Settle your technology debt before you get left behind

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What is “technology debt,” and how do you know if you have it? In my mind, technology debt is any technology implementation that inhibits your flexibility, agility and speed to market. It could, in fact, be very current technology that is just not well suited to task, either from a software platform or an underlying hardware standpoint. It is also possible to have technology debt if two or more satisfactory platforms are doing the same task. This often happens with acquisitions. Even if both (or all) platforms seem to solve their respective business problems, the fact is that every change in the future will require duplicate effort. And that's technology debt.

Reducing technology debt should be a key priority for a CIO because, although it will take initial effort to identify your debts and streamline your processes, in the long run it will lessen the effort required to implement change. And in today's technology landscape, you have to be able to change rapidly to remain effective.

In Red Hat IT, we are addressing the need to go fast and keep pace with rapidly changing technology needs in a few ways.

Transparent architecture: We are investing very heavily in cloud, specifically open, hybrid cloud, and we are already seeing significant benefits in terms of flexibility, agility, and speed to market. With this investment, we've recognized a need to ensure that the proper architecture for change is in place, and we've worked to communicate the importance of this architecture to developers, the production team, and business partners alike.

This architecture includes single sign-on capabilities across a wide range of cloud solutions, and it enables us to push all of our data through a standard enterprise service bus so that we don’t have a large number of one-off connections between platforms. Communicating the vision and importance of the architecture also lays the groundwork for business-driven IT partnerships.

You simply can’t set up a contest between IT and the business and be successful. If you do, IT can always prove that change is too expensive and takes a long time, and on the other side, the business can always prove that IT isn’t responsive and select another partner. Instead, transparency and solid partnerships between the business and IT are essential in ensuring everyone understands the need to enable rapid technology change as a fundamental capability.

Integration: You are going to have acquisitions; you are going to have business units that select their own tools; and you’re going to need to integrate your data across the enterprise so you don’t have multiple versions of the truth. Integration is a fundamental objective, but sometimes it can work against speed and responsiveness.

Let's say, for example, in an acquisition and for reasons of speed, you need to have two ERP systems for a period of time. After a while, you may discover that everything is seemingly working okay, and it may be tempting to table the integration and consolidation indefinitely. I'd urge you to resist the temptation. If integration is not a priority IT project, you could inadvertently stack up the technology debt that will only make it harder for you to adapt and adjust to changing technology needs in the future. Make sure your acquisition playbook includes the long term plan to integrate all of your core systems.

Modernization: To stay ready for technology change, you must retire legacy applications on a continuous basis. However, as many CIOs know all too well, finding the time and money to modernize those legacy systems can be daunting. I think you really need to build application refurbishment into your baseline effort. If the working assumption is that you can defer maintenance in IT, you are falling behind in a way that will hurt your enterprise in the future.

It’s just like acquiring a new automobile. Yes, you need to maintain it and keep it running and put new tires on it and put fuel in it and schedule oil changes, but you also need to realize that in 8-12 years, maybe more, maybe less, you’re going to need to replace the automobile. It’s not a one-time purchase; it’s a series of purchases and sustaining effort to ensure you have transportation. And, the type of automobile you select may change as your transportation needs change.

The value of moving faster

With these key priorities in mind, let's take a closer look at what it really means to “move fast” in today's technology landscape. For Red Hat IT, we've determined that a three-year cycle is an appropriate time frame to get in, get business value, and get out before a new technology becomes a debt.

Some systems are going to be in use longer. Other technologies aren’t yet advanced enough to enable us to acquire, deploy, and generate real value in three years, but we still aim for as short a cycle as we can. Because quite simply, if you’re planning on a seven- or ten-year solution, you’re almost certainly going to fall behind, accumulate technology debt, and end up with a 15-year-old system that nobody understands, the business can’t do without, and that needs material change. That's when you become encumbered with something that is more expensive than it's worth.

The real value in all of this technology change is twofold. The obvious advantage is in cost savings. Cloud technology and newer tech solutions are generally much more cost-effective and efficient than their predecessors — and that provides an answer to, “Where am I going to find the time and money to modernize my legacy systems?” Additionally, when you are shedding, rewriting, and re-crafting applications on a continuous basis, you are inherently avoiding situations in which you are double-spending.

The hidden value is in the shared accountability that will result from your collaboration with various teams throughout the business, from legal to audit to information security, as you embrace new technologies. When you’ve got a good partnership between the business and the IT team, you can move to an environment in which you are looking ahead, identifying new technologies, communicating with and influencing business partners, and demonstrating value on a continuous basis. This ultimately builds trust and enables the IT team to work much more efficiently and get in front of potential issues.

An additional value is the improvement in your IT team. You can develop great capabilities for business opportunity assessment, rapid development and deployment, and change management. These capabilities are worthwhile in any IT environment.

The reality that CIOs today face is that attempting to stand still on technology is a precursor to decline. Your competitors are going to continuously acquire new technology and use it against you, and startups are intentionally being disruptive right now. You owe it to your IT team and your entire enterprise to eliminate your technology debt and make moving fast your key priority for the future.

Lee Congdon has more than 25 years of experience as an IT leader. Prior to joining Red Hat® he was managing vice president, Information Technology, at Capital One where he developed and delivered IT solutions for the firm’s corporate functions and Global Financial Services group.

Lee Congdon is Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ellucian, the leading independent provider of higher education software, services and analytics.