Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Paying Off Your Technical Debt: Cloud Applications and Infrastructure

Rich Wood, Vice President, Microsoft Alliances

Attention, CMOs! Your organization may be in technical debt—and it’s possible you don’t even know it. This is a concept that anyone moving forward with digital initiatives needs to understand. 

We talk a lot these days about digital transformations and digital experiences, and rightly so. The advances and evolutions made possible by new and emerging developments like IoT, AR/VR, and Blockchain, are offering some new tantalizing ways for organizations to interact with their customers—and their employees, too.

It’s easy and fun to focus on these shiny new objects when we talk about digital transformations, but let’s be realistic—if we didn’t have problems with the way things are, we wouldn’t need to transform in the first place. And a lot of the problems we are trying to solve come from technical debt. 

Technical debt has the potential to be a pretty nasty blocker to things like CMS upgrades and new mobile implementations if left unchecked, but if you take the time to understand it and figure out a plan for paying it down, resolving it can bring extraordinary value for your organization.

What is Technical Debt and Why Does It Matter To You?

In the simplest terms, the “debt” is the pain incurred by relying on an old, heavily customized application, platform, or infrastructure. 

It might have been a tactically affordable short-term solution, even a band-aid, at some point. It might be a CMS platform that was implemented ten years ago—quite probably state-of-the-art at the time, but now woefully inadequate for today’s needs. It might be an infrastructure that’s over-reliant on virtual machines and a third-party or wholly-owned physical data center that struggles to keep pace with global expectations around security and compliance.

Whichever form (or forms) that it takes on its technical side, the “debt” is the amount of time and money you’re sinking into keeping that old application, platform, or infrastructure current. 

  • For the CMS platform: It’s all the integrations you’ve done to back-end systems (CRM, ERP, maybe SharePoint for content management) or third-party digital marketing tools and platforms in order to get some kind of actionable analytics.  
  • From a knowledge management perspective: It’s the know-how invested in older processes and systems—often taking the form of “tribal knowledge” centered in one or more unique individuals—that’s going with them as they retire.
  • From an infrastructure perspective: It’s the inability to scale up to meet customer demand the way you can in the cloud—or even the lack of adequate security and threat management—that comes with on-premise infrastructures.
  • In your application portfolio: It’s the time and money spent maintaining and extending custom integrations and antiquated applications long past their sell-by date. This goes for the bespoke line-of-business applications that so many organizations rely on, outdated intranets, document management systems, and collaboration platforms.

What You Can Do About Technical Debt

You don’t need these ten easy cassette tapes (I’m dating myself—I’m sure these days it’s a podcast) or the help of a bankruptcy lawyer to get out of technical debt. Much like student loans, it’s highly unlikely that paying everything off in one fell swoop is the best idea. That level of investment is unlikely to gain much traction in any organization—and it’s okay to admit that you just can’t afford it. Even if you can pay the premium of addressing all of your debt at once, it’s hard to tie that outcome to a successful business case. Most organizations are understandably reticent about using a major capital expenditure to address what is, at its core, an operational improvement. Sticker shock happens, and emotional reactions can be a real issue that you’ll need to manage if you want to address this problem.

To best address your technical debt, you need to understand and analyze the problems, identify their sources, and construct a plan to pay off your debts slowly but gradually—by focusing on the areas of highest value and most potential improvement.  This approach won’t just address your debt; it will help you circumvent that tricky problem of sticker shock if you tried to do everything at once.  In other words…

  1. Start with your credit report
  2. Identify the problem areas
  3. Come up with a plan to pay them down over time

Cloud Strategy – And Beyond

In getting rid of technical debt, committing to a good cloud infrastructure is often where it starts. The flexibility, scalability, and reliability of today’s massive cloud providers (often kept in optimal state by a devoted team from a good managed services partner) serves as a rock-solid foundation on which to build a debt-free enterprise architecture. But what will you put in the Cloud, and how will you get there?

An assessment of your application portfolio and existing architecture is the “credit report” you’ll need to begin planning your path forward. Once you understand what you have—up to and including all those messy integrations—you can put together a cloud strategy roadmap that lays out a measured, intelligent plan for erasing your debt. A good strategy won’t just work in broad brushstrokes, either. It will identify the high value improvements and focus on making those executable in real, immediate ways—providing value back to you in short order.

Sooner or later, that plan will include building out new digital solutions that utilize your cloud infrastructure and best practices to minimize the possibility of new and ongoing debt. Not all customization is bad; quite the contrary. Without custom development, you can’t take advantage of the amazing developments that are driving so much innovation today. The trick is doing it right and tying it to key business objectives that help you drive value and ultimately, increase profits.

With custom development, that means not just good long-range planning but a rock-solid delivery team that’s been doing IoT work (for example) for years, following established patterns and best practices for cloud development. For modern CMS or employee engagement platforms, you’ll want similarly skilled and certified experts to build things out the right way—always with an eye on the experience you want your customers or employees to achieve. That’s where Rightpoint sits, and we’re ready to help.

Nothing is perfect. Like in real life, sometimes priorities that shift or change can cause you to re-evaluate your strategy for avoiding or absolving technical debt. But if you follow the general steps outlined above, before you know it, you too can be debt-free.

Rich Wood is the Senior Director of Cloud & Enterprise Apps at Rightpoint. Follow Rich on Twitter and LinkedIn