What is Technical Debt?
Technical debt (sometimes called design debt, tech debt, or code debt) is a concept from software programming. Coders will sometimes – often? – choose a simpler solution or a “cheat” design that takes less immediate work but causes more work in the long term to either fix or re-design to accommodate more complexity. This is called technical debt.
Technical debt in coding must always be paid eventually. As with monetary debt, it gains interest the longer it is outstanding – the longer the code remains in its initial iteration and is copied far and wide, the greater time and effort it takes to eventually fix it outright. A classic example of this is the Y2K scare. Computer codes written in the 1960s and for decades after used 2 digits to represent the year in any part of the code that needed a date, even though with only 2 digits the year 2000 and the year 1900 are both represented as 00. Awkward! Millions of lines of code had to be updated to overcome this problem in time for the year 2000. Happily, this correction to codes was largely done proactively, so the anticipated wide scale computer melt-down fizzled, but the problem did keep programmers and consultants employed. The Washington Post estimated the total cost to re-code for Y2K at around $100 Billion.
What is Technical Debt and Nonprofit IT?
At Community IT we sometimes talk about a client organization being in “technical debt” by which we mean the organization has not been making sufficient or appropriate investments in their technology over time, and are now looking at substantial spending just to get back to a working IT baseline.
Technical debt at nonprofits can be caused by a number of factors.
Most commonly, nonprofit organizations in technical debt have simply been too frugal for their own good. The old expression is “penny-wise and pound-foolish.” Buying cheaper consumer-grade laptops with insufficient specifications is an example of a short term solution that costs more money in the long term. Learn to invest in enterprise ready laptops with appropriate specifications to your business needs.
If “cheapest available” has guided procurement decisions for years, an organization can find itself needing to replace almost everything all at once as it commits to having IT hardware that meets its business requirements. Relying on donated, outdated PCs or laptops used to be an understandable and common nonprofit budgetary decision, if not a wise one. However, in our modern offices and current work expectations, the cheapest available is a recipe for creating massive technical debt – and leaves staff unable to be productive and IT support unable to execute basic IT needs. This reliance on cheaper equipment and making it last as long as possible can also lead to huge security vulnerabilities.
Continuing to use equipment that is not meeting the business needs or staff needs can also reflect an organization’s overall thriftiness, which can permeate an entire staff culture. Community IT has seen organizations in which all the frontline staff members’ desks have old, dimming 17” LCD monitors on them. Replacing all those monitors is highly recommended; using bright, large screens that can accommodate multiple windows without straining your eyes will increase productivity and improve staff experience. But no one, not even the staff sitting at those monitors, suggested spending that money, since the monitors still worked.
To outgrow this frugal outlook, try to get your nonprofit to see meeting IT needs and planning for future IT as an opportunity, not only an unavoidable cost. Our CEO Johan Hammerstrom has given a webinar presentation Discovering the Value in Your Nonprofit IT Budget that can help recalibrate your organizational thinking.
No Proactive Equipment Management Program
A culture of waiting until something is broken to fix it can paradoxically lead to much larger costs when that debt comes due. Sometimes, technical debt occurs less because of inherent frugality, and more because the organization doesn’t have a planned life cycle management program. Some organizations are willing to spend money, but they tend to wait for IT to break before spending money to fix it. The problem is that aging IT hardware can hurt your operational efficiency, or put you at operational risk, even when it’s technically still working. Old servers or firewalls that are no longer supported by manufacturers can fall into this category.
Moreover, technical debt around life cycle mismanagement isn’t always related to hardware. Old operating systems on workstations no longer supported by Microsoft or Apple are an example of this. Nonprofits put themselves at real risks of downtime either when a mission-critical piece of equipment fails and the entire system has to be brought into current compliance to replace it, or downtime from a cybersecurity incident on an unpatched, sometimes un-patch-able piece of equipment that is simply too old to update.
Costs to Update Cause Delay
Sometimes technical debt occurs when an organization knows it needs to move to a new platform or even a new version of the same platform, but the cost of the transition is high enough that the transition is delayed while the budget is put together. It has long been an adage in nonprofit budgeting that overhead is the last to be funded. Funders often are not looking to support a large IT update/change management project.
Community IT sees the delay play out most frequently when a critical line of business application has some degree of customization built out. The most basic example: if the next version of a legacy information system is expected to break customized automations built on the old version’s code base, an organization might choose to stay on the old version indefinitely, or at least until enough pain builds up to cause a break. The old version works “well enough” the thinking goes, and perhaps it does. But at some point the old version will not be supported any more, at which point the solution generally becomes not just old, but also insecure. And the new platform may be cost-prohibitive, but when the options disappear the organization sometimes has to pay whatever it costs to have a working tool in a business-critical function.
To avoid staying with a legacy system longer than is healthy, secure and productive, invest in minimally customized, standard platforms for your sector/industry, that can be supported by multiple vendors/consultants.
Multiple IT Updates Needed – Where to Start?
The worst of technical debt is when debt occurs on many axes at once, with remediation being urgently needed on too many of them at the same time. When an IT assessment recommends you replace all your networking switches, upgrade your primary information system, buy new wireless access points, replace your workstations (and monitors) and move key services from on-premises servers to the cloud, all at once, the answer could be that it is simply financially impossible. But if the improvements are needed to address significant security risks, to delay may not work either and be more costly. This is a time when it pays to work with an experienced IT advisor to develop a doable roadmap and address your IT priorities in order.
First Steps to Escape Technical Debt and Nonprofit IT Issues
Technical debt at your nonprofit can seem overwhelming, but there are many actions you can take to improve over time. Here are some general suggestions:
- Make IT investments an ongoing activity. Encourage your leadership and board to view IT as an essential business function that is part of strategic planning, not an afterthought or a sunk cost to think about only during budgeting.
- Spread out your costs. Work with your IT providers to prioritize and plan manageable investments over time.
- Use life cycle management to work out IT budgets a few years out. Many costs can and should be planned: 3-5 year replacement schedules can be spread out to 1/3-1/5 of laptops at a time, for example.
- Recognize that cheapest is often not best. The lowest “total cost of ownership” generally doesn’t come with the lowest initial price. Enterprise ready laptops, for example, are a necessity in a modern office for productivity and security.
- Be careful about investing in software that will require unique customizations for your organization. Customizations trap you in a platform that can become too expensive to get out of, and can be maintained by only a select batch of consultants or vendors, or even a single vendor, who will charge non-competitive prices.
- Cultivate healthy skepticism when dealing with IT vendors, and develop a bench of agnostic advisors for IT decisions so you aren’t relying on a single source of information on the platform, tools, costs, and best practices for your nonprofit. Ideally you can engage your board, your senior leadership, your funders, and your staff to help guide your roadmap and understand the IT landscape when you are making business-critical decisions and investments. Outside vendor-agnostic consultants can help too when you don’t have the IT expertise or just want a second opinion.
- Engage in IT road mapping so that large investments in platform upgrades or replacements are anticipated, planned, and budgeted for. Work with your funders and share your responsible IT roadmap with them as it relates to accomplishing your mission.
Ready to get strategic about your IT?
Community IT has been serving nonprofits exclusively for twenty years. We offer Managed IT support services for nonprofits that want to outsource all or part of their IT support and hosted services. For a fixed monthly fee, we provide unlimited remote and on-site helpdesk support, proactive network management, and ongoing IT planning from a dedicated team of experts in nonprofit-focused IT. And our clients benefit from our IT Business Managers team who will work with you to strategize your IT investments and technology roadmap, if you don’t have an in-house IT Director.
If you’re ready to gain peace of mind about your IT support, let’s talk.