How to Manage Technical Debt

March 26, 2020

Hadia Tahir

If it’s not broken, why fix it?

We are often grandfathered into the legacy systems we use in our businesses. Whether it be a for-profit company or a nonprofit organization, the general understanding is if its not broken why fix it right? This is a myth that needs to be immediately debunked.  

The phrase technical debt was coined by Ward Cunningham to describe the consequences of bad code writing practices that over time, lead to inefficiencies in the system. Although Cunningham makes a reference to code in software development, the concept of technical debt is relevant to general practices in any form of workplace. For our purposes, technical debt refers to inefficient technology that costs more to keep fixing up and reworking than the original value of its purpose. It’s another term for the level of inadaptability of the technology to the growth of the business. All businesses reach a point where digital transformation becomes necessary to the scalability of their mission. The first step to manage the debt is to understand where it’s coming from.


Most businesses are aware where their technology is lacking within their organization. At least they think they are. Regardless, it can be beneficial to take a moment to break down your processes and connect your technology to the purpose it’s supposed to serve. Clearly identifying where digital transformation is needed makes it easier to convince your board of directors to invest in those changes.

Follow the steps below to identify your technical debt:

  •  Step 1: Clearly identify the mission and purpose of your business  
  •  Step 2: Identify the key value drivers that support the mission
  •  Step3: Recognize the services and actions within your business that support your respective value drivers
  •  Step 4: Breakdown the functionality of each action and link it to the technology that is currently being used for that function
  •  Step 5: Rate the overall effectiveness of that action and determine where the technology is not supporting the action and vice versa.  

Identifying the exact limitations of your technology will make it easier to focus on the changes that are necessary and urgent rather than falling for the magpie effect; the overwhelming urge to spend on something of no practical value. Most of this you can do yourself. However, sometimes you might be too close and unable to take a step back to see the bigger picture. This is why some inefficiencies are not as easily identifiable without the help of external support. Hiring an external company, that can go through the process to discover the inefficiencies, can help you find the answers to your tricky questions and make informed decisions.  

Make them an offer they can’t refuse

At this point you may have started considering where the technical debt exists within your business. The question then becomes: How do you get the support to make the change? It’s important to get the backing of the board, or whoever pulls the purse strings, to ensure efficient development and effortless employment of any new tech.

It’s not enough to identify the technology shortcomings of your nonprofit. Your argument is only as good as your solution. The most helpful way to approach it is to classify whether your problem can be fixed internally or will require external sourcing.  

Here are some prompts to help you decide:

  • Do you possess the skills internally to make the changes required?
  • Do you have available staff capacity to take on the additional work?
  • Do you need this done immediately?
  • Is the change a one-time investment, or will the support be required long-term?

Based on the answers to these questions, you can come to an informed decision about whether you currently possess the skills required. If not, you can decide if the best course of skill acquisition is to train, hire or partner externally.  

Bottom Line

The truth is that it’s difficult to completely get rid of technical debt. New, innovative technology will continue to spark change, paving a path for those businesses that can adapt and leaving behind those that cannot. The only way to stay ahead of the game is to understand where the technical debt exists and keep your business up to date with the latest technology trends. Beyond this, technical debt cannot be avoided, only managed. You need to dedicate regular time to ensure the success of your business into the future.  

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