What is Technical Debt – And How Can Startups Avoid It?

About the Author: Lee Wrall is Director at Everything Tech, an award-winning Managed Service Provider (MSP) which supports every element of a business’ IT infrastructure. Launched in 2010, Everything Tech is headquartered in central Manchester, but covers customers all across the UK.

‘Debt’ is a loaded word in the world of business – with few positive connotations. It smacks of always playing catch-up and constantly being on the back foot. Even worse is the worry of receiving calls from financial institutions who politely but firmly insist on payment – and knowing the calls won’t stop until you clear the debt plus interest.

Debt doesn’t just relate to the minus symbol appearing in your company’s accounts. It’s just as easy for your business to slip into technical and technological debt too.

What is Technical Debt?

‘Technical debt’ refers to the use of hardware and software that is obsolete and can’t be upgraded to the latest versions.

When an organisation is in technical debt, it’s the beginning of the process of their competitors leaving them behind in a cloud of dust.

This form of debt happens when companies choose an easy software or hardware option to fulfil an immediate need. It’s a ‘quick fix’, instead of a more appropriate, longer-term solution.

But this line of thought brings issues with it.

Why is Technical Debt a Negative?

Like financial debt, technical debt accumulates interest. Only in this case, the interest is the difficulty in updating systems and processes as time goes on.

The more short-term solutions you bolt to your company’s infrastructure, the harder it is to make longer-term changes when they’re needed. The ‘interest payments’ to the Bank of Technical Debt are the necessary rounds of maintenance that will need to be completed just to keep things ticking over.

A series of ongoing changes to systems will soon make the overall infrastructure outdated. Similarly, if there’s insufficient knowledge of what change in a system or a process is needed, and development begins before the design is finalised, you’ll likely need to rework the new solution in some way later anyway.

How Does Technical Debt Occur?

There are reasons beyond mere negligence that an unfinalized design might be rushed through to implementation.

Your business might be under pressure to compete with other firms in the same sector. This could mean that even just a vaguely competent solution will be deemed acceptable – if it keeps the company in the marketplace.

Alternatively, financial pressures might mean your startup doesn’t have access to a comprehensive test suite. As a result, the process may go live without every ‘why, what and wherefore’ being scrutinised in fuller detail.

Also, if software is put into place without proper documentation, you’ll need to complete this in the future for new starters and others unfamiliar with the circumstances that led to its use. This need for relevant documentation, and the creation of it, is considered technical debt as well.

All these situations point towards the consequences of a technical design or development that’s been conceived and put in place with a short-term benefit – but with no regard for its long-term future.

How Can Startups Avoid Technical Debt?

You wouldn’t write suboptimal code just to meet a deadline – especially if you knew it would have to be rewritten to be maintainable in future. The same principle should be applied here.

A good managed IT service provider (MSP) will help you mitigate the risks of technical debt. They should consistently analyse your systems and processes, and offer straightforward, practical advice on how and when you need to upgrade them.

Technical debt affects your whole business. Take action to avoid or rectify this important issue now – and leave the necessary debt to your accountant.

For more information on how Everything Tech can help your enterprise leverage technology as it grows, head to www.everythingtech.co.uk

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