Almost every organization has some degree of technical debt; the trick is knowing how to manage it to become a source of wealth. Unfortunately, with new digital marketing and experience solutions on the rise, it can appear easier to pick up new tools or write quick code as opposed to making better use of or optimizing what already exists.
As I connect with new and existing clients, everyone – unsurprisingly – wants the latest and greatest! And while some instances may require additional systems or solutions, C2 sees something special in consolidating existing systems or making what you already have even better.
What is technical debt?
You need to understand technical debt to begin building technical wealth. Technical debt is a concept in web development that reflects the extra work that arises when code that is easy to implement or work around is used instead of developing the best overall, sustainable solution. This affects not only IT, but the departments who leverage these tools for day-to-day tasks.
In a lot of ways, technical debt can be compared to monetary debt. When not addressed or paid down, it can accumulate “interest”, or issues that make it harder to scale or implement best practice solutions later on.
What causes technical debt?
Technical debt doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over time. More specifically, debt occurs when there is not a core set of well-defined and governed rules for a code base, system, or IT architecture. This can be caused by:
- Focusing on speed to market rather than sustainability
- Branching new code off poorly written code / source code complexity
- Lack of accountability to own specific systems or products
- Not giving people the time and resources to tackle debt
- Not culturally embracing digital best practices
By establishing best practices and iteratively improving rules, teams can mitigate accruing additional technical debt, can continuously pay it down, and enable productivity across departments like marketing and operations.
How to address technical debt
Teams need to shift their mindset away from building upon old code and systems and move toward deliberately remodeling them. There are several processes that can be set in place to keep technical debt at bay, or even repaid, before negative consequences occur.
Measure your debt
Set aside time and resources every year to tackle technical debt, as it can often accumulate because of a lack of funding and sponsorship. You’ll want to consider and estimate the costs to sustain your existing systems including licensing and maintenance costs, the time it takes for teams to repair or build upon poorly developed code, the costs to business operations when issues arise, and, finally, how it affects strategic initiatives and opportunities.
Audit what you owe
Perform a complete inventory of your digital ecosystem and assess each component’s useful lifespan and fitness for new applications. This will feel subjective, but it’s important to scrutinize how each tech solution is beneficial alone and in conjunction with other systems as it relates to your organization’s overall operations.
Determine which debt is most important to address based on what will improve productivity, reduce flow time, and improve quality. Focus on the highest-impact items first, such as systems that have become significantly deficient or will reach end of life within the next three years. While debt is about reducing costs, consider opportunities to invest in a better solution to mitigate costs of redundant and outdated systems.
Afford time to address debt
Planning is one thing, executing is another, and there is no better time than to start now! As a rule of thumb, effective teams usually set aside 20 percent of their capacity to ensure that debt gets paid off through activities such as refactoring code, migrating or condensing systems, and documenting system best practices. While it may not be the most glamorous task, it’s vital to invest in mending your existing code for better efficiency and readability. Making these incremental IT investments will promote productivity from within, cutting down on requests from departments who rely on systems, like marketing, to help drive business results.
Define standards and best practices
If you want to limit technical debt down the line, pay attention to the details that will make it easier to understand and work with in the future. Define and document best practices for each solution and ensure teams regularly review and iterate these processes. Remember, it’s not about how old the solution is, rather, how difficult it is to improve. One common way to easily mitigate debt is to keep up on the latest version of platforms to ensure your systems don't stay too far behind for support.
Consider team structure
Technical debt usually reflects an operations problem. Unfortunately, some organizations are in a position where it has almost become impossible to refactor code because the people who wrote it have left or hiring proper talent is too expensive. Forming a partnership with a digital agency can be a great way to gain strategic leadership, digital expertise, and ongoing support to help address technical debt.
Forget debt, build technical wealth
Technical debt will happen no matter what, and that’s okay. Rather than thinking of it as a problem, reframe it as an opportunity to accumulate technical wealth.
By understanding how technical debt is incurred allows your business to create a proactive strategy to be successful in the reduction of creating new debt while allowing you to pay down what you already have. Investing in regular maintenance or setting aside time for refactoring, teams can drive towards creating a more efficient and profitable digital ecosystem.
At C2, we take measures to avoid and prevent technical debt as best we can. We pride ourselves on our ability to help teams condense redundant systems, integrate siloed data, and make better use of the tools teams already have, as best as possible.
If you still have questions about assessing and addressing technical debt, drop us a line, and we’d be happy to help.