CIOs take a business approach to technical debt

Technical debt is the responsibility of the entire organisation; CIOs and CTOs reveal how to build the business case

Word cube that says 'Tech Debt'

Technical debt may have a techie title, but it is a business problem. CIOs and CTOs are therefore tackling technical debt with business focused approaches and investment plans that involve stakeholder management, communications and agile methodologies.

Best defined as a technical decision made at a point in time to either achieve a short-term outcome or solve an instant problem, that decision becomes a debt to the business in the longer term. Managing technical debt is described by Simon Lamkin, CTO of FOD Mobility Group, a provider of software applications to the transport industry, as: "dealing with the backlog of stuff that you know is not quite right." Lamkin is amongst a number of business technology leaders that are making technical debt a business issue for the entire organisation. "It's totally underplayed by so many organisations," he says.

The demand for digitisation, which increased during the pandemic, is bringing technical debt to the attention of the senior leadership peers of the CIO. “Now it has the label technical debt business feel they can talk about it,” says Ian Golding, Group CIO with Anthesis, a sustainability professional services firm. Business advisory group Accenture believes that 80% of the IT budget in many firms is spent on the existing IT estate. Research commissioned by Low Code firm OutSystems found that 41% of the technology budget is spent on technical debt in large enterprises.

The OutSystems research found that 52% of CIOs believed too many development languages and frameworks were to blame, whilst 49% cited the turnover of development team members as a major cause of technical debt. Given the current challenge to retain and recruit development talent, this is a figure that could well rise. Building in technical debt by accepting known defects in order to meet deadlines was said to be a factor by 43% of those surveyed.

"In business terms, technical debt can create less efficiency and more cost," says John Pelant, CTO for global travel management firm CWT. Research finds that 70% of CIOs identify technical debt limits the ability of the IT team to innovate, 72% say migration to new technology is prevented, and 69% believe they are unable to be responsive to changes in their organisation's vertical market. “Technical debt is an invisible brake on progress,” says Golding. Paulo Rosado, CEO and Founder of OutSystems adds: "The combination of old code along with the new generation of mobile apps, stack applications, and SaaS sprawl are robbing organisations of resources, time, and the ability to innovate."

Many organisations are delaying dealing with technical debt, partly out of fear but also, according to Accenture, from the practical standpoint that these technologies hold critical and valuable data for the business. “It is not something you can just turn off, you need a product and architectural view,” Golding says.

The demand for innovation, and continued economic challenges, will, however, lead to CIOs having to deal with technical debt. "Technical debt can be particularly costly in the financial services industry, where companies thrive on their ability to innovate while providing fast and reliable services," says Izak Joubert, JTC Group CTO.

Simon Lamkin at FOD Mobility Group says those most aware of the negative impact of technical debt are developers.

Business methods

"Technical debt is not a technical problem, it is a business problem, and the way that we talk about it becomes highly important," says Claire Priestley, CDIO with London local authority, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. "I like to talk about maintenance, which is a known and understood cost; just like a building, the organisation knows that not keeping up with maintenance will lead to risks and further costs, and it is the same with technology, we have an estate, and we have to look after it."

Pelant at CWT ensures that dealing with technical debt is factored into the financial planning of the technology strategy: "In the capital and funding planning, we make sure that we carve out a portion for maintenance and compliance to deal with technical debt. In addition, we do opportunistic hits on the technical debt when we grow." Lamkin agrees and adds that it is important to attach business value to the technical debt so that the senior leadership team can identify where the debt is. On the flip side of this, Lamkin also ensures the technology team is well aware of the technology budget.

"The discipline of prioritisation surfaces technical debt and brings it to the management's attention, and I always insist that dealing with that debt is on the prioritisation list," Lamkin says, adding that these are the opportunities to bring "really gnarly defects" to the top table. Pelant agrees and says it is important that peers understand the impact debt has on the technology operations and its implications for the wider business: "When you have debt out there, it takes brainpower, I want to keep my people focused on the current and the future," he says. Technical debt is a foot in the past, and organisations expect their CTOs and CIOs to be building the future.

"It is for the CIO to show what is working and what is a risk and when people can see, then they can make decisions,” Golding adds of the CIO’s role in helping the organisation see the future and not keep its feet in the past, to keep out of what the CIO describes as the “Digital Doldrums”.

Technical methods

"Once a quarter, we have a sprint to fix the backlog, and in every case, I have never seen developers more enthused to tidy the house," Lamkin says of using Agile methods to deal with technical debt. Agile methods are talked of as a software development process but are, in truth, a way of working that is applicable across as many non-technological roles as they are technical. With digital business models and customer services becoming increasingly important, using Agile working methods is a rapid and valuable way to keep technical debt in check.

Pelant at CWT says technical debt will always exist and that the architecture and security teams play an important role in identifying when the debt could pose problems and needs to be addressed. "As a global organisation with localised products, we really do have to focus on the configuration of our technology, rather than building one-offs," Pelant adds of using a platform approach to prevent debt build-up. 

The current pace of change could lead to increases in technical debt in most organisations. A development to solve today's problems can quickly lack the ability to integrate with other technologies the business requires or uses. Ensuring technical debt is understood to be a business issue at least ensures that debt is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation.