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Perhaps you’ve heard the recent news around Southwest Airlines’ technical debt. Their old technology infrastructure that was reportedly overdue for an upgrade finally collapsed over the holidays. They suffered a net loss in the fourth quarter of 2022, which hurt their stock and reputation and cost them millions.

What went wrong? Essentially, Southwest Airlines was reportedly operating on old software and technology systems. Tasks that should have been automated had to be completed manually. Their outdated systems were missing key data, under extreme stress, and unable to meet demand. Having spent years focused on outward-facing upgrades and the customer experience, Southwest’s technical infrastructure became overlooked and technical debt brewed.

What Is Technical Debt?

Technical debt is the result of issues that accrue over time due to previously rushed or poorly executed IT projects. Teams often implement an easy or quick IT solution to save money, get something released quickly, or meet deadlines, but it always comes back to bite. Technical debt also accrues when organizations are using older applications that can only run on older systems or servers that are out of support.

How Can IT Organizations Address Technical Debt?

Even one incident like the one Southwest faced can be difficult to bounce back from. How can other organizations avoid a similar situation? Avoiding or reducing technical debt requires organizations to be proactive. These steps outline how to proactively reduce the risk of technology-related business interruptions.

1. Know What You Have

Knowing what you have starts with a basic inventory of your IT assets, which should include hardware and software. It’s important to track key metadata—asset type, asset owner, operating system, end of support date, serial numbers, etc. This process can seem overwhelming. However, not tracking assets can cause major problems down the line. Organizations lose millions of dollars per year to paying for assets no longer supported or in use.

Tracking is typically done using a CMDB (configuration management database), which is a database of a company’s assets (laptops, software, network devices, etc.). Here’s a run-down on CMDB best practices, whether you already have one in place or you’ve never used one before.

Tracking assets will require robust asset management processes. Designated asset “owners” are responsible for making sure assets are tracked, up to date, and commissioned or decommissioned properly.

2. Determine Where Technical Debt Lies

Leverage tracked data to figure out where technical debt exists. This involves assessing two major areas: risk and impact to the business.

In regard to risk, how many vulnerabilities and incidents are assets creating? How much does it cost to support each asset and fix it when it breaks? Are certain assets more prone to security breaches than others? People involved in risk assessment should include data owners and enterprise architects who usually know what’s going on with IT and can help develop roadmaps.

In regard to business impact, how critical is each asset? What assets have a direct impact on the business or customer if compromised (e.g. an airline reservation system)? This usually requires some mapping to identify what systems may have a domino effect and impact other IT infrastructure throughout the business.

Assets that carry the highest risk and impact to the business should be addressed first. This prioritization process is important because most IT organizations have budget constraints and must prioritize spending in the right areas. Organizations with high risk and budget limitations should revisit the IT budget and reallocate resources accordingly (unlike Southwest), which involves building a business case for investing in mission-critical assets based on the risk assessment.

There are often discrepancies between what the business sees on the outside and underlying issues within IT. Making those connections (service mapping) helps paint a broader picture of how IT infrastructure impacts the business as a whole.

3. Build a Roadmap

Building a roadmap requires addressing technical debt as the focal point of the entire IT transformation roadmap. Most roadmaps include the “fun stuff” (new AI tools, process automation functionality, etc.). Failure to focus on initiatives that address technical debt first will likely result in having fancy new tools that won’t work with what you already have. This is equivalent to upgrading a kitchen with the latest high-end quartz while the cabinets are falling apart.

The roadmap should also include a thorough risk assessment that is continually updated. This technical debt risk assessment may require shifting certain items on the roadmap based on changing conditions. For example, new security threats may require the company to upgrade certain infrastructure components earlier rather than later. This means the roadmap needs to have some flexibility to account for changes.

Finally, the roadmap needs to consider resource requirements and planning. With the upgrade in technology, what new talent needs to be brought into the organization? What contract or consulting resources need to be engaged while the company is upgrading systems? What internal resources need to be adjusted to adopt new technologies?

Don’t Wait

Technical debt doesn’t just affect the business. As we saw with Southwest, technical debt can be far reaching, significantly impacting shareholders and end customers. Don’t wait until you’ve reached the tipping point to address technical debt. Make the IT investments now so you don’t have to make an even bigger investment down the road.

We recently discussed technical debt on our Jar(gone) podcast featuring Bill Aimone and Lauren Conces. Listen here.

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