Why Technical Debt is the #1 Challenge Holding You Back

We live in the age of consumerism, always wanting more and willing to incur debt to get it. And that includes those of us in the association industry, especially when it comes to our technology platforms.

The wave of hyper-competitiveness has pushed associations to “buy now…pay later” as we respond to digital demands.  We must deliver more, faster, and for less cost. And while IT teams have responded admirably by upping their speed of delivery, this speed has come with an unintended consequence: technical debt.

What is technical debt?

Technical debt, also known as code debt, is the result of using programming shortcuts to meet a deadline. Rather than producing perfect code for a project, tech teams choose a less robust solution with the intention of going back shortly after the deadline to fix any problems. Often, there isn’t any more time to fix the code after the deadline than there was before the deadline. One shortcut is layered on top of another until the project simply becomes unworkable.

To put it plainly, technical debt is like a virus. It may or may not show its effect right away, but it’s hidden deep inside the crevices of bits and bytes, waiting patiently for an opportunity to turn into a chronic ailment. 

According to a recent report by Accenture, 70% of executives acknowledged that technical debt was a hindrance to innovation, an obstacle for migrating to new platforms, and a factor curtailing their ability to react to market changes.

How does it happen?

  • Packaged software customizations
  • Delaying application upgrades
  • Dirty data
  • Outdated workstations
  • Legacy and on-premise infrastructures

So, what?

Technical debt is tricky and can lead to quite a few association-wide issues, like:

  • Negative member experience

Your association’s technology is competing with the best technology available. Your members expect seamless integration for all your systems — website, learning platforms, management systems, certification management. If they have to spend too much time signing on or can’t easily use their mobile devices, you stand to have unhappy members who are worried about the security of the personal data they’ve entrusted to you.

  • Wasted time and money

The interest you pay on technical debt is the cost in dollars and staff time to work around or repair it. You have to pay developers to make it possible for you to implement  upgrades and make integrations, and instead of focusing their energy towards more strategic work, staff have to spend time fixing bugs and  inefficient processes.

  • Slow or misdirected innovation

As your code becomes heavier with technical debt, it is likely to slow your ability to respond to market fluctuations or pivot in emergencies. Improving existing software may be difficult, impossible, or too expensive. Your board may wonder why you can’t meet the association’s challenges with the software you already have.

How can technical debt be managed?

  • Let technology strategy guide implementation.

If you don’t have an association-wide strategy for technology, start to develop one based on the organization’s highest priorities. A clear strategy helps keep you from wasting time and effort on low priority goals. A technology audit will help you establish current issues and previous technology debt, and will allow you to set realistic goals.

  • Understand the requirements process.

Once you have a strategy in place, you can document the details of project requirements. Do you need new staff members? Does your staff need additional training? What funding will you need? Can an outside team help you make critical decisions? Above all, be sure your solutions don’t add to your existing technology debt. 

  • Stay current.

Develop and cultivate colleagues in the field. You need a thorough understanding of your market, best practices, and upcoming developments. Learning how to assess and eliminate technical debt should be built into your existing planning process. You might find peers in technology associations or special interest groups.

  • Research, research, research.

Make informed decisions about your technology purchases. Use your time at trade shows and conferences to explore a variety of options. Ask vendors for both demonstrations and information. They can provide some of the best education possible. Don’t be hesitant to ask for help with your technical debt.

The Wrap Up

The more transparent your technical projects are, the easier it is to avoid technology debt. Tech teams can make thoughtful, strategic decisions when that’s the priority. Ultimately, you’ll save time, effort, and money by avoiding quick work-arounds and prioritizing well-considered technology decisions.

Need help assessing your current technology and strategy? Cimatri offers various assessments to help you manage your technical debt challenges and ensure you have a good plan in place – and in action.