5 technical debt lessons the pandemic taught IT leaders

Technical debt is nothing new, but the pandemic exacerbated it for many organizations. Consider these lessons learned to help reduce the burden
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Veteran IT leaders have long understood the impact technical debt has on an organization’s digital transformation and ability to respond rapidly to changing demands. The global pandemic underscored that understanding. Technical debt can create talent, speed, reliability, and scalability issues for organizations in the best of times – and the worst.

Beyond confirming the burden of technical debt, the impact of the pandemic has been mixed. In some cases, IT organizations may have gotten the go-ahead to address some technical debt that may have hindered the enterprise’s ability to pivot. In others, IT functions had to make short-term decisions to enable remote work, new digital commerce solutions, or supply chain fixes that increased their technical debt.

5 technical debt lessons

Whatever the impacts, there are five common lessons learned about technical debt over the past 21 months:

1. We have more technical debt than we realize

“The pandemic pushed the technology ecosystem of enterprises like nothing else has ever done, be it going to a remote model overnight, creating new e-commerce platforms to continue operating, or launching new products and business models,” says Yugal Joshi, who leads Everest Group’s digital, cloud, and application services research practices. “Enterprises always knew they had technical debt in these systems, but the pandemic exposed just how much.”

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In many cases, that was good news for those IT leaders who had an unforeseen opportunity to address some technical debt. “The rapid delivery of new services has required exposed architecture challenges that would continue to have been deprioritized,” says Brian Alletto, senior architect in the technology practice at West Monroe. “The accelerated cloud technology adoption during the pandemic indirectly drove tech debt improvement.”

2. Cyber attacks can be a catalyst for change

Recent cyber and ransomware attacks have captured CEOs' attention, says Brad Haller, a partner in the M&A practice at West Monroe. “A lot of technical debt has been reduced during the pandemic due to the prevalence of ransomware attacks. In addition, we’ve learned it’s important to invest in and maintain integration capabilities such as networks, identity management, cloud operation tools that allow quick onboarding of new solutions while maintaining key operational practices.”

3. Cloud strategy can help avoid technical debt 

As West Monroe's Alletto mentioned, cloud plan speed-ups during the pandemic helped some CIOs address some old tech debts. But some CIOs had to create new debts. “Unlike earlier assumptions that technical debt was only in ‘legacy’ systems, enterprises realized how they have made a mess of their cloud journey and (cloud) native transformations,” says Joshi. “In the rush of cloud migration to exit data centers and save costs just to remain in business, enterprises took a lot of shortcuts.”

Sometimes there’s no choice. When COVID lockdowns hit, IT organizations had to make expedient decisions to keep their enterprises operational, and some of those have technical debt implications. Thomas Phelps, senior vice president of corporate strategy and CIO at software company Laserfiche told the Wall Street Journal that his company deliberately took on technical debt to meet immediate demands in 2020.

[ Working on hybrid cloud strategy? Get the four-step hybrid cloud strategy checklist. ]

IDC predicted that the technical debt accumulated during the pandemic would shadow the majority (70 percent) of CIOs throughout 2023, causing financial stress, becoming a drag on IT agility, and forcing cloud migrations. To slow the accrual of additional technical debt in these areas, some CIOs are now re-evaluating and optimizing their cloud migrations and other pandemic decisions.

For CIOs who want to avoid the messy, painful business of manually provisioning and maintaining cloud resources - while keeping an eye on costs - automation can be a big help. Read 5 approaches to cloud automation for more advice. 

4. Technical debt is ignored at enterprise peril

“The pandemic fueled a frenzy of modernization, cloud migration, and extreme cost challenges, and didn’t leave any room to invest in overcoming technical debt,” says Joshi. Left unaddressed, technical debt grows. IDC recently forecast that three-quarters of CIOs and CFOs will be forced to accelerate or enact formal technical debt management practices by 2025 due to project delays or failures caused by unresolved technical debt.

5. There is a better way

“These times made the CIOs realize there is a better way of building and running technology for the organization,” says Joshi. “This realization will drive better design, architecture, and processes that will eventually address technical debt.”

It also underscored the importance of centrally managing and sharing a technical debt ledger of sorts. Going forward, IT leaders “should tie technical debt remediation to business value, and the realization of tech dividends through adopting cloud services,” says Alletto of West Monroe.

[Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet.]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.