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Workshop: Addressing Technical Debt

With as much as 70-80% of IT budgets allocated to supporting existing systems, it is no surprise that CIOs are challenged when it comes to building applications to support future growth on their existing infrastructures. Inescapably, legacy software is a source of technical debt that can severely hinder an organization’s ability to deploy the type of functionality that both the customer base and employees need and demand.

The debt that older systems produce is the cumulative cost embedded in software systems that must be “paid back” in the additional work required for maintenance and the cost required to improve the code to add more value.

On November 7th, The IT Media Group brought together a group of IT executives for the inaugural CIO Peer-to-Peer Workshop entitled Addressing Technical Debt. The aim of the session was to focus on strategies and use cases for evolving legacy systems in order to meet business requirements and create a foundation for digital transformation.

Held at the Teknion Innovation Showroom located in downtown Toronto, John Comacchio, the firm’s SVP and CIO and Ernest Solomon, CIO of LawPro co-facilitated the workshop.

"As CIOs pursue digital transformation, the technical realities of modernizing ‘in place’ core systems force them to decide if these assets can serve as a foundation for future growth,” said Comacchio. “If this technical debt holds you back, you will not be able to deliver the digital experience and innovation that is expected by the business. The digital experience and innovation expected tomorrow needs to start by assessing the ‘in place’ technical realities of today."

According to Solomon, “the key point is that the failure to address technical debt by continuing with legacy infrastructure and bad practices, not only impacts projects, but it constrains the people and the processes surrounding them as well. We need to be ahead of the curve in working on and delivering a competitive advantage for our business partners.”

Topics discussed during the workshop included:

  • Balancing innovation versus taking on new debt
  • Culture and knowledge management considerations
  • Talent and organizational structure required to manage and resolve debt
  • Determining what systems to keep and which ones to replace
  • Using agile to address the debt problem
  • Tactics for discussing debt in the C-suite

There was a variety of key insights and analyses from all the speakers, particularly around what approach to take when agile teams are created and how best to eliminate technical debt completely.

“There is technical debt, but some of the other types of debt are actually more impactful to address,” said Monique Allen, EVP, Data & Technology at OMERS. “There is knowledge debt. One of the things we did when we created agile development teams was give to each four mandates: Support architectural and cyber standards, solve a real business problem, create something that works at the end of eight weeks, and address or solve one example of non-technical debt.

“Most often, it was not the technical debt, but it was cultural or workstyle debt. That had a huge impact on what we were able to move the team through in eight weeks. The combination of having a business and technology team together was also very impactful.”

Eric Whaley, CIO of Wolseley, added, “our goal is to completely transform and get away from all legacy. You go through a certain amount of fatigue when you have your end-users using old systems and new systems and the processes aren’t standardized. That wears on people.

“Within three to five years, if you are not cloud-based and fully modernized, you will be competitively-disadvantaged.”

Dozens of tactics for addressing technical debt were discussed during the workshop. Some of the findings included:

  • The drive to push new features into applications can introduce new debt. There needs to be a balance between keeping users happy and adding debt. Without this approach, code can eventually become a “black box” where it no longer can be touched.
  • Technical debt can lead to performance and maintenance issues, which adds friction between IT and the business.
  • Over the next few years, IT will evolve to more of a governance model as PaaS, SaaS, and cloud adoption grows. This approach will help to resolve technical debt, but during the interim, a strategy is required to bridge the gap of legacy skills required for maintenance.
  • Replacing legacy systems provides the opportunity to build a solution that fully aligns with the needs of the business. In addition, security and compliance requirements can be designed into the new systems from the start.

Finally, when it comes to procuring financing to address technical debt, it is imperative that CIOs effectively get their message across. Workshop participants examined strategies to frame technical debt as a business problem to their executive peers.

The IT Media Group's Peer-to-Peer Workshops serve the IT industry by providing forums for IT executives to collaborate and connect with their peers on compelling topics.

The IT Media Group is an award-winning producer of events and content for senior IT executives. Based in Toronto, our leadership team includes some of the most experienced and well respected media, technology and business professionals serving the IT executive community in Canada.