The burden of technical debt caused by Covid-19

Technical debt accumulated during the Covid-19 pandemic looks set to shadow CIOs for a number of years.

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According to analysts at Gartner, technical debt ­– which is often created when speed of delivery is prioritised over implementing the most suitable tech solution – will shadow CIOs through to 2023, causing financial stress, hobbling their ability to recover and forcing cloud migrations.

Responding to the pandemic

Some challenges you choose and some are chosen for you says Joe Pucciarelli, IDC group vice president and IT executive advisor. He notes that when the pandemic caused lockdowns around the globe, IT leaders had no choice but to make command decisions that led to a growth in technical debt.

Tough decisions had to be made ­ – and quickly – but they were made with an understanding of the consequences, and were explained to everybody involved. “It’s not like the CIOs went into the back room and made all these clandestine decisions, it was quite the opposite,” says Pucciarelli. “All the executives sat at the table and had frank and candid conversations around how to keep their business intact. They said the devil with the details, we have to keep functioning, so let’s do what we need to do right now and we’ll fix it later.”

Almost overnight they had to find a way to ensure that employees could work remotely; providing new equipment or enabling access to corporate systems from people’s personal devices. The latter, for example, accelerated the need for new ways for end point devices to connect to core systems in a secure and reliable way.

“I applaud them for making those command decisions, but more than half of organisations we surveyed said they struggled with their response to the pandemic. They really had to stretch in order to achieve their objective of keeping employees online,” Pucciarelli says.

“But those decisions had consequences,” he continues. “Perhaps they made the innocuous decision of bringing in a second technology platform, because it saved a month of development time, but that has a longtail associated with it. Perhaps they didn’t address architectural considerations and their response resulted in creating duplication of applications inside the IT infrastructure. They now have to maintain a larger code base, a much larger set of APIs and a skill set to support that second technology thread.”

Another obvious issue that came out of the speedy response to the pandemic revolves around cybersecurity. In many cases businesses didn’t have the time to fully integrate the technology changes they made into their existing cybersecurity architecture, and instead put security in place around specific new applications just to get through the pandemic.

The consequences of those choices

Essentially, in the rush to ensure businesses could keep running, many organisations have been left with ill-fitting or unnecessarily complex technology solutions.

Take just one of the ‘quick fixes’ many businesses undertook; speeding up adoption of SaaS productivity applications such as Zoom, MS Teams, G-Suite or Office 365. “This is leading to increased demand to tackle the associated compliance, management and security issues,” notes Richard Blanford, CEO of technology provider Fordway.

In addition, implementing cloud at short notice also meant not always having time to choose the right type of solution for that service. This can lead to unexpectedly high cloud bills; something Blanford calls “cloud shock”.

“In many services there’s a cost per GB each time servers in different domains talk to each other, and in some applications, servicers have a constant two-way dialogue, so costs quickly escalate,” he points out. “Organisations will already be seeing the results of this and facing some unexpectedly large bills.

“Another issue we’ve seen is treating cloud instances as if they’re server capacity, which is all too easy if the service provider sets up a portal so buying a new instance is simply a matter of point and click. This creates governance, risk and security challenges as well as increased costs and infrastructure sprawl.”

Dealing with technical debt

Although we’re not out of the woods as far as the pandemic is concerned, the outcome is looking more positive. Having dealt with the mad scramble to ensure businesses could keep running, CIOs are now able to take a step back and consider how they might start to deal with the technical debt Covid caused, going back to unpick the quick fixes they implemented. This will take a lot of time and money.

Right now, executives are taking a clear inventory of what’s going on and looking at their options, as the key to tackling the problem is to understand what they’re dealing with.

Pucciarelli recommends businesses start by triaging the pandemic-driven emergency solutions that were rolled out during 2020 into three “buckets”. These should be entitled good enough to keep, solutions that can be remediated, and solutions that need to be retired or replaced. 

Advice from Gartner also includes merging technical debt elimination efforts with platform modernisation initiatives, and the organisation also points out that CIOs aren’t going to be able to solve all the problems around technical debt on their own. Pucciarelli advises IT leaders to collaborate with HR and operations executives, compliance officers and external partners to divide and conquer technical debt.

What we’ve learnt from 2020

“Right now, executives are looking at options, and focusing on what they need to do over the next six months,” he says. “According to our latest survey, the number one strategy for CIOs is to focus on digital investments that improve the company’s strategic position, improve resilience and ensure security.

“What we learnt from 2020 is that just having a business continuity plan is probably not enough. Those with the strongest, most robust plans are able to adapt, and therefore recover more quickly. What we’re going to see is more companies investing in more robust resilience strategies so that they’re able to cope with the unexpected because, although there’s a reason for some optimism, it’s not clear that we have a direct line through to the end of this, certainly for many industries,” Pucciarelli concludes.