Technical Debt Is Destroying IT

Written by Todd L. Michaud
June 2nd, 2010

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

A disease in this country is slowly destroying businesses from the inside out. Often misdiagnosed, symptoms of this devastating virus can be found in 95 out of 100 companies. This disease is called “Technical Debt,” and it’s the primary cause of IT failures in the last two decades. Put simply, Technical Debt is any technology decision that has a long-term negative impact on the business.

Although it would seem obvious that companies would want to avoid accumulating Technical Debt, I would say that, in some businesses, as many as 8 out of 10 technology decisions carry some level of Technical Debt. As Technical Debt accumulates, the results can be devastating.

Technical Debt has been classified into three different strains:

  • Orange Virus: Implementing technology not in alignment with long-term goals
  • Green Virus: Over-purchasing technology
  • Red Virus: Under-purchasing Technology

The Technical Debt Orange Virus, or technology not in alignment with long-term goals, affects technology decisions that are made considering only (or mostly) the short-term advantages the approach will provide. These decisions are often made at a department or region level and may be considered “one-offs” from the overall enterprise architecture (should one exist). Often developed by internal staff (possibly not even from IT), these systems rarely come with a business case that would hold its own weight under close inspection.

Other symptoms that indicate your organization has been infected with the Technical Debt Orange Virus include:

  • Replacing an existing system with no significant, quantifiable benefits (common after a functional leadership change)
  • Lack of documentation or training available for the system (possibly an orphan of an employee who has left the company)
  • Duplicate data that already exists in other authoritative systems (often because “we don’t trust the data in that ‘other’ system”)
  • Lack of enterprise-class infrastructure (possibly installed on a workstation underneath someone’s desk)
  • Lack of integration with other systems within the same functional area or within a business process (often requiring people to take reports from one system and manually enter them into another)
  • More than 60 percent of the IT staff’s time is spent on maintaining the current systems

Organizations that have been infected with the Technical Debt Orange Virus will often find a person with the role of “Application Portfolio Manager.” The Orange Virus can be caused by the irritation around the merger of two business units or companies.

Often, applications or systems left out of an overall integration plan–and left unattended–will manifest into the Technical Debt Orange Virus. Similar results have been known to happen upon executive leadership change, where one system is abandoned (but never really retired) while a new system is put in place.

By implementing technology that is not in alignment with the long-term goals and vision, the organization is assuming Technical Debt. In most cases, the cost of supporting these systems over time far outweighs the benefit from implementing the system in the first place.

The Technical Debt Green Virus, or over-purchasing technology, is often found in larger companies where several different business units utilize a shared IT staff. Some of the symptoms of the Green Virus include requirements that contain the words “we might,” “someday” or “we hope.”

Functionality Surplus (when the system does considerably more than the needs of the business unit) and Bloated Budgets are also symptoms.

Additional symptoms of the Technical Debt Green Virus include:

  • Annual maintenance costs for a single piece of software are higher than an IT administrator’s yearly salary
  • The implementation of a single brand of software takes longer than 12 months
  • Lack of documented requirements forced the purchase of a system that could handle any need
  • A small number of business requirements that necessitated the leap from a midsize approach to an enterprise approach were never validated with the business for their criticality

Often, the Technical Debt Green Virus can be seen in organizations that buy enterprise-level software for medium sized business. (Does a 100-person single-building company even qualify for an “enterprise” resource planning system?”) The purchase of this system is often made at the recommendation of an outside consulting company.


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