Overcoming Tech Debt for Fast-Moving Business Evolution
Evolution is a necessary part of running a company in today’s fast-moving landscape. If your business isn’t changing its practices and workflows on a regular basis, you may be falling behind ambitious competitors.
With that said, evolving isn’t always smooth or easy. One of the most common issues that can hold companies back is the concept of tech debt. What is tech debt? This is the term given to making technological decisions in the present that will make operations more difficult or complex in the future.
From the beginning, it’s worth clarifying one main concept: Not all tech debt is bad. Tech debt is a trade-off between present needs and future practices, and incurring some of it is simply the cost of doing business.
There is a right way to manage tech debt, and there is also a wrong way. Organizations that pursue the right way are well-positioned to stay agile, while companies that incur bad tech debt are setting themselves up for hard times. It’s important to recognize the right approach to tech debt and embrace it. This starts with understanding what tech debt does, why it occurs and how to get through it.
How Tech Debt Impacts Companies
What is the mark of bad tech debt? There are a few telltale signs, all of which point back to systems and workflows that have become too unwieldy to manage effectively. Bad tech debt occurs when a tech deployment is managed or modified in a short-sighted way. Over time, the longtail impact of the company’s choices becomes clear.
Businesses dealing with bad tech debt may find:
- They have too many employees whose roles involve keeping overly complex systems running. With more basic systems, they could carry fewer salaries or reassign workers to more value-adding work.
- They are spending too much on the upkeep of their systems. This is closely tied to the issue of devoting too many employee hours to managing the technology.
- They need to expend excessive effort on tasks that should be simple. Making an upgrade, patching a bug or adding a feature can be overly difficult when code has become too complex over time.
- Software becomes brittle and prone to failure. Even if employees succeed in making a change, they may have to revert it quickly, because they’ve caused unintended consequences in the over-complicated code.
- It’s hard for the company as a whole to pivot or evolve. Businesses saddled with large, overly complex software tools at the center of their operations can find it difficult to change their workflows, because the technology is inflexible.
While the impact of bad tech debt is real — and seriously harmful to a company’s prospects — it’s important to restate that tech debt is not always bad. Companies seeking to make an impact with a useful new software feature in the here and now may end up sacrificing future extensibility or flexibility to make the addition. This kind of change can be productive and worth the trade-off.
Taking on tech debt is like taking out a loan. If the developers entering into the process do so with their eyes open and understand how their choices are affecting their future prospects, they can get the results they’re looking for. It’s only when tech debt has unexpected consequences or spirals out of control that true problems happen.
Why Bad Tech Debt Occurs
If bad tech debt is so harmful to an organization’s future prospects, it’s important to ask why it occurs. Companies are not hampering their own chances on purpose, so what decisions are leading to these scenarios?
- Short-sighted thinking: In some cases, leaders ask for a company to be fast-moving, to deliver responsive answers to current market challenges without regard for the consequences. This is a problematic approach, especially in today’s fast-moving climate, where unwieldy technology may have its impact quickly.
- Tolerance for shadow IT: Sometimes, IT leaders let their developers proceed with their own shadow IT deployments outside their main systems, as a hedge against short-sighted decision-making. They assume that once the primary system becomes unusably complex, they can cut over to the shadow system. However, this new system that has been built without official oversight is unlikely to be much better than what it’s replacing.
- Incompetent development practices: Developing software without obeying best practices creates a major risk of bad tech debt. Perhaps decisions were made by committee, leading to compromises that please no one. There is such a thing as “non-code” tech debt, meaning that administration and bureaucracy are the main problems, not the software.
- Top-down pressure: Trying to control technology development too closely and overcoming tech debt through a culture of blame are major red flags. IT leaders desperate for improvement may end up pressuring top developers to leave, at which point code becomes worse and more poorly understood than it was. This is a vicious cycle.
Businesses hoping to avoid these factors can focus on the future of their industries. This means considering carefully whether their software will need to be extensible or flexible in the near future, based on their projections for the next few years. With that vision in mind, it’s then time to implement practices that will keep development on the right track.
Overcoming Tech Debt with Best Practices
Fortunately for IT departments and development teams today, many of the priorities that can help them avoid bad tech debt are the kinds of solid, all-purpose best practices that they should be following anyway. In some ways, the key to preventing tech debt is simply to run the kind of modern, agile software development group that will help the business thrive.
When implementing new processes to keep technology development in line and avoid tech debt, it’s important for leaders to keep a few ideas in mind. For instance, they should be focusing on their ideal outcomes, rather than the nitty-gritty technology issues that will get them there. Aiming to create perfect code is an impossible goal, one that can get companies side-tracked from the priorities that really matter.
Some useful practices for IT leaders and their developers to keep in mind include:
- Use optimized continuous delivery processes: Companies that have effective continuous delivery operations, with frequent code reviews and ample automation, are well-equipped to avoid bad tech debt. The small, resilient iterations that occur in such a system are unlikely to cause headaches in the future.
- Measure for metrics that actually matter: The way to make sure a company is not racking up bad tech debt is to keep studying whether the business’s internal software is working as intended. This doesn’t necessarily mean making sure the code is flawless, but rather that employees are able to use, upgrade and patch it efficiently.
- Use architectures that naturally counteract tech debt: Closely related to using continuous delivery, IT departments should also make sure their chosen development architectures are optimized to prevent harmful tech debt. This may mean opting for the containerized clean architecture model, where components have fewer potentially risky dependencies.
Businesses that follow these steps are ideally placed to avoid the consequences of bad tech debt, as their everyday development workflows will naturally protect them in the near future. Their use of metrics will be a key point, as it will help them know if they are at risk of sliding into damaging tech debt.
Preparing for the Fast-Moving Future
Changes in the nature of technology have caused overall shifts in the ways companies function. Today, an organization saddled with bad tech debt could be quickly overcome by a faster rival that’s able to iterate and evolve more quickly.
Businesses across industries, even those that did not consider software development a major priority in decades past, now have to optimize their IT processes. The threat posed by the harmful kind of tech debt is ever-present, and when organizations see the signs that they’re suffering from this issue, they should act.
What form should that action take? It may involve a large-scale change, like ripping and replacing a major software tool that has become too unwieldy to use and update. This may bring short-term pain, but businesses can guard against having to go through the process multiple times by embracing continuous delivery and related best practices, ensuring that their new system is more future-proof.
Working with Transcenda to Overcome Tech Debt
Working closely with a partner organization is one way to reshape development processes for the better and therefore avoid tech debt in the future. Whether your organization prefers a consulting approach or a more hands-on engagement, the advantage here is clear: An infusion of industry expertise can help you implement best practices.
There are a few stipulations around what form this partnership should take if you want to see maximum value. Perhaps most importantly, you need a partner that is ready to tell hard truths about the current state and future and direction of your software development processes, to make sure you’re actually prepared to avoid bad tech debt going forward.
Transcenda can offer this kind of even-handed, insightful assistance. Our developers aren’t beholden to any specific tech platforms and can deliver the solutions that make sense for your specific market position, objectives and needs.
Contact us now to learn more about how you can stay away from bad tech debt going forward.