3 ways states can start paying down technical debt
After identifying inefficient systems, CIOs must build a case for reducing technical debt that includes managing project risk and performance impacts.
The concept of overhauling legacy systems and eliminating technical debt isn’t new to state government agencies, but these initiatives aren't always high on the priority list. After all, IT systems have a life cycle, and agencies are committed to ensuring a return on investment for their duration, even if they lack the resources to maintain them efficiently or the funding to replace them as they age.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aims to break through these challenges by giving states access to federal funds to accelerate infrastructure modernization, which includes IT infrastructure. One of the first states to take advantage is Colorado. After discovering $465 million worth of technical debt earlier this year, the Colorado Governor's Office of Information Technology requested $66 million in stimulus funding to upgrade the state’s oldest IT systems.
But paying down technical debt isn’t easy. Rearchitecting decades-old systems and applications or moving them to the cloud requires long-term vision and investment and is highly dependent on a state’s priorities and what IT can support.
With this in mind, here are three best practices to consider as state agencies look to tackle the challenge of tech debt.
1. Shine a light on what’s working and what isn’t
First, agencies must take inventory of their oldest IT assets and the cost of operating and maintaining these systems. As an example, an application constantly underperforming or requiring significant manual intervention may benefit from rearchitecting, replatforming, refactoring or shifting to the cloud.
Performance management tools can help IT teams understand—from an infrastructurewide level—which systems negatively impact the organization or are unnecessary. Performance vectors to consider include server and application health (RAM and CPU utilization, user load, response time, bandwidth consumption and availability), database issues (outages, faults and bottlenecks) and a system’s security posture (poorly developed code, accumulation of vulnerabilities, etc.). Connectivity issues should also come under the microscope, such as load balancers that fail to properly route traffic between servers and clients.
2. Build a compelling case for tech debt cleanup
Once IT leaders understand what’s working and what isn't, they must convince cross-functional business stakeholders, many of whom have other priorities, that debt cleanup is necessary.
To do this, CIOs must abandon the term “tech debt” and detailing the toll it takes on IT teams. Rather, they should communicate the business outcomes of fixing the issue. Program leaders and administrators must be persuaded that current ways of working are inefficient and IT investments will deliver business value (organizational agility, a better user experience and improved delivery of citizen services).
Colorado CIO Tony Neal-Graves understands this. His team works proactively with customer agencies to identify individual technical debts and demonstrate the return on investment of moving to modern systems. Developing a technology roadmap that shows incremental value, delivers small wins and justifies continued effort can build on this momentum.
3. Ensure legacy and modern technologies play well together
As agencies work through their roadmap for tech debt cleanup, it’s crucial they each have a plan for managing project risk and performance impacts. New and old technologies may not always play well together. Perhaps they don’t integrate or handle data seamlessly—or perhaps newer hybrid cloud environments limit IT’s ability to diagnose service issues using the tools they have today.
To deliver on the promise of modernization, IT teams need observability into how their applications, databases, cloud instances and networks are performing—without jumping between disparate monitoring tools and potentially missing an issue. With visibility across the full IT stack, they can see connections and dependencies between systems and ensure everything is working as it should without incurring more technical debt.
It's time to tackle tech debt
Despite the challenges, tech debt cleanup is worth the effort. When surveyed, a majority (69%) of IT leaders said they consider technical debt one of the biggest threats to innovation. It’s also a huge drain on IT resources. On average, organizations spend one-third of their budget on managing tech debt (this number jumps to 41% for larger organizations).
State CIOs can turn these numbers around if they stop relying on outdated systems and make the case for shifting resources toward modernizing key technologies. The funds are there—it’s time to act.
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