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A Pandemic Side Effect: Rampant Technical Debt

On average, about a quarter of all IT budgets are allocated to handling technical debt each year. And this figure is set to rise, as 68% of organizations say their technical debt will increase in 2022. As digital acceleration continues to drive more IT investment across divisions, the technical burden almost seems like an inevitable outcome of delivering more software and amplifying end-user experiences.

Unsurprisingly, IT budgets are set to increase this year. This has been a stable trend throughout the pandemic as even companies that are not traditionally technical increased their reliance on software. Most teams quickly moved to remote working arrangements and acquired additional software tools to keep internal operations afloat. Not to mention the new complexities and array of tools emerging to support the microservices design paradigm.

Although new tech adoption is vital to enable key initiatives across a company, unbridled technical debt can also inhibit digital transformation initiatives. Software AG recently released its Situation Report 2022, a survey that analyzed the state of technical debt among IT professionals in 2021 and technology adoption forecasts for 2022. Below, I’ll review the key points from the report and consider how organizations can respond.

Increasing Reliance on Tech

The growth in this area is astounding—78% of companies say their technical debt rose in the last year. A full 38% of companies reported taking on a great deal more; at the same time, IT budgets are set to increase for most organizations in 2022. On average, this increase is expected to be 37.1% higher than 2021 spending. It’s easy to correlate increasing technical debt with these IT budget increases.

A large portion of this increased spending is related to digital transformation. This checks out; modernizing existing technology is a top priority for 19% of tech leaders. Other top priorities include exploring new technologies (17%) and decreasing technical debt (15%). Though managing technical debt is not ranked as the highest priority for IT leaders, it still ranks as a pressing concern due to its ability to hurt innovation. The report found that 69% of companies admitted it has caused their digital transformation initiatives to slow.

Perceptions of Technical Debt

So, what are the leading causes of technical debt? It turns out that most stems from recent modernization and digital transformation efforts. In fact, 39% said new digital products were a major cause. This is followed by infrastructure modernization (34%), data analysis and integration (32%) and new customer-facing services (27%).

Interestingly, not all technical debt is bad. Often, IT professionals say the benefits justify the expense. For example, 86% say that increasing product or service launches justifies taking on tech debt.

Technical debt is also a result of the remote nature of today’s hybrid work environment. During the pandemic, businesses made many concessions to enable remote work and adopted new collaboration and development tools to enable productivity. As a result, 88% reported the pandemic increased their awareness of technical debt. The majority, 83%, also said the pandemic has increased acceptance of technical debt, a sign that many of these changes are here to stay in the new normal of working life.

Responding to Technical Debt

Not all investments lead to the same degree of technical debt; some platforms are bulkier than others. Or, specific software vendor lock-in schemes can prevent lift-and-shift which can swell a technology ecosystem. So, what areas are companies investing in and which are the leading causes of technical debt?

In 2021, companies invested heavily in cloud computing (60%), integration (43%), IoT (39%) and 5G (39%). Investment strategies will change slightly in 2022, with 5G becoming the top most-invested area at 45%. Cloud computing drops to 42% and edge computing is rising to 35%. Mapping where new investments will occur can help organizations anticipate the repercussions. Of these investments, 60% of IT professionals ranked 5G as a leading cause of technical debt. Other high producers include cloud computing, IoT and blockchain.

In 2021, companies spent 24.8% of their IT budget handling technical debt. Managing it presents some significant challenges—32% say siloed data and processes are a key challenge when addressing technical debt. Limited budgets, regulations and a lack of internal alignment also get in the way. Clearly, resolving the issue requires both inter-department collaboration and a hefty budget.

Final Thoughts

Technical debt is, arguably, unavoidable as companies adopt cutting-edge technologies to remain relevant. And, taking on more technical debt is often intentional; for example, new DevOps tools are helping increase deployment fluidity and manage complex cloud-native architectures. Or, new SRE platforms bring observability and monitoring capabilities to improve application reliability. A newer programming language may be more performant, while a low-code abstraction layer complements an engineer’s workflow. In all these scenarios, the benefits often outweigh the added debt.

Yet, much of it is unintentional and is slowing innovation down. This could be shadow APIs or forgotten rotting legacy infrastructure. Sluggish code and un-optimized routing between applications can also be a drag on resources. The reason these situations sound murky is because technical debt, itself, is difficult to quantify. And, only those addressing it with adequate visibility into their stack will have a clear indication of how much debt there really is.

Though the current pandemic has indeed amplified technical debt, things will always evolve and new trends will replace the old. In the digital era, some degree of tech debt is inevitable within a large organization. The key will be effectively managing it over time to maintain a healthy, lean codebase and progressively release features that meet the demands of new customer experiences.

The Software AG Situation Report 2022 surveyed 700 IT professionals on their software usage and annual predictions at the end of 2021. For more insights, you can read the full report without an email gate or paywall here.

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a tech journalist and analyst. His beat is cloud technologies, specifically the web API economy. He began researching APIs as an Associate Editor at ProgrammableWeb, and since 2015 has been the Editor at Nordic APIs, a high impact blog on API strategy for providers. He loves discovering new trends, researching new technology, and writing on topics like DevOps, REST design, GraphQL, SaaS marketing, IoT, AI, and more. He also gets out into the world to speak occasionally.

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