Tackling technical debt in a post-pandemic world

Although it is an age-old IT problem, the pandemic exacerbated the technical debt issue as teams were forced to rely on software tools and remote working to remain operational.

Technical debt can be found inside every business and typically occurs within a few months or even years after deciding to take the easy solution instead of the better option that is more complex and expensive to implement.

Even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella admitted that the tech giant had gone through 2 years of digital transformation in just two months. This period served as a wake-up call to businesses worldwide that were forced to face the fact that they had much more technical debt than they realized. In addition, the architectural challenges that were previously ignored pre-pandemic suddenly entered the spotlight with the massive surge in the adoption of cloud technology needed to implement new services quickly.

How much technical debt is unavoidable, and how much is strategic?

From the moment the COVID lockdowns hit, IT departments were challenged with doing whatever it takes to keep the lights of the business on. As a result, shortcuts were taken to save costs and remain in business. But it would take several years for leaders to comprehend the actual price of the technical debt accrued and a timely reminder that it isn't isolated to legacy systems.

A report from Software AG revealed that 78 percent of enterprises admitted that they had increased their level of technical debt during the pandemic. Traditionally, it was widely accepted that technical debt is bad for business. But, most intriguing of all is the revelation that 88% of organizations say that they are aware of the problem, and 83% are even open to accruing it.

There is an argument that enterprises can solve challenges and move forward quicker than their competitors to capitalize on opportunities by going live with unfinished development tasks. For these reasons alone, 94% of those surveyed believe that technical debt is critical for their transformation strategy.

Technical debt interest rates are on the rise

Many leaders have made a strategic decision to accrue some debt to solve a problem. But just like any form of traditional debt, there is no avoiding that interests will continue to rise and will need to be paid back. Moreover, interest will continue to accumulate as developers implement code and with the absence of ongoing development work in other areas when tasks get sidelined or neglected.

Carey Blunt, Global Head of ServiceNow Solutions at Fujitsu, recently told me that organizations spend three hours tackling technical debt for every hour spent on innovation. If they persist in burying their head in the sand and ignoring this reality, they will continue to accrue interest that will impact the business in the future.

If you were paying back two financial loans, one with 20% interest and the other at 5%, you would first pay the 20% loan. However, Blunt also argues that technical debt can be managed with the same mindset. For example, customer-facing solutions and good feedback from your customers can help you identify which of your technical debt is high interest.

The boy scout rule

One of the oldest boy scout rules is to always leave the campsite in a better condition than when you left it. Blunt believes that this same principle can be embedded into the work of software developers. For example, if an engineer is touching a piece of code to add a new feature, they should always try to leave that bit of code in a better state than when they found it, which means they should try and fix some of the technical debt as they go along.

Rather than seeing this approach as doubling the amount of time they have to work on a project, it should be seen as an opportunity to identify and log defects that can be managed later before it causes more significant problems in the future. Ultimately, it should be about embedding the importance of paying back technical debt into your corporate culture.

Every employee needs to be encouraged to fix the small things they encounter and log anything else they identify along the way. This simple approach can make the technical debt more manageable. From here, it also becomes easier to think about dedicating 20% of project time to fixing defects or making some changes that will either reduce your technical debt or, at the very least, stop you from accruing any more interest in that particular area.

The good news is that awareness of technical debt within enterprises has never been higher. But overcoming resistance from other stakeholders or future-thinking leaders who are more focused on the next big thing than backtracking remains the biggest obstacle in addressing existing technical debt and managing future obligations.

The bottom line is that failing to fix things as you move forward will accumulate interest on your technical debt. The result will be the technical team's firefighting issues rather than adding value to your business. If this sounds familiar, maybe it's time to accept that cultural debt is possibly even more dangerous than technical debt. The only question that remains is what are you and your business going to do about this realization?

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