Technical Debt

Technical debt. You may have heard that term used but are unsure of exactly what it means.

Technical debt is a concept in IT that reflects the implied cost of rework caused by choosing an easy solution now instead of using a better approach that would take longer.

-Wikipedia

Technical debt is work you do now that will take more work to fix later — typically with the purpose of rapid gains now.

There are two ways to approach any project.

  • The easier way will get you to completion faster but you may not wind up with optimal results.
  • The harder way will require more investment in design and takes more time up front but in the end you wind up with a better result.

Technical debt is like any other kind of debt. Most people don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank to buy a house, so they take out a mortgage. They agree to repay it over the next 30 years with interest. If they don’t repay their mortgage, then they lose their house. This is easier and gets them to their goal (home ‘ownership’) faster.

Technical debt is no different. It allows organizations to deliver faster, with the understanding that the shortcuts will slow down development in the future. Companies will eventually be forced to spend more time fixing the debt than the amount of time it took them to produce the best solution at the beginning.

That may be OK, as long as it is eventually addressed. Too often, companies allow technical debt to accumulate to the point that it is overwhelming and they are forced to stop new, innovative work to clean up the debt.

Technical debt is not necessarily the same thing as a mess. Technical debt can definitely be (or become) a mess, but a mess can be just a mess. You can design something poorly for all kinds of reasons. You can do sloppy work that is just well, sloppy. You can make a mess of anything and eventually you have to clean up your mess, but technical debt is a choice.

Avoiding technical debt goes hand in glove with our mantra to “do it right”. If you design and plan well, you avoid paying a higher price later. Doing it right is harder and requires more up front investment but in the end, you wind up with a better result.

How can you avoid technical debt?

  • Plan
  • Engage subject matter experts to help you plan
  • Resist the urge to save money above all else when you plan

What kind of technical debt can you easily avoid in your new building?

  • Low voltage cabling. Around since 2001, CAT 5 cabling has served IT shops well, but is considered too low performance for most modern applications. Companies will sometimes try to save money and install CAT 5 (or CAT 5E) but this will build technical debt that may have to be repaid (re-wire the building) later when a new technology requires higher performance cabling. CAT 6 (or CAT 6A) should be considered the minimum these days.
  • High Availability (HA) Office modernization has resulted in an increased reliance on IT systems. Designing any system with a single point of failure in a modern office is certain to come back on you later. At some point the finance guy who insisted that you save money by only putting in one circuit, one router, one switch pair will be the person complaining that “our brand new $xM network is down.” Do it right the first time and avoid this costly mistake. If IT infrastructure is worth building, it is worth building redundantly.
  • Plan on more technology space than you think you need. The security company, the lighting company, the HVAC company, the cafeteria vendor, the DAS provider, A/V, nearly everyone seems to need a landing spot for technology. Demarc extensions for sure, but they will try to take over your IDFs. Add a second, small IDF location on each floor to accommodate these needs or you may find yourself opening up your IDFs to these contractors daily. That is a security and compliance risk that you do not need. The alternative is to have an escort with the teams and that is very expensive, with no return. Design in some space that they can use without security, compliance or headcount implications.

How can you avoid technical debt? Plan. Engage subject matter experts to help you plan. Resist the urge to save money above all else when you plan.

It’s simple, just do it right the first time!