Tech Debt is Forever: Get it under control with enterprise architecture (EA) and strategic portfolio management (SPM)

Find a balance between speed and quality in digital transformation. Learn strategies to manage and minimize tech debt’s impact for business growth.

Paula Ziehr Paula Ziehr

Pre-2020, when we were still in the office and visiting each other’s desks, I frequented Susan in Product Documentation to exchange the latest personal, work-related, and topical news. My eyes would invariably be drawn to the bright orange sticky note on her computer monitor with the text “Nothing is More Permanent than a Temporary Solution”. As a documentation writer, she was keenly aware of the “temporary solutions” our colleagues in Product Management and R&D fell back on to get a release out the door in time — a trade-off familiar to all IT shops and known by the foreboding name “technical debt”. 

“Technical debt” was first coined by Ward Cunningham in 1992 in the following description of how seemingly harmless shortcuts can lead to a build-up of complexity and additional work, cost, and risk: “Shipping first time code is like going into debt. A little debt speeds development so long as it is paid back promptly with a rewrite… The danger occurs when the debt is not repaid. Every minute spent on not-quite-right code counts as interest on that debt. Entire engineering organizations can be brought to a stand-still under the debt load of an unconsolidated implementation, object-oriented or otherwise.”1

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Technical debt – a double-edged sword

The description above acknowledges the good and the bad of technical debt. Let’s first look at the good side — speed. In some cases, taking on technical debt can be a strategic move to gain a competitive advantage quickly. For instance, compromising on the quality of code to deliver a new product or feature faster than the competitors. Or experimenting with a minimum viable product (MVP) that has limited functionality and performance but can validate your assumptions and generate feedback from customers. This can help you pivot or iterate your strategy faster and avoid wasting resources on a failed idea.   

Speed-to-market has become paramount in the digital business age. Digital transformation has thrown a lot at us in the last decade. And it continues to do so — whether it’s customer centricity, doing something to beat our competitors, or delivering new business models for business growth. This has led to a buildup of technical debt — tech debt that is intended. But there is also unintended technical debt — debt simply built up over time as infrastructure, technologies, standards, and regulations evolve. Or an M&A adding debt to the technology portfolio. Or disruption. Think of the pandemic where within weeks, companies needed to support remote working.

In a survey* of 738 IT decision makers from around the globe, 86% said hybrid and remote working increased technical debt. Eighty-three percent said the pandemic increased acceptance of technical debt.

Ah – but “acceptance” doesn’t necessarily make it a good thing. At best — a necessary evil. Whether intended or unintended, technical debt needs to be managed. Why? Over time, the accumulated technical debt can become a burden on your business that slows down innovation, increases costs, and lowers quality. Technical debt can manifest itself in many ways, such as: 

  • Bugs and defects – requiring more time and effort to fix than to prevent 
  • Maintenance and support costs – eating up your budget and resources 
  • Downtime and disruptions – harming your productivity and reputation 
  • Security and compliance risks – exposing your data and customers to threats

How to use EA and SPM help rein in tech debt 

So, what can you do to manage technical debt effectively? The key is to strike a balance between the short-term benefits and the long-term costs of technical debt. Here are some recommendations: 

  • Plan and prioritize your technical debt like any other new feature or initiative. Create a roadmap that outlines the technical debt items, their impact, and their priority. Use a tool like Software AG’s Alfabet to manage your technical debt portfolio and align it with your enterprise architecture
  • Evaluate the trade-offs of taking on technical debt. Consider the business case, the technical feasibility, and the risks of each decision that involves technical debt. A centralized, collaborative EA and Strategic Portfolio Management platform such as Alfabet can get all stakeholders, including developers, architects, business analysts, and finance managers, involved in the decision-making process. 
  • Monitor and measure the impact of technical debt on your business. Use metrics like technical debt ratio, defect density, MTTR (mean time to repair), and TCO (total cost of ownership) to track the health of your portfolio. Alfabet’s portfolio assessment capabilities let you visualize and analyze your technical debt data. 
  • Invest in modernization and innovation to reduce technical debt — now. Allocate a budget and a team to refactor, replace, or retire legacy systems and applications. With Alfabet you can simulate and compare the cost and benefit of different modernization scenarios and make informed decisions.

And watch this webinar. You’ll see that tech debt can be managed. Now that we’re going back into the office soon, I’m wondering if I will find that sticky note on Susan’s monitor. Are our developers still falling back on a few temporary solutions? Probably so — after all we want to make sure our customers have the best tool to work with. But rest assured, it is intended, and it is good — and that’s permanent.

*Software AG Situation Report 2022