How to Finally Manage Technical Debt in 2024

Miranda Rudy-Nguyen

February 14, 2024

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For any software application that continually evolves and requires updates, accumulating at least some technical debt is inevitable. But unfortunately, when left unmanaged, its downsides can quickly become unsustainable for your business.

An inability to manage technical debt is a big problem for today’s companies. A 2022 McKinsey study found that tech debt amounts to up to 40 percent of their entire technology estate. Meanwhile, a 2023 survey of technology executives found that technical debt accounts for nearly one-third of IT budgets—while blocking otherwise viable innovations in more than two-thirds of organizations.

It’s not a new issue, either. As a 2015 study by Carnegie Mellon University found, much architectural tech debt has been around for a decade or more. The study found architectural issues to be the greatest source of technical debt, and they are challenging because they are often caused many years previously. Effective and strategic ways to manage your architectural debt have to be a critical part of your IT management processes.

Now is the perfect time to get started. Wait any longer, and the debt continues to accumulate, spreading through the foundations of your technology architecture. After all, the biggest source of technical debt comes from bad architecture choices that, if left untreated, affect the viability of your most important software applications. Learn how you can make 2024 the year you finally get a good handle on your architectural tech debt.

Learning to Manage Technical Debt at the Architectural Level

Not all technical debt is created equal. In fact, using the broad term on its own can be surprisingly misleading, considering the fact that not all tech debt is actually bad. Due to deadlines and the implementation needs of any software build, some of the debt is inevitable or can be a valid trade-off to getting good software in place on time. Perfection, after all, can be the enemy of good.

Related: Is All Technical Debt Bad?

The problem becomes significant when technical debt occurs unintentionally or gets built into the architecture of the software being built. Tech debt becomes legacy tech debt and can live at the core of your IT infrastructure for years. Over time, the debt begins to cause architectural drift, continuing to harm your overall infrastructure.

It is at this level that the ability to manage technical debt becomes essential. Other types of debt, like code quality, bugs, performance issues, and software composition problems, can be fixed. But when the debt is built into the software architecture itself, it becomes a deep-seated parasite that is difficult to solve or manage.

The core problem is that architectural debt tends to be more abstract. Its design isn’t based on a few lines of code that can be fixed but is layered into the architecture itself. Often caused by shortcuts and prioritizing convenience of speed to market during the initial build, its unintentional nature can cause significant liabilities that fester for the longer term.

5 Steps to Manage Architectural Tech Debt in 2024

Fortunately, difficulty in managing technical debt at the architectural level does not mean the process is impossible. It just means having to take a more intentional and strategic approach to an issue that likely has been fostering and spreading in your IT architecture.

That process takes time, effort, and organization-wide buy-in. But with the right approach and steps, any IT leader can get there. Follow these steps to make 2024 the year you finally manage technical debt at its deepest and most abstract level, turning away the harm that ignoring it could otherwise cause your technology operations.

1. Make Technical Debt a Business Priority

As devastating as architectural debt can be, an unfortunate truth remains. The above-mentioned 2015 CMU study found that a majority of management is largely unaware of either the dangers of tech debt or the value of finding more effective ways to manage it. That, in turn, makes building buy-in on any effort to manage technical debt a necessary first step.

As a recent article by CIO points out, that process has to begin with treating architectural debt as the true danger that it is for your business. The article cites Enoche Andrade, a digital application innovation specialist at Microsoft, who emphasizes the need for all executives to be aware of the issue:

“CIOs have a critical responsibility to raise awareness about technical debt among the board and leadership teams. To foster a culture of awareness and accountability around technical debt, companies should encourage cross-functional teams and establish shared goals and metrics that encourage all groups to work together toward addressing technical debt and fostering innovation. This can include creating a safe environment for developers to experiment with new approaches and technologies, leading to innovation and continuous improvement.”

But in reality, that process begins even earlier. In many cases, simply citing the potential costs and risks of existing technical debt and failure to manage that debt can get ears to perk up. 

A recent report by Gartner concurs, emphasizing just how important incorporating ATD as a strategic priority can become for your organization. It’s a crucial first step to ensure that any actions taken, and resources invested, have the full support of the entire enterprise.

2. Systematically Understand and Measure Your Tech Debt

Both organizational buy-in and the general ability to manage your debt also rely on a solid foundation of actually understanding your architectural debt. Understanding and analyzing its scope as it relates to your software architecture has to be among the earliest steps you take.

Unlike code-level technical debt, this step is complicated. Architectural tech debt is far from straightforward, and it’s often difficult to reconcile. This is especially true considering that depending on your operation and industry, your architecture may look very different from the many case studies you find online, making it difficult to follow a simple template.

The key, instead, is to prioritize and systematize architectural observability—to understand and analyze your digital architecture at its most fundamental level. Insights into architectural drift and other issues can lead to incremental plans designed to improve the software at its most fundamental level.

The more you can build architectural observability into your regular quality assurance process, the more easily you can find the hidden dangers lurking in that architecture.

3. Prioritize Your Fixes Strategically

With a solid understanding of your architectural debt in place, it’s time to begin building a strategy to manage that technical debt. As with many IT problem-solving processes, the two key variables are the potential impact of the issue and the time it would take to fix it:

  • The higher the potential negative impact of the architectural debt on your software, the more urgent it becomes to fix it comprehensively.
  • The easier an architectural debt issue is to fix, the faster you can begin to eliminate or mitigate its potential harm to your software architecture.

Building the right priority list is as much art as science. At worst, you might have to rebuild and modernize your entire software architecture. The right architectural observability tools can help you build that priority list based on your findings, providing a clearer roadmap to solve the issues at their root.

4. Be Intentional About Any New Technical Debt

As mentioned above, some technical debt is intentional due to trade-offs your developers are willing to make. Architectural debt, however, should not generally fall into this category. The negative impact of its deep roots is too significant for any speed or convenience trade-off to be worth it long term.

Related: Architectural Technical Debt and Its Role in the Enterprise

The key, then, is being intentional about any debt you take on. As Mike Huthwaite, CIO of Hartman Executive Advisors, points out in the CIO article,

“Intentional technical debt has its place and has its value; unintentional technical debt is a greater problem. When we don’t track all the debt, then you can find you’re on the brink of bankruptcy.”

That, in turn, means educating your entire team not just on the dangers of technical debt but also on becoming more intentional about understanding its potential occurrences and implications. At its best, this means limiting its use where possible and avoiding the more abstract and deep-rooted architectural debt altogether.

5. Establish a Roadmap to Systematically Manage Technical Debt Over Time

Finally, any effort to manage technical debt on the architectural level has to be ongoing. Simply analyzing your software once and running through the priority list from there is not enough as you look to continue optimizing your software infrastructure and minimize the potential fallout of architectural debt over time.

Instead, plan to build the process of managing the debt into your ongoing development workflow. Continue to analyze the debt via architectural observability, prioritizing the areas in which you can pay it down. Perform the actual work to do so, and repeat the process. At its best, it becomes a cycle of continuous improvement, each turn of which improves your architecture over time.

Architectural Observability: The Key to Managing Architectural Technical Debt in 2024

Managing architectural tech debt is a complex process, but it doesn’t need to be impossible. Much of that complexity can be managed through a strategic investment in architectural observability. Once you can identify the debt and prioritize where to begin minimizing it, taking action becomes much more straightforward and can be performed on an ongoing basis.To get there, the right software is key. vFunction can help, with a platform specifically designed to analyze, prioritize, and pay down your architectural debt over time. Learn more about our Architectural Observability Platform by requesting your demo today.

Miranda Rudy-Nguyen

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