The CIO's Essential Guide to Reducing Technical Debt

March 12, 2020

In 2018, a small company’s employees were still using a 2008 server. While the IT team knew it should be replaced, updating the site kept getting pushed to the bottom of the priority list. Every year since 2008, the team has had to jump through hoops and figure out workarounds for licenses, billing, documentation, and various parts of the site that would just stop working.

“There’s nothing more I’d like than to see it dead,” said one employee of the server.

This company’s frustrating experience is an example of technical debt. Like monetary debt, taking on technical debt serves an immediate purpose but must be paid later, with interest. Within an IT environment, technical debt is just as frustrating and progress-halting as in the above example. The bad news is that it is all too common. The good news is that platforms like ServiceNow can help streamline processes and align teams to avoid it.

Understanding Technical Debt

Technical debt describes “the real costs a business incurs when it opts to upgrade existing code with a few new lines of code instead of spending the time or money it takes to develop the right solution,” says Brad Sousa, chief technology officer at AVI Systems.

When businesses take this shortcut, their software might perform most of its function reasonably. But that’s the key word: most. When users don’t find the best solution, the software won’t meet all the expectations of the user.

“The gap between the user’s expectation and what is actually delivered is the ‘debt’ that always ‘gets paid’ sooner or later,” Sousa says.

If you don’t take the time to keep your software running optimally, you will have to take the time later to fix the problems it causes. It’s important to note that in some cases, technical debt may actually be the best way to move a project forward. But much of the time, incurring technical debt ends up causing more problems than it solves.

Applying Technical Debt to An IT Environment

Technical debt applies to technical endeavors across industries. So how does it apply to the IT environment specifically? Let’s take the example of an ITSM platform. If your organization uses ServiceNow for ITSM, technical debt might come from any of the following:

●      Lack of proper architecture or scoped applications

●      Duplicated code or code with no comments

●      Unused code, fields, or forms

●      Lengthy scripts

●      Altered out-of-the-box elements

●      Not following best practices in coding or naming conventions

When the causes of technical debt are laid out in a list, it’s clear that, of course, IT departments should avoid these things. But when an IT team is in the trenches of complex IT work, the answer may not always be so black-and-white.

For example, when early adopters of ServiceNow first implemented the platform, they may have needed to change some code to get the results they wanted. These changes might have included building a stack of custom solutions that ultimately added layers of complexity. But since the early days, ServiceNow has simplified the platform, and there are new capabilities in every release. And here’s where the problem comes to a head: with all these changes and added complexities, IT teams may be unable to use these new capabilities efficiently, if at all. If these IT teams want to use new features, they need to pay back the debt of time and money, with interest.

Third-party middleware is another area in which the IT environment may have incurred technical debt. While building your integration with a separate piece of software may seem like the best solution at the time, it can cause problems in the long run.

“Not only does third-party middleware add an unnecessary layer of complexity to the integration, but it also requires additional specialized knowledge and expertise to keep things running smoothly,” according to 10 Pillars of ServiceNow Success for CIOs.

Reducing Technical Debt with ServiceNow in Three Steps

Technical debt can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but it always causes complications. The solution is to simplify, and ServiceNow can help with that. The three steps to reducing technical debt with ServiceNow are to make sure your teams (1) are aligned, (2) have the necessary support, and (3) are following ServiceNow best practices.

Step 1: Align your teams.

From the very beginning of each project, bring in the IT operations and business teams. It’s important to get their insight and make sure both teams are on the same page regarding the timeline and budget.

"Make specific decisions in iteration planning that identifies when technical debt will occur and in what time-frame it must be burned off," says Matt Seu, a principal at financial services advisory firm Actualize Consulting. "Managing technical debt in this manner will eliminate the risk as the project ends.”

Organizations might also consider working to shift the overall employee mindset about IT. Rather than thinking of IT teams simply as technology enablers, think of them as an essential part of the business’s strategy. When employees see IT as crucial to accomplishing business objectives, they’re more likely to be united in technology decisions. That unity helps avoid technical debt. Whether a full-blown rebranding or a few simple wording tweaks are in order, getting employees on the same page about the importance of IT can help align your teams overall.

Step 2: Gather all the help you can get.

Whether through internal training, outside partners, or the ServiceNow community, gathering adequate support helps employees better understand ServiceNow. When they understand ServiceNow better, they’re less likely to incur technical debt.

If you’re looking for quick answers, the ServiceNow Community has lots of tips and answers to help you see if there are out-of-the-box solutions to any issues you’re facing.

A great long-term help is to keep your employees’ training up to date. Employees are a company’s most valuable asset, and their intelligence and experience make the biggest difference when they receive regular training. Whether it’s official ServiceNow training or training sessions led by expert employees, educating employees will always be worth it.

Partners are another source of help. At Crossfuze, we help companies make the best decisions for implementing and optimizing ServiceNow. We can see things from a different perspective and can support companies at any stage of the journey.

Step 3: Follow ServiceNow best practices.

Having a positive ServiceNow experience starts with establishing tried-and-true practices before you make any customizations or configurations or integrate third-party platforms.

For customizations and configurations, the rule of thumb is to configure everything you can and only customize what you absolutely have to. Doing this allows businesses to make the most out of the platform without adding code that can break in future releases. By following this best practice, IT teams are less likely to incur technical debt.

For integrations, follow this guide from 10 Pillars of ServiceNow Success for CIOs: “The best integrations are built with development code that plugs directly and seamlessly into ServiceNow, enabling you to cut down on—not add to—the number of systems you must maintain. By simplifying your infrastructure in this way, you save significant money and time while improving productivity and system reliability.” The key to integrations is to simplify. The more systems you add, the more technical debt you’re likely to incur.

Taking on technical debt may seem like the best solution in the moment, but it accrues interest that must be paid sooner or later. IT environments are not exempt. Find out more about how ServiceNow can help streamline and automate IT processes to avoid technical debt and make proactive changes that benefit the business.

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