With warnings of a potential economic downturn approaching, many business owners are shifting their focus inward to fortify their position for shaky markets. While small and mid-sized business owners who play the long game of business development are paying off debts and collecting cash for this potential stall, one commonly overlooked expense is technology debt.
In a nutshell, technology debt is the product of choosing short-term, immediate solutions for your business over slower, more costly options which would have stronger outcomes in the long run. Technology debt may not appear in your balance sheet, it can be just as dangerous as financial debt and cannot be overlooked.
Often businesses make these sorts of tough choices when they need to hit deadlines or because they make more sense financially, putting off these more beneficial updates until an “appropriate time.” However, when overlooked or left on the backburner for too long, technology debt poses a risk to your business operations and wellbeing.
Today we’ll explore where technology debt arises, how it can impair your business development and what opportunities you can identify to put your business on track for sustainability.
What is Technology Debt?
Technology debt is a concept in software development that demonstrates the implied cost of ongoing updates for less-than-optimal technology. These updates are required when a business chooses a limited solution that offers immediate results over a better approach that would take longer to develop or implement.
Think of technology debt as an old car: it’s paid for and the engine works but it probably uses too much gas and racks up costs in repairs. Because your car isn’t entirely reliable, you scale back your vacation plans because you’re not entirely sure the old rust bucket can make it to Florida and back. That’s why they call it debt — it has real cost and reduces agility.
Like investing in a clunker of a car, your business sees the results from short-term solutions but over time, your IT department will spend more time maintaining your technology rather than developing your business.
A solid metric to determine the degradation of your IT infrastructure is to evaluate how much time your IT team spends keeping your out-of-date systems running compared to how much time they spend growing or transforming your business. Ultimately, your IT team shouldn’t be a maintenance crew — they should be a core driver of growth.
How Technology Debt Impairs Development
Technology debt is similar to monetary debt in several ways. If your technical debt isn’t repaid, it will accumulate 'interest,' making it harder to implement changes later on.
Contrary to its ominous name, technology debt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, for example, technology debt is required to move projects forward. However useful technology debt can be in the short-term, the long-term impacts will hinder your ability to process information and prioritize technology needs.
The upside of having legacy systems in your business is that they may be so old that you’ve paid them off or no longer have to pay licensing fees to the technology vendors that made them. Often these sorts of systems include business phone systems, computer hardware or antiquated devices like a fax machine.
Sometimes these systems remain in place because customers prefer to use them for specified tasks. So, as long as fax machines are cheap to maintain and easy to use, it’s hard to force the upgrade to be entirely paperless, even though everyone agrees that would be preferable.
Maintaining legacy systems might seem practical, but the longer you rely on them, the closer they get to the breaking point.
Where to Begin Addressing your Technology Debt
In the long run, obsolete legacy systems not only impose draining operations costs, but they also demoralize employees and limit your ability to roll out new systems, preventing you from adapting to market shifts as quickly as you may need to stay ahead of your competition.
With a solid inventory of your up-to-date versus antiquated systems, you should be able to make deliberate decisions about what to update and when.
To prioritize your needs and prevent technology debt from piling up, ask yourself these simple questions:
- What’s your IT budget?
Knowing what’s available in your budget will inform what systems you can afford to update now.
- Is your IT department spending more time on maintenance or development?
A simple performance audit will help you identify the cost of doing business compared to what maintenance of your business is costing you.
- Are you having trouble attracting new talent?
Nothing turns off prospective employees — especially young workers — more than the thought of working with dated technology. Today’s talent understands that technology should either help them do their jobs or get out of the way; they have little patience for technology that slows them down or frustrates their creativity, and little interest in working for companies that use it.
Using these questions as a guideline, you can begin to identify opportunities to update your legacy systems and develop a checklist of materials you can modernize. Knowing that short-term solutions bring about technology debt, you can catalogue any new systems that would be considered “short-term fixes” and add them to the top of your list for future updates.
Choosing which systems to prioritize comes down to your individual business but with a list, strategy and the knowledge that as a business owner sometimes you need to sell your beat-up old Buick for a reliable Prius instead of a Corvette. For help identifying opportunities to update systems in your business, check out our free technology roadmap guide.
Author Nikolai Vargas, Vice President of Client Services, CTO