Why technical debt is really ‘innovation debt’
When agencies have an assessment and mitigation strategy for technical debt, they can more easily modernize systems and roll out new features.
Reducing technical debt is a challenge for state governments, so taking it on requires an honest assessment of where it exists and a long-term strategy for removing it, panelists said during a webinar this week.
Technical debt can be the result of older, customized systems, poorly written code, bad software design decisions, inadequate documentation or excessive maintenance requirements, and it is often introduced when developers prioritize speed over optimal code. Technical debt can cause new software or technology features to be delayed or more difficult to implement.
Technical debt is not just about legacy technology and how it impacts workflows, according to Anthony Rodgers, director of technology transformation services at the Michigan Office of the Chief Technology Officer.
“What I'm fond of saying is, anytime you say, ‘We can't do this until that happens,’ that's technical debt at work,” Rodgers said during GovExec’s Cyber Summit. “Anytime a person has to jump in a truck, drive out to put hands on a system to patch it, upgrade it, or fix it, that's technical debt at work.”
Too often, agencies may be tempted by short-term fixes to solve today’s problems, but end up increasing technical debt. EJ Widun, chief technology officer for Oakland County, Michigan, said agencies need a long-term strategy.
“A lot of the time we spend putting Band-Aids on cuts because there's a jagged edge on a table and you keep hitting it,” Widun said. And when the Band-Aids are gone, we buy more rather than repair the jagged corner, he said. “You’ve got to make sure that you're focused on fixing the root of the problem and not just putting bandages on that solution, and that will lead you to a better outcome.”
When states have technical debt, it can manifest as unplanned hard drive or server outages that contribute to governments’ inability to properly serve residents. Widun also said if a mainframe struggles with technical debt, it can mean longer processing times that delay services delivery. It undermines trust in government.
Amanda Crawford, executive director of the Texas Department of Information Resources and chief information officer for the state, said technical debt can be exposed when what should be simple initiatives turn into major projects. When the Texas legislature passed a bill that required a new field be added to an agency’s electronic form, she said she had to explain to lawmakers that the underlying platform and technology had to be adapted to make the change, so a one-field addition was not that simple.
“The whole thing was going to have to be reworked,” Crawford said. “That's a frustration, and it shouldn't be that way. That slows down government and certainly the legislative initiative that was passed by our legislature and signed by our governor. And that's certainly not good.”
Assessing state agencies’ levels of technical debt can be an onerous task and varies by state and by agency.
Widun said the Oakland County CTO’s office sends out a 12-question survey to ascertain the level of technical debt an agency or application operates with. Included in that questionnaire are assessments of risk associated with backups and identity management, the rate hardware ages and other factors. Results are tallied, and agencies get a color-coded score from worst to best of red, yellow or green.
“What we found is no customers want to be red,” Widun said. Staff found that questionnaire led them to think of technical debt as “innovation debt” that prevents bringing new features and functions forward.
In Texas, Crawford said DIR sends out a similar questionnaire with several hundred questions called the Information Resources Deployment Review. Agencies use that review to outline their biggest cybersecurity or legacy system risks, which are then analyzed and used by the legislature to help inform funding decisions.
Rodgers agreed technical debt is difficult to assess, noting that intricately linked technology makes it even more difficult to assess where the challenges lie. He said the Michigan CTO’s office uses a similar system to Widun’s.
It's like trying to untangle a knot of yarn, Rodgers said. “Even when you find one end, to try and update anything in isolation involves untangling that yarn, because everything's coupled together,” he said. “You end up with this organizational paralysis, because when you really get deep into heavy technical debt and a large ball of yarn, it's extremely difficult to start picking it apart and figuring out how to tackle it.”
Crawford said recent legislation passed in Texas requires state agencies to submit modernization plans and so draw down their technical debt. Those plans must include not just plans for technology but for how processes can be changed to alleviate that debt.
“This modernization plan is required to be submitted to the legislature to not just tick off systems,” she said. “We're not just listing out things, but what's your vision for it?”
Widun said reducing technical debt is an “evolutionary process,” and that means designing “human centric” applications that make better use of data and are not siloed. He said his assessment tool and its color-coded grade also has a way of focusing developers’ minds on alleviating technical debt.
There are no right answers on the types of technology to choose in modernization roadmaps or strategic planning, so Rodgers said IT officials must be “opinionated.”
“I think a lot of the analysis paralysis that we get into within complex government organizations is trying to find the best,” he said. “And really what a lot of people perceive as being decisions are more like bets. On-prem versus cloud isn't really a decision—it's an opinionated preference or a bet, and neither of them are wrong. It's just about setting that stall out so that your organization knows which hill to climb with you.”
Aside from the technology challenges of technical debt, Crawford and Widun both said that bringing employees up to speed with agency technology is crucial, as dealing with workers stuck in the past can be just as difficult as managing legacy systems.
It is important to bring people out of what Crawford called a “legacy mindset,” which she said is DIR’s biggest challenge. Some employees may want to “just keep hammering and doing things the way that they've always been done.”