Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Soft Side of Tech Debt

The lean and mean beats the sloth. Sure, some rabbits are a "flash in the pan," but eventually the turtle will lose. As I recall, in that fable the rabbit was fast but lazy and not so smart. You can't count on that being the case with your competitors that have less tech debt than your company. Just look at the big Dotcom successes. They solved problems that hadn't been solved before with completely new approaches and carried no tech debt. Now the problems they solved so well have become shared technology demands for the old "bricks and mortar" companies, implicitly increasing their tech debt, and whittling away at their competitive advantage.

Tech debt refers to the ever-increasing overhead and cumbersome nature that technology infrastructure brings to your company. Old programs that have been patched over and over, ancient hardware, and ever changing trends over time contribute to the tech deficit .  Moving toward new trends always complicates your infrastructure unless you can make the 100% shift. Without a complete shift, the left-over ballast limits your ability to leverage new trends.

There is a soft underbelly of tech debt that can be equally debilitating to your company's competitive advantage, and that is the collective aspects of the IT department and services that prevent you from being able to address and keep up with the demands from the business side. There's a backlog of projects, too few people, and not enough of the right skills on the IT team. The focus is on high-profile, new trend projects that presumably would alleviate some of the older creaking infrastructure.

"All I need is five data points for my dashboard every week. How can it be that I'm looking at six months before I get it?" or, "I'm just building a little SharePoint application and I need a couple of pieces of information to include." Business just cannot comprehend why it is so difficult. Then they discover a "back-door" way to get the data themselves via a Rube Goldberg contraption that downloads, puts it in a spreadsheet, tosses it around with formulas and macros, and "Voila! Voila!" there's a palatable concoction to feed their needs. And so is born Shadow IT. The good thing is that the business person stops asking for things, and the bad thing is the surge of new, secret tech debt lurking in every department, where you least expect it.

Apart from subscribing to special purpose SaaS applications, or buying an in-house piece of software, the majority of Shadow IT centers around data access and integration. With continuous increases in empowerment of non-IT employees with tools such as SharePoint and others, it behooves you to start looking at ways to control the spike in tech debt by incorporating an agile tool for integration. Lean Integration methodologies are sensible and may reduce the rate of accumulation of long term tech debt with regard to existing tech debt-ridden infrastructure. Adding an inherently lean Agile Integration Software to your mix means that you will not only be able to respond quickly to many of the backlogged requests, but do so with less specialized IT skills, and ultimately, if your stars are aligned, to turn around the trend of tech debt.

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