The year 2020 has presented significant challenges to businesses worldwide. Leaders in those businesses have had their lives turned upside down personally and professionally. Business plans have been blown apart. In some cases, the fundamental assumptions about products, customer’s supply chains and staff have been thrown into question. Enterprise architects, or EA’s charged with defining the technical strategies that have been supporting and transforming businesses find themselves in new and unfamiliar environments. Major paradigm shifts have taken place and EA’s are now responsible for rationalizing the technical architecture for a new environment.
Disruption is unsettling but the same disruption contains opportunities as the landscape changes and customers, employees, and suppliers have new needs, expectations, and constraints. One constant in the pre and post pandemic environment that technology architects will recognize is Technical Debt. Experienced architects know their biggest challenge is not necessarily in deploying new applications, new platforms, or capabilities but managing investment in technology, balancing that investment with other business priorities. Striking that balance means recognizing and managing technical debt. The pandemic crisis presents EAs with new priorities and opportunities for managing that Technical Debt.
I recently published “Tech Debt 2.0TM How to Future Proof Your Small Business and Improve Your Tech Bottom Line”. The timely release of that book is crucial to small and medium businesses. However, reaction from readers has shown that the book’s concepts and recommendations, especially now, are equally valuable to CIOs and technology architects in larger enterprises.
Let’s step back though and examine the concept of Tech Debt. Initially technical debt was defined as defective code released to rush a product to market. Today with technology permeating nearly every aspect of a business and in light of the realities of the new environment, it’s important to expand the definition of tech debt – Tech Debt 2.0 is any liability incurred in the development, acquisition, use and retirement of technology – i.e. hardware and software systems, or the skills set needed to support them. EAs must reevaluate the role of technology in their enterprise. This means reprioritizing investments in legacy systems, infrastructure and skill sets, be ready to abandon obsolete, dysfunctional systems, processes and methodologies.
Architects must assess the changed needs of the business, – customers, staff, supply chain and identify efficient technology to support those new requirements.
There is opportunity to walk away from legacy technology containing Unplanned Tech Debt that has never been corrected, the result of poor practices or poorly communicated requirements.
The move to remote workspace may present the option to discontinue the use of equipment or applications that have become instances of Creeping Tech Debt where features become obsolete, replaced by the better, faster more capable upgrades. Or, the applications and operating systems are no longer supported, causing security vulnerabilities.
Changes in market dynamics as the customer base struggles to understand their new needs, constraints and opportunities invite architects and product developers to consider incurring Intentional Tech Debt. By releasing prototypes and minimal viable products (MVPs) customers become partners in product development, helping to build the plane even as it reaches cruising altitude. Architects know this will entail false starts as perceived requirements morph or fade away and require rework as the product matures. But the approach may buy competitive advantage as all players scramble to find their way in the new market space.
Internally the pandemic disruption will raise the threat of Tech Debt in the form of shadow IT, as frustrated, impatient functional area leaders are tempted to deploy their own solutions outside the guidelines required by a coherent architecture. Hmmm, let’s see will it be Zoom, or Skype, or Aircall, Slack, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Hopin and on and on. Unapproved, unmanaged tools can have cybersecurity issues or fracture data integrity by creating multiple versions of the truth.
This far into the Covid-19 crisis we have seen the very real existential threat as businesses in more vulnerable industry sectors are forced to permanently close.
As this continues there will be increased activity in mergers and acquisitions. Enterprise architects have an important role to play on both sides of an M&A transaction. Both involve the aggressive management of Tech Debt.
To maximize the benefit of selling a business or merging with another organization a company must recognize and eliminate excessive Tech Debt. Unsupported, dysfunctional legacy technology can represent major liability to a potential buyer or merger partner. Such a liability could significantly affect the value of the transaction. An EA needs to foresee and mitigate this by communicating effectively with stakeholders the consequences of Tech Debt.
The EA with the acquiring company is responsible for effective due diligence that uncovers instances of Tech Debt. These include, not just some of the obvious liabilities mentioned so far but also unsuspected instances such as software license stipulations where, for example, the sheer number of employees in a new organization can vastly increase the software maintenance costs even if the number of actual users doesn’t increase. Tech Debt can not only alter the price of a transaction but create an unsurmountable deal breaker.
Managing Tech Debt is an important part of an organization’s response to the pandemic crisis. Enterprise architects and leaders charged with IT governance have the opportunity and actions they can take on offense and defense to manage Tech Debt to protect their business.
Top 10 Plays for EAs managing Tech Debt:
- Stay healthy, your family and business need you.
- Do a health check of your project portfolio and reprioritize any Tech Debt backlog.
- Refocus IT governance to accelerate decision making and maintain goal alignment with the organization
- Develop an “acute” action plan with intent and purpose for the next 30,60, 90 and 180 days and execute flawlessly.
- Prioritize actions that focus on revenue preservation and customer experience.
- Diagnose your Tech Debt and plan to address root causes.
- Conduct a business impact analysis to prioritize your cyber risks.
- Review and revise essential “pandemic” security policies and practices.
- Engage your internal team and external partners to best utilize their resources and identify cost saving opportunities.
- Protect core operations and monitor critical infrastructure services for internal users.
Michael C. Fillios is the Founder and CEO of IT Ally, LLC., a leading IT and Cyber Advisory firm for small and mid-size businesses. He is a four-time CIO, entrepreneur and senior global business and technology executive with over 25 years of experience in transformation, change leadership and operations management in the Pharmaceutical, Industrials, Automotive, Banking and Consulting Industries. His first book, Tech Debt 2.0™: How to Future Proof Your Small Business and Improve Your Tech Bottom Line, was published by the IT Ally Institute in April, 2020.
In 2020, he formed the IT Ally Institute, a non-profit organization that provides research, best practices, thought leadership and peer to peer programs specifically developed for small and mid-sized businesses. To learn more about the IT Ally Institute and register for our latest research, thought leadership and peer to peer round tables, please visit www.Itallyinstitute.org