How to Get Out of Tech Debt and Become an IT Innovator


When ITOps leaders focus on repaying tech debt, it also means they’re setting up some of their brightest minds to play system defense, disconnected from the larger business goals and strategy. How can teams overcome tech debt to become an IT innovator?

Those managing IT Operations know the complexities of an enterprise tech stack. These stacks, often ranging generations of architectures, are complicated and convoluted. Worse yet, the architects that built the bottom-of-the-stack systems may not even be involved with IT Operations anymore.

These legacy systems are doing the job, but not necessarily well. We can’t expect them to be, though, as they’re executing against what they were originally meant. But, we keep these legacy systems running because trying to do an overhaul poses risk to the operations of the entire businesses, threatening the continuation of critical business processes. They only get overturned when the business need vanishes or changes enough to usher in a completely new start.

Juxtaposing this view is the push for digital transformation and continuous delivery of new services. Meeting the demand for innovation — often directly conflicting with the need for predictability — is challenging.

Barriers to Innovation

Technology change-over has always been something of which IT Operations teams must be cognizant. Systems deployed in production have already become obsolete, no longer holding on to the leading edge of development. This isn’t a failure on IT Operations’ part, though, but a carefully implemented design to find software bugs before relying on the system for daily operations. With 18 month CPU generations, new CPU types were very similar to old ones.

But the transitions from physical compute to virtual, to containerized, to serverless application architectures require drastic changes to operational models. The hands-on maintenance of individual servers has transitioned to defined-state and now fully immutable models of infrastructure. This means modifying the live configuration of a production system now serves as a red flag.

Those who assume ITOps is hesitant to adopt the new models of IT infrastructure are far from correct. ITOps teams are staying up to date with innovations in the field, but are currently held back by the crippling technology debt as they look to spin up pilot projects into full-blown production.

The Consequences of Tech Debt

While a financial analogy, the concept of technology debt — the implied cost of choosing a quicker solution vs. a long-term fix — holds true for ITOps. As architectural choices are made to support immediate needs, ITOps teams rack up inordinate amounts of tech debt. But the real problem is the interest of this debt, or rather, the maintenance required for these systems. This interest can quickly pile on as practitioners turn to new frameworks, structural components become outdated and hardware becomes harder to procure.

And, as the tech debt continues to grow, ITOps teams’ resources are eaten up paying on the interest rather than working on new, innovative projects. ITOps’ job becomes just to get through the day versus thinking strategically about the future of the company.

Often, by the time the tech interest comes due, ITOps teams are already disconnected from the original need that brought on the debt. Because of this, “tech debt” must be reframed to “tech investment,” giving a permanent link to the maintenance required for technological solutions. And, while there are specific goals for the return on investments, there are also strategic ways to cut bad investments through innovation — viewed very differently than walking away from debt. When you think of any investment, taking a loss is generally more beneficial than carrying on with a losing strategy. There is simply no place for non-performers.

Taking Risks With Investments

When debt is all you know, investments can be tough to set your eyes on. But when ITOps teams shift their mindset, they can see that “paying off debt” really just means throwing more and more money into a failing investment. And no smart investor would ever keep their money in a failing investment. When ITOps focuses on repaying debt, it also means they’re setting up some of their brightest minds to play system defense, disconnected from the larger business goals and strategy.

So, how can IT justify making new investments that will upheave their entire system of operation? By coming to terms with the fact that IT purchases are always fix-the-problem-at-hand investments. If the problem at hand changes, the fix should too.

Let’s face it: you take a risk with every investment. But if an investment meant a business wouldn’t have to staff maintenance workers, IT teams wouldn’t have to patch and repair legacy architectures, and the business’s best and brightest minds were free to think strategically, that risk would be completely worth it.