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The negative impact of technical debt

Adding features on top of poorly written code is a recipe for a bad reputation and a compromised user experience. Here's a look at 12 negative effects of technical debt.

Although technical debt is common, CIOs should take its negative effects seriously.

Technical debt describes incurred costs resulting from code that needs reworking, and it has many causes. One common cause results from pressure to quickly demo software and get feedback from users. In response to that pressure, developers take coding shortcuts with the intention of rewriting the code once they fully understand requirements. But often, due to time constraints, the project leader decides to avoid rewriting the code to meet the requirements and instead continues developing requested features over a poorly written code base. The result is technical debt.

When this process happens repeatedly over time, the company ends up with several internal systems with technical debt, and it's a problem the CIO needs to address.

An analogy is to compare technical debt to government deficits. A government might accrue an annual deficit when they spend more than they receive in revenue. This overspending adds to the overall debt. Debt grows because of successive deficits. If staff aren't paying attention, it can lead to a large debt.

Similarly, if technical teams allow too many deficits on the systems they build, major technical debt will accrue. This progression can have a significant impact on the company and resources reporting into the CIO.

Here are 12 challenges introduced by technical debt that CIOs and IT leaders should understand.

1. Problem enhancing the systems

As technical debt increases, the team's ability to enhance the system in a responsible manner becomes increasingly difficult. This might be because past tech teams did a poor job of documenting features during the development cycle or used poorly written code that can't now be easily edited. Likewise, because someone didn't adequately test infrastructure in the past, a lack of testing infrastructure makes testing enhancements slow and error prone.

2. User experience

Most employees are used to tolerating and working around software issues until they are fixed. However, employees might have trouble performing their tasks as the number of issues grows. These challenges might lead to poor customer service, reduced employee engagement and errors in the data.

3. Unbudgeted costs

The CIO might have to rely on unbudgeted money to maintain the system and fix technical debt issues. The decision to use unbudgeted funds could affect other critical projects the company planned for, causing those pending projects to be deferred or scaled back until there's additional money.

4. Reputation

When a system isn't working as expected, the team responsible for building and maintaining the system might lose respect within the organization as it struggles to fix issues. Users expect a reasonable timeline for small enhancements or bug fixes. Users might not appreciate the complexity of fixing even small issues when the technical debt is large.

5. Overall system performance

A potential major challenge of technical debt is resolving system performance and stability problems. A software development process with little technical debt can have these issues. The process becomes more challenging when there are multiple issues to resolve before addressing performance and stability issues. Poorly written code might necessitate a rewrite in some areas before further work can occur.

6. Long delays in assisting users

Often the IT team will use a ticketing system for users to log defects or enhancements. If the system is difficult to maintain, it will become obvious for users whose tickets take a long time to resolve. Also, IT management will see the ticket backlog grow and might need a new process to triage tickets and provide updates to users.

7. Staffing costs

The CIO might require extra staff to fix the issues in legacy systems. This type of requirement puts pressure on many groups within the company, such as the recruiting team, IT to source new equipment and the facilities employees to find space for the new hires. These additional costs can be significant when combined.

8. Employee retention

There might be employees expected to work on new features or build entirely new applications. Employees that must update obsolete code and poor documentation might not want to work for the company. Instead they may look for an opportunity in another department or with another company.

9. Difficulty offboarding staff

It's not uncommon for a development team to move people onto new projects as an old one comes to an end. However if there are major issues with the application, it'll be challenging to move everyone to the new project as planned. This drawback will then have implications for the new project in terms of hitting deadlines and ensuring implementation of all the required features.

10. Distraction for senior management

Depending on the severity of the issues encountered, dealing with the technical debt can become a major component of the senior management team's time. This is especially true when the problems impact customers, vendors and other third parties. As technical debt accumulates, it might take longer to resolve issues, affecting senior management for an extended period.

11. Reduced functionality

Users of the system will want to see new features implemented and old issues fixed to improve the system's usability. When that doesn't happen, users might resort to manual workarounds or physical spreadsheets to address the system's shortcomings. This process introduces significant inefficiency for system users and potential security concerns.

12. Lack of adaptability

A well-designed architecture, test infrastructure and clear documentation will enable the CIO's team to incorporate new system functionalities within a reasonable amount of time. For example, there might be a desire to implement AI features in a system used by employees. However, the ability to implement new or updated features is limited, because the system was delivered with significant technical debt.

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