May 18, 2015

Technology Debt

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The IT industry is plagued by debt. I’m not referring to financial debt, but instead the issue of technology being in debt.

What is Technology Debt?

We are all aware of what debt can do – it can become a burden where if you get behind in your instalments, the debt gets you further and further behind – resulting in clearing your debt being bigger than the original cost would have been. We all know why you need to use debt – you need something now, and you need to delay paying for it.

Technology Debt is a term that applies to many IT organisations that are constantly playing catch-up with updates, upgrades, patches and projects – and never really getting out of fire-fighting or keeping the lights on and into innovation or enhancing the business. Businesses suffering from Technology Debt will be focussed on running the business, and not on running the IT, meaning that IT can often be left behind as a burden instead of in front and an catalyst or tool for business benefits.

An analogy

Imagine you are hiking with a group of people. As the group walks, some people have a faster pace and are able to pull ahead. When the faster group pauses to allow the people at the back to catch up, the faster group are able to have a rest, enjoy the view and interact with each other. The slower individuals then catch up, but are unable to have a rest, cannot interact or enjoy the journey. The slower individuals may be older, less agile, not accustomed to the activity, not as strong, and less prepared – their only focus will be on completing the hike. The faster group may have never done the hike before, but have done similar activities, are more likely to support each other on the way up, and point out hazards or experiences (or areas of interest or great views) to each other.

Examples of Technology Debt

A simple example that is recent (in 2014/15) is the deployment of Windows 7. When Windows XP became unsupported in April 2014, organisations scrambled to react. Unfortunately, many would simply roll out Windows 7, which would require implementation of new tools and infrastructure – rolled out on the same paradigm of desktop PCs. In the rush, there was less focus on optimisation and improvement, organisations left it too late to analyse what was really happening and just did it in the same way as before.

Another common example is when organisations have implemented a core business system on an expensive platform – in my exposure, often Oracle based – and then the platform needs to be customised to respond to changing business needs. These customisations make upgrades and patching either hard or impractical, resulting in an old infrastructure being maintained until it is so old that any changes require considerable change and risk.

shutterstock_102675134Organisations delay hardware upgrades to avoid costs, but end up increasing the risk that parts are expensive, unavailable or hard to obtain. Then the decision is made to replace hardware like-for-like, instead of virtualisation or using Cloud services, and then there is a lack of documentation to assist in making the replacement system identically configured, with predictable unpredictability.

Software upgrades get delayed – after all, the old software works – and then the upgrade path becomes onerous. An architecture change to (or from) multi-tier, a change to 64 bit or supported operating system, a change to supported databases, a requirement to perform intermediary upgrades which would then in turn need to be upgraded gain. The number of upgrades and changes required becomes massive.

Jumping the debt chasm

Businesses need to escape the debt trap. The injection needed can be made up of activities including the following;

  • A change in culture and approach from “keeping the lights on” to innovation – a change to delivering services instead of products
  • A clear and achievable IT strategy that focusses on business benefits instead of listing upgrades and technology packages
  • Business analysis of all IT systems – is it really required, are the benefits obtained worth more than the cost of maintaining the system?
  • Can the business benefit be gained from a Cloud service?
  • Can Consultants help your business jump mindset from “this is the way we have always done things” by representing industry trends and analysis?


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