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How Can Organizations Manage Technical Debt?

Organizations need to manage technical debt, but why, and what is the best process for successful mitigation?

Technical debt is a term that comes from software development, but its significance extends far beyond the developer’s desk. It carries ramifications for business operations, security, and long-term strategy. But what exactly is technical debt, how can it be managed, and how can organizations bring it under control?  

The Nature of Technical Debt 

Technical debt is a metaphor coined to describe the “interest” organizations pay when they choose quick, easy, or cheap development solutions that aren’t sustainable in the long run. Such “interest” could take the form of added costs, time, and effort needed later to rectify the shortcuts taken or to rewrite poorly designed code. Sometimes this can be a lack of innovation or commitment to basic best practices like zero trust or employee training. When looking for project funding for bringing technical debt ‘back into the black’ (from those within our organizations who hold the purse strings), many examples and statistics support action over continuing with technical ‘red in our ledger.’

  • Cost of Technical Debt:
    Globally, companies lose an estimated $300 billion per year due to developer time spent on bad code, which is “a significant component of technical debt.” [Stripe] 
  • Technical Debt and Innovation:
    70% of IT leaders say that technical debt poses a significant threat to their companies’ ability to innovate. 
  • Time Spent on Maintenance due to Technical Debt:
    Developers spend 42% of their time dealing with maintenance issues, rather than working on new projects or innovation, primarily due to technical debt. 
  • Return on Investment:
    “Through 2023, I&O leaders who actively manage and reduce technical debt will achieve at least 50% faster service delivery times to the business.” [Gartner] 

At times, incurring technical debt may be an intentional business decision. Perhaps an organization needs to release a product quickly to capitalize on a market opportunity, or resources are limited, and a less-than-perfect solution must be implemented in the interim. However, if left unchecked, the interest payments on this debt can mount up, leading to inefficiencies, poor performance, regulatory non-compliance, and security vulnerabilities.  

The Cost of Technical Debt 

Calculating the real cost of technical debt is no simple task, as it involves both tangible and intangible factors.  

Direct costs include the extra time and resources spent on maintenance and bug fixing that could be invested in developing new features or innovations. However, the indirect costs are often even more significant. These include opportunity costs from delayed time to market, reduced competitive advantage, and the diminished morale of IT teams forced to constantly deal with legacy systems instead of working on new and exciting projects.  

There’s also the cost associated with increased security risks, as outdated software and systems are more vulnerable to cyberattacks, plus the impact on customer satisfaction and company reputation from persistent system errors or downtime should not be underestimated. In order to accurately calculate the real cost of technical debt, organizations need to consider all these elements, making it a complex but essential component of strategic planning. 

The Basics of Managing Technical Debt 

As a comprehensive application and cloud security platform, we’ve played a pivotal role in managing the technical debt of organizations around the globe, and the phrase is one we often hear often from security teams looking to ringfence legacy applications, secure workloads, protect themselves during mergers and acquisitions, or just manage least privilege access.

In our experience, several factors are the most important when managing technical debt. 

Identifying and Assessing Technical Debt 

It is essential that any organization has complete visibility into their applications, their behaviors, and dependencies. Businesses need to identify outdated systems, underutilized resources, and potential areas of risk – all indicators of technical debt. Painting a clear picture of their current software architecture is the first step in enabling them to understand and quantify their technical debt more accurately.  

Mitigating Security Risks  

One of the most critical consequences of technical debt is its increased security risk. Outdated software, weak code, and poorly configured systems often become the entry points for cyber-attacks. TrueFort Platform offers real-time security monitoring and threat detection, identifying erratic behaviors that could indicate a security threat.
This proactive approach helps secure the gaps in an environment caused by technical debt, reducing the risk of breaches and their associated costs.

Doing this manually involves continuous analysis of system logs, network traffic, and user activities, constantly looking out for anomalies such as unexpected logins, unauthorized data access or transfers, unusual network traffic patterns, irregularities in system performance, or sudden changes in user behavior. Naturally, given the complexity and scale of modern networks, this process is most often supported or fully automated with advanced tools such as our own. 

Streamlining Processes  

A significant component of technical debt is inefficient processes that drain resources. Automating least privilege access and validating account relationships makes for a more efficient operational flow. By automating these processes, organizations can redirect their resources – both staffing and financial – from managing technical debt towards innovation and growth.  

Promoting a Zero Trust Model 

A zero trust – or least privilege access – model assumes no user or system is trustworthy by default, regardless of their location in relation to the organization’s perimeter. For best practices, it is recommended this is done at a granular level, with microsegmentation for optimum regulatory compliance. This approach is crucial in a landscape where technical debt can make systems vulnerable to attacks from both outside and inside an organization’s data environment.  

Tackling Technical Debt with TrueFort 

Taking one of our clients as an example, consider a financial organization with a sprawling software architecture built over many years, plus recently acquired environments as a result of mergers and acquisitions. In their haste to meet market demands, they had utilized an eclectic array of patched and bespoke solutions, resulting in a mixture of legacy systems, underutilized resources, inherited unknowns, and mystery dependencies – a significant collection of technical debt.   

By deploying the TrueFort Platform, the organization gained visibility into its application environment, uncovering forgotten accounts, inefficient processes, and potential security vulnerabilities. TrueFort Platform then helped them to streamline and automate security measures, redirecting the company’s resources from technical debt management to other critical areas.

The outcome? A more efficient, secure, robust, and legally compliant software environment. A more enabled, informed, and efficient security team. 

Technical Debt is a Choice 

Like financial debt, technical debt isn’t inherently bad. Sometimes, it’s the price for innovation or a strategic decision to address immediate business needs. However, as with monetary obligations, managing technical debt is crucial, ensuring that it doesn’t spiral out of control and hinder business progress.  

TrueFort Platform, with its comprehensive security and application management platform, can be a powerful ally. By delivering visibility into an organization’s software environment, mitigating security risks, streamlining processes, and promoting a zero-trust model, it helps keep technical debt in check and enhances an organization’s overall operational efficiency. 

In the world of software, where change is the only constant, managing technical debt could mean the difference between being a market leader or being left behind. 

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