To quickly adapt to the new normal, many have rushed into the cloud, churned out new apps running on outdated infrastructure – and created more tech debt!

According to Gartner, technical debt ­– which is often created when speed of delivery is prioritised over implementing the most suitable tech solution – will shadow CIOs through to 2023, causing financial stress, hobbling their ability to recover, and forcing cloud migrations.

Gene Tang, Head of Professional Services, Asia and India, Rackspace Technology, has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many companies to re-prioritize, cut back or put projects on hold. Almost overnight companies had to find a way to ensure that employees could work remotely, providing new equipment or enabling access to corporate systems from people’s personal devices.

Gene Tang, Head of Professional Services, Asia and India, Rackspace Technology

This only exacerbated the issue of technical debt in most circumstances, he said.

Rushing into the cloud, which many businesses have done as a result of the pandemic, will leave many businesses with technical debt and ill-fitting solutions long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Challenges hidden in the architecture can spring surprises that make projects run over budget and miss deadlines. Disjointed data architectures also prevent businesses from making full use of advanced analytics to improve their decision making.

DigiconAsia discussed with Tang how organizations can meet the challenges of exacerbated tech debt in the midst of a pandemic:

What is your take on technical debt? How would you define it?

Tang: Technical debt is a catch-all term. Also known as tech debt or code debt, technical debt covers everything from legacy code to bugs to missing documentation.

In this context, technical debt refers to the total implied cost of not keeping technological equipment up to date. The longer it takes for an organization to repay this debt, the stronger the hit to their operational efficiency becomes.

This is especially the case for organizations with remote or hybrid workforces that rely heavily on possibly outdated infrastructure.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the rise of technical debt in Asia Pacific?

Tang: The COVID-19 pandemic caused companies to re-prioritize, cut back and put projects on hold.

Almost overnight, companies had to find a way to ensure that employees could work remotely, exacerbating technical debt in many situations.

Many organizations had to figure out the quickest way to enable technology for a workforce that was suddenly working remotely. Some organizations had to find ways to allow consumer end-point devices to connect to internal corporate systems securely and reliably. 

When businesses adopt cloud for the sake of it, they become saddled with technical debt and ill-fitting solutions that will persist long after the COVID-19 crisis ends. Instead of forcing everything onto a single platform that cannot serve all workloads equally, businesses can balance cloud solutions that will be able to enable them to accommodate individual workloads without many hiccups.

What is the long-term impact of such unwelcome surprises resulting from business and technology decisions made during the pandemic?

Tang: Neither legacy systems nor technical debt is inherently negative. However, they can severely impact businesses in the long-term:

Lagging behind competition – Operational efficiency and new ways of doing business are under continual evolution. With technical debt, it is difficult to create exceptional customer experiences, add value or improve services. Technical debt is an obstacle in optimising the way a company operates, goes to market and competes against its competition.

Increase fixed costs – The cost of maintaining legacy systems is constantly increasing with platform licensing fees, maintenance costs, and the resource availability of aging skillsets. This amounts to a long-tail increase in the cost of ownership. Therefore, organisations will have to reach a state of application modernisation that will allow them to reduce costs while ensuring that they implement a long-term solution.

Diversion of key resources – The most valuable asset of a company is its employees. As systems age, they require an increasing amount of time and input. By diverting resources towards “keeping the lights on,” a company loses out on its ability to innovate and evolve. 

Inability to integrate new technology – Firms will likely continue investing in systems that inevitably rely on legacy data or capabilities. It may be expensive to integrate new and legacy systems, adding to the layers of architectural complexity. 

In your interaction with CIOs in the region, what are some of the ways they are dealing with the issue of technical debt due to cloud migration and application modernization?

Tang: The constant pressure to need to constantly develop innovative solutions at reducing costs to keep up with competition results in lead CIOs implementing to implement quick-fix solutions.  These band-aid solutions are often quicker and cheaper than the alternative. When an organization allocates its entire budget to tackling technical debt through short term solutions, the volume of their technical debt remains stagnant.

By maintaining legacy applications, businesses are prone to experience losses. The liability of legacy applications is associated with security, talent leakage, and an inability to innovate quickly or pivot with changing markets.

The greatest challenge for businesses is to reach a stage of application modernization, enabling them to reduce costs while ensuring that they implement long-term solutions. Many firms seek partners that can support them in the application modernization process, while their internal teams focus on other business priorities.

How should organizations avoid future technical debt?

Tang: Organizations can start by tracing the ownership of tech debt for an app or system to the profit and loss (P&L) that it serves. Tackling tech debt via infrequent IT mega projects poses high execution risk and often hinders a business’ ability to compete while a project is underway. Instead, companies should earmark a portion of their IT budget to pay down tech debt consistently and predictably over a strategic period.

Organisations should also dedicate resources to tackling tech debt. When organisations reach a unified view of their strategic goals as well as their tech-debt position, they must send a clear message that the organisation prioritises tackling the pervasive issue of debt accumulation.

If an organisation adopts DevOps by partnering with a third party, it must engage a vendor with the right capabilities that complements and enhances what it already possesses. IT teams want to plug in skills that match operational models to create cross-functional teams – they don’t want to create dependencies on external parties. When an organisation has a solid development and product team but requires assistance with infrastructure, their partner will have to swap in as an extension of that team.

Continuous application modernisation is critical to eliminating technical debt and boosting an organisation’s ability to create new customer experiences, add value and services, and increase time to market.

Traditionally, application modernisation has been IT-centric. Application modernisation has long been a function of DevOps or traditional IT architecture, implemented to refactor, re-purpose or consolidate legacy software. By creating the right application environment, organisations will be able to adapt for the future adequately.