Technical debt lessons from the pandemic

Technical debt can impede progress for even the best IT team. Consider this real-world advice to ensure that past challenges don’t block your team's ability to meet business needs
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If your technology organization is like most, the volume of requests you receive can outpace your ability to keep up with the architecture you need to support innovation and growth. Over time, this situation can cause technical debt, hindering responsiveness and speed to market.

Like many organizations, our company faced challenges during the pandemic that left us with the burden of technical debt. Here’s how we responded to come out ahead.

The shift to online

Over the past two years, technology organizations have been pushed to become more nimble. The pandemic meant that businesses needed the ability to support remote workers, and many were also forced to reinvent the way they delivered core products and/or differentiation. An unfortunate result of all this disruption was a relentless demand for faster delivery and higher technical debt, which for some organizations had started even long prior to the pandemic.

Year Up was no exception. We transitioned from in-person to online delivery of our products in record time. But the technical debt we had incurred through the years made the process much harder than it needed to be.

[ Want more tips to ease your transformation? Read Digital transformation: 3 do's and don'ts. ]

The solution, we decided, needed to not only enable web conferencing for staff and students, but also include back-end systems that could support our online community.

Moving systems forward – with a customer focus

As we worked to solve these challenges, we maintained a focus on servicing our clients while repositioning to fit into the new normal. Keeping an eye on the present state and simultaneously carving out the future state bolstered our two-pronged approach. Our mantra: Make it happen and ensure we are not in this position again moving forward.

To that end, we focused on retiring the technical debt currently in our back-end systems. This is a work in progress – ten years of technical debt will not magically disappear overnight – but through steadfast adherence to thoughtful processes, we continue to make progress.

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A top priority is to ensure that all updates undergo a checkpoint of architectural review. This step is non-negotiable. As a result, our organization has a much better understanding of the balance between speed and foundational concepts.

Technical debt lessons learned

We continue to carefully maintain this balance and ensure that communications and plans are not limited to the tech team but are enterprise-wide. The pandemic and its associated technical debt have given many tech organizations an ear to the business, helping leaders understand that short-term wins today may produce long-term consequences if they’re not thought through.

Taking the time to ensure that an architectural review is part of your standard planning process limits technical debt so your organization can keep up with the speed of business.

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

Gary Flowers
Gary Flowers is the chief information officer at Year Up. In his role, he is responsible for all Technology and Enterprise Operations for the organization. This includes all external customer-facing technology needed to support the learning initiatives and workforce placement for the “Opportunity Youth” and corporations that Year Up serves.