How Technical Debt Is Holding Back Your Digital Transformation Goals

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Technical debt is; “A concept in software development that reflects the implied cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.”

In simple terms, technical debt is something doesn’t actually have anything to do with money, it has more to do with time and resource.

Here’s a scenario to explain the idea.

John is a software developer and he is employed by a business to improve its website architecture, protect it from malicious threats and build new landing pages along with a plethora of other tasks.

He works flat out all day every day and inevitably makes mistakes in his code as the pressure to go live is so high.

As more and more new projects come along, John becomes more and more desperate and makes more mistakes.

He then ends up having to go back to old projects to fix problems instead of working on anything new, halting the progress of the business.

This is not a new problem, however, with so many businesses aiming to undergo a process of continuous digital transformation, new tensions are created due to technical debt as targets can be easily missed and hold back development.

Here’s how.

The three types of technical debt

There are three distinctive types of technical debt which can inhibit a business’s ability to transform digitally, with varying degrees of severity.

1. Deliberate technical debt

This is the kind of debt which developers will be fully aware of and will log to keep track of what they miss and which shortcuts they make in order to get a project live or to market on time.

This is the best form of technical debt to have if a business is trying to digitally transform because it will be obvious how much work is required and resource can be effectively managed.

2. Accidental or out of date technical debt

This is the type of debt that our poor friend John, is building up.

It’s the type which is incredibly difficult to avoid, even with enough staff resource, because engineers are just as susceptible to making mistakes as anyone else.

The biggest problem here, is that the developer won’t know what they are doing wrong and won’t be keeping track of the issues, making the problem even worse as it takes time to find out what the issue is and where the code is incorrect.

3. Bit rot technical debt

Bit rot technical debt can be crushing for a business wanting to transform digitally and surprisingly, a huge number of organisations have been and will be negatively impacted by a failure to address the issue.

Surprisingly, many of the biggest financial institutions suffer from this problem as their computer systems and trading platforms have not been rebuilt from the ground up ever since computers started getting used across the world.

For example, many of the big banks are desperately trying to update their internal systems as they have continuously failed to develop new ones from scratch, and now find themselves in a situation where they are relying on technology which is seriously out of date.

An international malware attack also highlighted how much of an issue technical debt is around the world, as businesses and huge public organisations were hit hard due, to the fact that their systems were so out of date.

In the UK, the NHS was the biggest to suffer as it’s computers were operating on a windows operating system which was years past its expiry date, something which was immediately highlighted by the press.

Holding back digital transformation

When looking at the extent of technical dept and the negative effects it can have on organisations which aren’t even trying to transform digitally, it is obvious to see the problems that would arise if a business did attempt to change.

One of the key problems with technical debt is the pace at which technology is changing. For example, a business may have a huge backlog of software developments it needs to work on and so to approach the problem, it dedicates a healthy amount of staff resource and investment in new tech. However, making all of the changes could take up to a year and when they have been made, the technology which has developed in that time alone may render all of their work obsolete.

It’s a serious problem which is far from hypothetical as there may come a time when technology moves at such a pace due to developments in AI, that it will be impossible to keep up.

Managing technical debt to successfully transform digitally

As scary as it sounds, this we’re still a few years away and by then, it is likely that software will be able to update itself…

Right now, the most important point to remember if you have ambitions of transforming digitally is to allocate the appropriate amount of time, staff resource and money into reducing your technical debt.

There is a reason that it’s called technical debt at the end of the day. It won’t go away and the longer you leave it the more it will build up if you fail to reduce it.

The definition of digital transformation is to update and continuously improve hardware and software so having technical debt is a direct opponent to any efforts you may make to move forward.

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