates a culture of shared accountability and puts it firmly on the radar of leadership.

Prioritize the cloud and update legacy software

One way to help build resiliency is to migrate legacy software to the cloud. This makes it easier to pay off the tech debt accrued over time. Additionally, it can then be maintained using modern software development approaches.

For example, earlier this year, British Airways announced that it is investing £7 billion in a modernization program that includes migrating 700 IT systems to the cloud. This comes in the wake of the airline suffering a series of IT outages due to data center failures, including two outages in 2022, one forcing the company to cancel all short-haul flights from London Heathrow Airport, and another where flights were forced to be grounded overnight. This case study illustrates the costly impact of maintaining legacy technology and the importance of modernizing and tackling the root cause of tech debt, rather than just its symptoms.

Identify and quantify tech debt

Businesses should establish parameters for acceptable levels of tech debt so that they can then work to ensure the debt remains within the agreed-upon boundaries. This requires categorizing and tracking using specific tools.

Developers can use code inspection analysis to scan and report on potential tech debt discovered. This is then tracked, prioritized, and remediated as part of a continuous lifecycle to ensure secure and scalable software.

Define a robust and scalable foundation

Creating an organizational architecture provides a framework for managing, supporting, and securing technology. Examples include enterprise architecture for aligning business goals and IT, technology architecture for designing IT infrastructure, including cloud services applications, and integration architecture for developing robust applications with interoperability in mind. If a new solution doesn’t support the approach, it shouldn’t proceed. Over time, frameworks can evolve to support the changing needs of the business. Adhering to a set architecture reduces the volume of debt accruing and accelerates the pace of development.

Organizations across all industries are laser-focused on modernizing their systems and applications. Recent breakthroughs in AI and Machine Learning have acted as accelerators for such modernization. Reducing the mounting tech debt burden is key to realize this.

By implementing the outlined initiatives, organizations can confront this escalating challenge head-on, paving the way towards continued agile and resilient working while limiting excessive corner-cutting that causes issues. With these priorities in place, businesses are in a great place to accelerate time to value new technologies and thrive from doing so.

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