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The Long-Term Impacts of Ongoing Technical Debt

July 23, 2021 Information Management
Geetika Tandon
By Geetika Tandon

The ongoing pandemic has changed our lives forever and potentially the way we live and work as well. It has also brought our vulnerabilities to the forefront. One of the primary ones is our organization's and our infrastructure's ability to react to change. Our infrastructures need to keep up with fluctuations in requirements as well as demand.

Organizations that previously had struggled to make a case for change were forced by the pandemic to react seemingly overnight. These same organizations are now taking a step back and looking at how it took them over a decade to “think” about a change when it happened in less than six months for most of them. The question they now grapple with is, “Why did it take us so long to make this change?”

Despite the disruption caused by COVID-19, legacy systems remain the backbone of many large enterprises — commercial as well as Federal. Archaic systems written in languages that few can still understand, limited documentation, existing tight dependencies between systems create a brittle, expensive, hard-to-maintain infrastructure. We call this technical debt: the hidden cost of maintaining a system that appears to work fine today.

Technical debt not only increases total cost of ownership (TCO), it also holds organizations back from leveraging new digital technologies and creating new experiences for their customers, stakeholders and partners.

In this article we delve into the details of what makes up technical debt and its impact on the IT and the business as a whole.

What We Mean by Technical Debt

Before you can fully understand the imperative for modernization, you must first understand the impact of accumulating technical debt. Technical debt, or updates applied to technology for short-term gains without a vision for the future, not only hurts current TCO but also has an incremental effect on the future leading to outages, vulnerabilities and higher maintenance costs.

Technical debt does not just refer to code here. In fact, the debt comes from long-drawn-out manual business processes and procedures which have been set in place as a result of older technologies. When we talk about modernization, we refer to transformation of the entire organization — not just infrastructure or code upgrades. It means new ways of working and collaborating with speed and agility.

Related Article: The Sudden Move to Remote Work Unearthed Years of Bad Tech Decisions

What Are the Long-Term Impacts of Technical Debt?

When technical debt is present, regardless of its form, it must be addressed because of its various implications for your business. Below are some major long-term impacts of technical debt:

Inability to React to Evolving Needs

One of the biggest impacts of functioning with technical debt is its limited ability to adapt to changing needs. Consider the scenario of COVID-19, where businesses had to adapt to a virtual world almost overnight. This led to unprecedented demands on online portals and delivery services along with virtual collaboration tools. The businesses that were able to modify their business models and respond to evolving client needs survived and in fact thrived, while those caught within the throngs of limited infrastructure and static processes were forced to either completely build new systems overnight or perish. 

Scarcity of Resources

Another major impact of technical debt is the lack of resources. In many cases, the people who understood the technologies in use have long ago retired, making them impossible to sustain. Each break causes large scale chaos across the organization as a result. Retraining of personnel in older, scarcely used technologies is expensive and may not even be possible as there is limited interest in learning these technologies. These organizations are left to pay large sums to limited resources and staffing firms that provide legacy coding personnel. Not only that, it acts as a barrier for hiring new talent who are interested in growing their expertise in new technologies.

Limited Ability to Introduce Innovative and Emerging Technologies

As with introducing any change, monolithic tightly coupled IT enterprises also limit the ability to introduce new technologies and innovation into the system. When the foundations get too old, even critical updates become difficult to apply and the problem starts to compound. Moreover, the introduction of superior UX technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning, cyber updates — all becomes harder to integrate, leading them to fall behind further in speed, agility and performance.

Increasing Total Cost of Ownership

Last but not least, technical debt leads to an overall increase in total cost of ownership. We're not just talking by a few points, but by massive amounts, which can affect a business or organization's ability to provide superior service or run a profitable venture. The cumulative affect of limited ability to react to market changes, scarcity of resources, inadequate ability to introduce innovative technologies and a constant firefighting mode where the bulk of an organization’s IT resources are in maintenance mode rather than innovation and development, leads to poor service and burnout.

Related Article: Modernizing Legacy Tech: Big Bang or Piecemeal?

Modern Businesses Shouldn't Run on Technical Debt

Technical debt's repercussions reverberate throughout the system, leading to long-term impacts. Technical debt measurements require continuous assessments and monitoring as the organization progresses and evolves. The fact is, integration of business and technology is integral to overall organization growth. Technical debt and archaic business processes need continuous and phased investment. And business and IT need to work together to resolve these if they want to grow into true modern enterprises.

About the Author

Geetika Tandon is Managing Director with Deloitte consulting LLP with over 20 years of industry experience with technology consulting. She started her career in IBM as a developer working on voice and RFID solutions, moving to middleware implementation and then acquired deep expertise in IT modernization, helping multiple government agencies move to a cloud and DevOps environment.

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