5 Ways to Lower Technical Debt Through Modernization


Legacy modernization is imperative for organizations to make it in the digital age. It is also the solution to scaling back their technical debt.

Every organization carries technical debt – the extra price it must pay for not doing the modernization at the right time or in the correct manner – in its IT landscape. Choosing a quick workaround to a problem instead of following best practices might save time and money in the short term but invariably leads to accumulated issues and even business disruption in the long term.

Technical debt can be staggering and account for as much as 40 percent of the IT balance sheet. While enterprises naturally balk at the cost of modernization, not paying down technical debt only inflates it more. Then there’s the opportunity cost: by not retiring technical debt, enterprises lose the chance to free up time spent on routine maintenance, reduce IT complexity, and improve system performance.

So, there’s no choice but to swallow the modernization pill. But the good news is that timely modernization now will lower technical debt in the future.

See also: Why Application Modernization Makes Sense

Here are five recommendations for going about it:

1 – Approach technical debt also from a business standpoint

    Virtually every organization has some technical debt, but very few understand it completely. Most fail to see that it can compromise the speed of delivery, impede innovation, hinder response to market trends, curtail data insights, or even demotivate employees into leaving. They have a narrow view of technical debt, seeing it as a technology problem when it is also a business issue.

    An enterprise that is modernizing to reduce technical debt should bring business into the discussion. Technology teams must work with lines of business to develop solutions meeting their specific requirements. At the same time, product managers must acquire a basic understanding of technology and technical debt, not least because most products today have a tech element.

    Technical debt should be broken down to the level of individual application or system. Then, each component should be allocated to the business unit it serves. Accounting apart, ascribing technical debt to the right source encourages the business unit to take ownership and be a part of the solution.

    2 – Go gentle at it

    Some amount of technical debt is inevitable; any attempt to bring it down to absolute zero will waste unnecessary resources and slow down application development. Instead, organizations should aim to keep technical debt within a predetermined limit.

    It is also inadvisable to try to slash and burn technical debt in a big bang offensive. This not only entails high execution risk but could also prevent the organization from competing effectively through the duration of the project. The best way to pay down technical debt is in installments – in a phased, consistent, and predictable manner – to prevent both an accumulation of debt and disruption to the system. IT teams could either set aside a dedicated effort every few sprints or even bake in a small technical debt remediation effort in each sprint, with a goal to pay down the debt accumulated in earlier sprints.     

    See also: How To Combine Tech Debt And Modernize Legacy Software

    3 – Put the house in order

    A legacy modernization and technical debt reduction strategy must be backed by adequate financial and human resources in order to work. It also needs strong governance for structured decision making and keeping progress on track through the execution.

    The involvement of the IT, as well as the business leadership, is key. This is because provisioning funds for mitigating technical debt is not about dedicating 10 to 20 percent on top of project cost; rather, the organization should be mindful of where every dollar is going and what business measures it is supposed to impact – revenue, agility, time to market, customer experience, and so on. There should be regular reviews of the technical debt remediation program to monitor resource utilization and outcomes.

    To be effective, governance must be helmed by an empowered, representative team that can balance the (often conflicting) priorities of business and IT. Another responsibility of the team is to identify the critical performance improvements for the technical debt program – such as speed of launching new capabilities, system reliability, and time spent on developing new capabilities instead of maintenance activities.

    Yet another important part of the puzzle is collaboration, which can help break down legacy system silos to allow seamless communication and collaboration between development teams. This ensures that everyone has a unified view of technical debt, which is helpful for identifying and managing it in a timely manner.

    After cleaning up its act, the organization should remain disciplined to minimize the accumulation of technical debt in the future. It must not waver from good practices, such as using the best technologies and paying down technical debt in new projects, even if there are more expeditious alternatives. The focus must remain on continuously reducing technical debt and, at the same time, ensuring new initiatives introduce as little new debt as possible.

    See also: Data Pipeline Pitfalls: Unraveling the Technical Debt Tangle

    4 – Adopt next-gen modernization solutions

    Monolithic, inflexible to change, and expensive to maintain, legacy systems are a major source of technical debt. Organizations saddled with legacy IT and technical debt are unable to scale digital technologies or innovate, which eventually impacts their ability to hold market share, acquire customers, and operate efficiently. Legacy modernization addresses these issues by improving agility and productivity and freeing up resources for innovation.

    Leveraging a combination of next-generation technologies, enterprises can modernize their infrastructure and substantially pare down technical debt. Without a doubt, cloud is the most important instrument of this transformation. By ridding enterprises of the burden of provisioning and maintaining their technology landscape, cloud allows them to lower infrastructure debt. Further, enterprises can subscribe to various cloud services on a pay-per-use basis to save capital costs; this includes cloud services offering packaged code components, along with regular updates, that enterprises can use to write their own applications to lower design and software debt.

    DevSecOps and CI/CD pipelines also help lower technical debt through periodic, automated scans to identify any issues with code and faster, better software updates. It automates the software development and testing lifecycle to prevent technical debt accumulation over time.

    Artificial Intelligence (AI) is also playing a key role in the modernization and reduction of technical debt. An AI platform can gather and process data across the enterprise IT landscape in real time. One among the many use cases is predictive maintenance, which also prevents technical debt from piling up by enabling early identification and remediation of problems before they blow up.

    5 – Invest in the right skills

    Legacy modernization cannot wait, and almost all of the current technology assets – 88 percent being legacy, half of which are critical systems – will modernize in the next few years, according to an Infosys survey.

    But the success of modernization programs is closely linked to the quality of skills available. Unfortunately, our research shows that a lack of skills and talent is a CIOs’ biggest concern when it comes to modernization initiatives, much bigger than cost and disruption risk.

    Enterprises need to build or acquire important skills by training or upskilling IT teams in essential modernization technologies, such as cloud, AI, microservices, and DevSecOps. Organizations also need to mobilize skills and human resources to attack technical debt. This could range from creating a central team dedicated to providing expert advice to make everyone aware of the impact of technical debt issues to entrusting one or two people in each development team with this responsibility.

    Modernization: pay down for payback

    Legacy modernization is imperative for organizations to make it in the digital age. It is also the solution to scaling back their technical debt. But one of the biggest problems with technical debt is that it hinders modernization in the first place. It’s a convoluted challenge but one that must be addressed without further delay. However, enterprises can improve outcomes by approaching technical debt from a business angle, paring it back through phased modernization, practicing good governance, employing next-gen technologies, and putting together the skills to make all of this happen. They should recognize that paying down technical debt will yield payback on modernization in the form of all-around improvement.

    Naresh Duddu

    About Naresh Duddu

    Naresh Duddu is the Associate Vice President and Global Head of the modernization practice at Infosys. The practice incubates new offerings, builds services and consulting IP and spearheads application transformation engagements across verticals and service lines. The practice encompasses the four key pillars of application modernization - Open Source, Agile/DevOps, Legacy modernization, and Cloud.

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