Apr 27 2021

What Is Technical Debt, and How Can Businesses Get Rid of It?

The long-term obligations that accumulate from short-term technology requirements can be quite steep. Here’s how to get a handle on them.

As organizations raise the maturity level of their IT operations, they’re discovering a lot of their time and energy is caught up in maintenance of existing technology — and this makes an impact on the resources available for developing and deploying new tools and services. The terms “technical debt” and “maintenance liability” are being used to describe what’s happening here: an obligation to maintain the installed base of hardware and software that seems to grow larger every year.

The pandemic has been a big cause of technical debt for IT managers. Rushing to deploy new tools and hardware to support remote work environments, for example, meant skipping some steps to get things going fast. Those steps have to be addressed sooner or later, though. That’s technical debt.

Here’s how to keep this debt manageable — and avoid having it overwhelm your team and budget.

Document Your Business's Technical Debt

Technical debt should be carefully tracked, explained to the entire IT team and made part of the process of every software installation or PC deployment, every network jack, and every cloud s­ervice or application integration. There is virtually nothing an IT department does that won’t have to be maintained over time.

Learn more about leveraging tech budget to gain a competitive edge during the CDW Tech Talk Series, every Tuesday at 1 p.m. CST. Click the banner below to register.

When projects are rushed, urgent support tasks are accomplished and exceptions are made to normal processes, end users may be happy, and someone might call the job done.

As IT managers know, however, no project is ever truly done — and those conducted too quickly will cause more work as time passes.

Then there are the add-ons outside of normal operation: That VIP who can’t survive without a ThinkPad when everyone else has a Dell. That 32-bit database server for a special application when everything else is 64-bit. The cloud subscription for one department when the rest of the company is on Microsoft 365 and OneDrive.

Keeping track of the exceptional short-term and long-term technical debt and maintenance liabilities is a sobering exercise. Documenting the debt serves two purposes: It helps IT managers understand where their resources are going and why time spent on maintenance activities is so much higher than anticipated. Documenting debt also serves as a reminder of all those tasks that need to be done.

Budget for Your Organization's Technical Debt

No matter what cost model your organization uses for IT, it’s an excellent idea to make specific line items in your budget for the costs to handle technical debt and maintenance liabilities. This is especially true for exceptional items, such as nonstandard hardware or software.

WATCH: How your organization can rein in IT infrastructure costs caused by 2020's disruptions.

Putting a dollar figure on these costs helps in discussions both within management teams and with end users. The IT team’s job is to serve the organization and support it, but that doesn’t mean it should hide all of its costs in some amorphous black-box budget. Transparency within the executive team about how IT spends its time and resources helps when negotiating budgets.

At the same time, being able to explain how much something will cost over the long term is very valuable. By keeping up to date with the maintenance costs of hardware, software and especially custom configurations, IT is in a better position to give credible and trusted advice when projects and requests come up. In the long run, running a business is all about balancing scarce resources and competing priorities. When IT can predict what short-term and long-term costs will be for some activity, this helps decision-makers do a better job of resource allocation.

Cancel Your Business's Technical Debt

Debt doesn’t always have to be paid. In some cases, it’s more cost-effective to find a different approach to deal with uncompleted work. By documenting and budgeting for the costs of ongoing and delayed maintenance, IT teams have some ammunition for retiring legacy systems whose ongoing costs are excessive, or for ­removing customizations that have a disproportionate impact on IT resources.

Budget and costs aren’t the only reasons to try to retire or remove pieces of IT infrastructure. However, knowing where the money is going can help to prioritize changes. If there’s a top 10 list of systems slated for replacement or retirement, prioritizing based on the ongoing costs is valid.

Negotiate Your Organization's Technical Debt

In some cases, IT managers have technical debt created for them by other groups. Security teams are a great example of folks who spend a lot of time telling other parts of the IT organization what they should be doing, especially when auditors have passed through. IT managers should consider carefully when other teams load them with technical debt — and push back if appropriate.

Security staffers reading a report from an auditor or looking at a vulnerability analysis console don’t necessarily have the subject-matter expertise to understand every recommendation. They also may not have the context required to measure true risk — not just the risk of not patching or upgrading but also the risk that comes with touching infrastructure elements such as network and storage devices that have been stable for years at a stretch.

IT managers facing technical debt, especially debt created by other teams, may be able to negotiate away some or all of the obligation.

Businesses spend an increasing fr­action of their time on maintenance activities, resources that might be better used in other ways. By documenting and budgeting for both ordinary and extraordinary maintenance, IT managers can get a better handle on this part of the job and raise their IT maturity levels while gaining valuable input into the overall planning process. 

Jirapong Manustrong/Getty Images