5 Ways to Better Manage Technical Debt

There are specific topics that will get CIO and IT leaders to vent. Talk about show many spreadsheets bounce around through email, midyear budget cuts, or hundreds of projects everyone won't prioritize, and you'll get an earful. But there's one topic that will get them out of their seats and red in the face with anger. 

That topic is technical debt.

Technical Debt




Technical debt, oh my! For CIO leading transformation programs, technical debt represents the legacy ways of doing things and their underlying systems. Trying to improve user experiences, become more data-driven, migrate to the cloud, address security risk, increase the reliability of data integration workflows, improve data quality, or pretty much any major upgrade is slowed down by the weight of technical debt.

Three Examples of Technical Debt


There are a few reasons. First, there's technical debt and legacy systems they inherited and now must maintain and support. So, that's an easy target, especially if it's a mission-critical system that's been customized over the years, sitting on dated hardware without a reliable disaster recovery system. In other words, most ERPs that haven't found their way to the cloud.

Another source of frustration is just how hard it is to get the funding, technology team resources, and business stakeholders to prioritize upgrades. Some technologies come up every year during the budget season or when the PMO reviews new initiatives, but never get the priority. That frustration goes to anger every time the system has a major outage, and the CIO now must be on bridge calls, join war rooms, console IT employees that lost their weekends over the issue, and communicate with angry business users. Yeah, that sounds like fun.

Lastly, there's the technical debt we continue to create. For every hundred lines of code added, I'm willing to wager there's at least 30 percent of technical debt added. It's not all about developers with lousy coding practices or cutting corners to make a deadline. That's one source, but much of the technical debt comes from dependencies such as when system or library upgrades also require code changes. Or there's just a new and better way of implementing a function, and so the legacy model is now technical debt. Or the business is now expanding usage beyond its original goals, and now factors limiting performance, scalability, user experience, and security are all blocked by technical debt.

Managing Technical Debt Requires a Plan


So this is why I elected to dedicate Episode 10 of 5 Minutes with @NYIke on 5 ways to better manage technical debt. 


Over the years, I've published several articles on technical debt:

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Transforming the Workforce with Governed Citizen Development

It’s an unprecedented time to be a CIO or any technology leader. On the one hand, technology organizations are working hard on digital transformation and developing many new customer and employee-facing applications. On the other, IT is now running double duty by supporting more remote working employees and then responding to other COVID-19 business needs.


Transforming with Citizen Development


There’s never been greater demand on IT to rapidly deliver easier to use, integrated, reliable, and secure applications. Once delivered, business users expect that IT teams update applications regularly and support them efficiently.

When SaaS or Homegrown Applications Aren’t Viable Options

Let’s review IT’s options for fulfilling departmental application needs or responding to opportunities that require rapid development.

For example, many organizations require new applications for crisis response, such as managing new types of requests, tracking assets deployed to remote workers, and increasing communications with employees.

Other times, departments need small applications to supplement core solutions. For example, many HR departments develop central portals to link different SaaS tools and publish HR-related information. Beyond these basics, many want to add specialized tools for scheduling employee training, tracking job candidates, or managing the talent recruitment process

Business and IT leaders often seek out SaaS and enterprise solutions to cover the most strategic needs. Individual departments may also pursue SaaS solutions, but there may not be viable options if workflows are proprietary or episodic. There are also additional costs and risks to organizations evaluating, administering, integrating, and supporting a large number of SaaS applications.

The second option is to develop homegrown applications, but that requires devoting precious IT talent to build, support, and enhance them.  Business teams often require a strong rationale to justify developing homegrown applications with the IT department, and that assumes IT has the staffing, skills, and platforms for delivering homegrown solutions. Many business needs aren’t strategically important enough to warrant an IT investment, and IT may not have sufficient time to develop apps when responding to crises or fast-moving opportunities.

That leaves an undesirable third option where business teams are left to fend for themselves. Some may pursue rogue IT solutions, but more often, these departments clobber together workflows with manual workarounds and using a mix of email, spreadsheets, virtual meetings, chat functions, shared file systems, and other tools.

Embracing Citizen Developed Applications to Empower the Workforce

Instead of saying no to these business demands, progressive IT teams are embracing shadow IT, partnering with business leaders on driving workforce enablement, and encouraging citizen development

Citizen development on a low-code platform offers a paradigm shift to how smarter and faster organizations develop and support applications. Instead of IT building and supporting them, IT provides the tools, practices, and knowledge to individuals in each department that are interested in applying technologies to solve business challenges. These citizen developers are already subject matter experts on their department’s business needs, workflows, and internal lingo. With some technical acumen and basic training, they can easily translate these business needs into practical applications. Citizen developers can also integrate low-code applications and automate workflows between SaaS platforms such as Slack, MailChimp, SalesForce, Marketo, Workday, and Zuora.  

In fact, citizen developers are often more successful converting email and spreadsheet workflows into applications because they understand the working paradigm. It’s a faster and more efficient development process because the workflow doesn’t need translation into technical requirements or require dedicated cloud infrastructure. Additionally, the citizen developer often has deeper relationships and more clout in their department and thus are often more successful in gaining end-user adoption of the workflows and tools they develop.

Governing Citizen Developed Application with an IT Center of Excellence

CIO and IT leaders fearful of losing technical controls by handing off some application development and support responsibilities to citizen developers should develop governance and support models. Instead of saying no or letting these become shadow IT programs, IT organizations have the opportunity to partner with citizen developers and their business leaders on programs that deliver efficiencies and innovation.

I’ve been helping establish citizen development programs for over twenty years, first as a CTO in startups, then as a CIO in enterprises, and now with clients as President of StarCIO. The best IT departments have a deeper knowledge of supporting innovation programs, agile development, data governance, information security, and software development lifecycles. Their challenge is to share appropriate levels of this knowledge with citizen developers in the form of defining basic governance and establishing centers of excellence.

Here are five places to start:

  1. Help citizen developers plan their applications before building them. All developers, including citizen developers, enjoy jumping right into developing applications. But the most successful ones quickly brainstorm user personas, end-user roles, workflows, data requirements, integrations, and basic reporting needs to shape the application design. IT should help citizen developers plan these steps and develop basic artifacts before jumping into building applications.
  2. Review plans for architecture and data governance. To avoid creating siloes applications, experienced engineers should help support citizen developers connect to shared resources, including APIs and reference data. New applications should follow naming conventions and patterns recommended by IT’s citizen development center of excellence.
  3. Develop best practices on integrating with enterprise and SaaS solutions. Whether you’re using Salesforce, SAP, MailChimp, or Slack, and using integration tools like Zapier, Workato, or Boomi, defining a strategy for application integrations is a critical success factor. For some types of integrations, IT may empower citizen developers to implement the integration while others are better instrumented directly with IT’s involvement.
  4. Drive standard platform and application security configurations. The security review should start with selecting an enterprise-ready citizen development platform that supports compliance certifications such as SOC 1 / SOC2, HIPAA, EU-US Privacy Shield, and DFARS. Also, CISOs or infosec leaders should review the platform’s security assurances, data encryption, role-based administration controls, and SAML authentication options. When it comes to application development, identifying a standard approach for defining groups, roles, and access rights enables IT to administrate a growing portfolio of citizen developed applications more easily. 
  5. Educate and define version control, application testing, and release management practices. Some of the same rules in application development should apply to citizen developed applications, but citizen developers are unlikely to know the best practices. IT should partner with citizen developers to share knowledge and define practices for developing, testing, and releasing applications so that end-users are not surprised or disrupted by changes.

Citizen Development Enables Digital Transformation

While there are many aspects to how organizations define a digital strategy, digital transformation programs almost always require modernizing how work gets done and enabling the workforce with productive, easy-to-use technologies.

CIO and IT leaders can accelerate their transformation programs by sponsoring citizen development programs. Instead of just enabling the workforce, IT empowers a department’s citizen developers by directly getting them involved in the transformation.

This post is brought to you by Quick Base.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Quick Base.

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5 Signs You're in a Hot Potato Culture

In this week's episode of 5 Minutes with @NYIke, I provide three ways to address a hot potato culture. But first, let's define it and identify its signs.

Hot Potato Culture

Here are some definitions of the idiom, hot potato: (i) any subject which several folks are talking about and which is frequently argued, (ii) something that is hard or terrible to handle, (iii) a ​problem or ​situation that is ​difficult to ​deal with and ​causes a lot of ​disagreement

A hot potato culture is one where few or no one wants to take ownership of a problem, issue, or opportunity. It implies there's a lack of engagement or initiative. When issues are discussed, there's no one stepping up saying that they will take ownership and see to its resolution. When there's an opportunity, no one raises their hand and says, "I'm going to get this done."
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5 Critical Takeaways from the 2020 State of Agile Report

The 14th annual state of agile report is now available, and it's one of the papers I look forward to reviewing every year. It surveys over one thousand software development professionals from a mix of company sizes, development team sizes, geographies, and industries. It provides a barometer on what the practices, tools, and business benefits aligned with agile methodologies.


StarCIO Agile Culture and Transformation


My one concern about the survey is that too many respondents come from industries that traditionally have high maturity in technical practices. In this year's survey, 27 percent of respondents come from the technology industry, and another 17 percent from financial services. The report does not separate out these segments, and my strong suspicion is that they skew the results to higher performing agile organizations.
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Agile Transformation Everywhere! - Winning over Stakeholders

One of my favorite workshops that I do is called Agile for Stakeholders. Now there are books, frameworks, and tools to help agile product owners, scrum masters, and leads, including StarCIO Agile Planner, but there are limited resources for stakeholders.

Agile Transformation Everywhere!

Stakeholders are anyone that contributes to priorities, requirements, and business cases to product owners as input to the vision and product backlogs. Most agile teams and teams of teams work with multiple stakeholders, so educating them on how agile works and how to be active participants is essential. 

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A New Must Read for CIO and Digital Leaders

StarCIO Must ReaD
I won't say much except that The Future is Faster Than You Think is an excellent "must read" for CIO and digital leaders.

Unlike many futuristic books, the authors write specifically to a ten-year horizon, a perfect timeframe for their thesis. They state quite convincingly that the power of multiple technology convergences will drive stepwise transformations or exponential technologies - and that this will come sooner than we think.
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What is Driving Digital Transformation Change?

After I posted my last 5 Minutes with @NYIke video on the #1 Reason Why Digital Transformation fail, a small discussion ensued on LinkedIn about transformation and change management. Is digital transformation a new name for business transformation? And regardless of what we call it, how can leaders help the resulting change management easier for employees and less difficult for leaders?

Driving Digital Transformation Change

I'm not one to overly debate semantics, but I believe that digital transformation and business transformation have some fundamental differences. Also, if you follow my methodologies on digital transformation, then change management evolves into what I call transformational change.
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