Debt is a scary topic for many, and like many scary topics, it can be difficult or uncomfortable to talk about. Avoiding the topic, however, is never a path to solving the problem. Most people are familiar with personal and professional versions of financial debt, and for good reason. From loans to credit, mortgages, and car financing, financial debt can be a serious obstacle on both an individual and business level. Not all debt is precisely financial, however. Another important kind of debt is technical debt, and it has less to do with the money you owe some entity and more to do with the state of your technology.
What is Technical Debt?
In another post, we discussed the importance of valuing individuals over tools. This is absolutely true: the best team will be able to work magic even without the best tools, but the best tools mean nothing without a great team. That being said, having the best team and the best tools is, of course, ideal. The problem is that this isn’t always feasible.
Cutting edge technology is often inaccessible for two major reasons: cost and implementation. Especially for startup, smaller, and growing businesses, the “best choice” tech for your business can cost more than you’re willing or able to invest at this time. Your team still needs technology, however, and so the tradeoff becomes investing in suboptimal tools that you can afford, and hopefully upgrading in the future. This discrepancy between the tools that you do have and the optimal tools that you should have is called technical debt, and it can quickly become a serious issue.
Implementation is the other side of the coin. A brand-new business has the liberty to choose its technological path, subject to budget. Businesses that have been around for a while, however, likely have to deal with complications in marrying new and blossoming technology with legacy software and hardware. Servers are a popular topic in this conversation. As cloud servers become the norm across industries, on-premise servers become comparatively less and less practical. They aren’t as accessible away from the building, they present serious issues when it comes to relocation, and they can be expensive and tedious to maintain. However, the investment that went into that expensive hardware and the cost of transferring data to a newer cloud-based server are not trivial problems to wave away.
The Ultimate Cost
The server example helps to illustrate an important point: technical debt is not an easy problem to tackle. For many businesses, updating servers is a serious problem and challenge, and the longer they take to do so, the more incompatible the old and new systems can become. To make matters more unfortunate, businesses facing these issues aren’t exactly doing so due to poor technological decisions. Cutting edge technology is cutting edge until it isn’t, and there’s no way of knowing for sure how long your investment will stay relevant. This risk analysis is careful work.
Nevertheless, modern tech is usually faster, easier to use, and more convenient for everybody involved. This means that, unless your team is somehow working miracles with an outdated system, chances are you’re “losing money” relative to the better performance your team could be showing with updated equipment. This margin only grows the longer these problems go unaddressed: somebody switching from Windows 10 to Windows 11 will have a much easier time than someone switching to Windows 11 after only using Windows XP their whole life.
Sometimes, the margin of technical debt can grow due to uneasiness with new technology. Again, with servers, many believe that data stored in on-premise servers are more secure than data in the cloud. The reality is that this safety concern is misplaced, and it can also be quite costly as already discussed. To put this unease to rest, though, consider: if the cloud is secure enough for the CIA, it’s likely secure enough for your organization.
Identifying and Eliminating Debt
The solution to this problem seems simple enough: address the technical debt whenever you can as soon as you can. This can be much easier said than done, however, given that it is, after all, a technical issue. How can you identify technical debt at all?
The easiest way to identify these issues is by trusting the people you’ve hired. They are professionals at what they do and, as such, will have a much better idea of what they are missing than most management oversight. Taking this approach systematically can help make all of your organization’s technical debt visible, which is the starting point to solving the problem.
From that point, every business is different. Performing a precise and rigorous analysis of the debt can help you understand which pain points are related, and which need to take priority over others. Ideally, all of this debt will be addressed, but it might be the case that many pain points are connected to one or two crucial updates—or a solution along those lines.
Finally, it’s important to not get comfortable. Unlike other forms of debt, technical debt does not form only from making the conscious decision to take on debt. Technology is constantly progressing, and if you get too comfortable with the same tools, before you know it, there will be more debt to address. Just as purpose audits can be instrumental in building a comfortable workplace environment, technical audits are crucial in maintaining an optimal workplace environment.
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