What is technical debt?

Technical debt details the long-term burdens organizations incur when they opt for expedient, simplified solutions in their IT infrastructure rather than choosing solutions that are comprehensive and sustainable.

Just as financial debt implies a future repayment obligation that diminishes the immediate gains from the borrowed capital, technical debt also represents future costs and complexities that counterbalance initial benefits. Costs here typically show themselves as increased maintenance requirements, compromised system functionality, and constrained ability to integrate new technologies.

Common technical debt scenarios

Using outdated software

Organizations often continue using outdated software to circumvent the financial and operational costs associated with upgrades. This decision, while beneficial in the short term, poses increased risks to security and leads to mounting maintenance challenges. 

As software becomes obsolete, it no longer receives updates or support from developers, which heightens its vulnerability to security breaches and reduces compatibility with newer technologies and systems. 

Continued use of such software needs frequent makeshift solutions and adjustments, escalating the total cost of ownership and potentially leading to financial and reputational damage.

Disparate system implementation

Another way technical debt commonly arises is when businesses implement independent systems across different departments without considering long-term integration potential. Initially, this approach might appear cost-effective and efficient, allowing rapid deployment tailored to specific departmental needs. 

Over time, these isolated systems often result in integration challenges. Each system develops its own data repository, leading to data silos that obstruct effective data analysis and decision-making processes. 

Lack of integration leads to inefficiencies and increased costs in communication and system maintenance. Integration issues increase operational costs and limit the seamless flow of information across the organization, impacting strategic decision-making and responsiveness to market changes.

How technical debt accumulates

Accelerated development

Companies often face intense pressure to launch products quickly to capture market opportunities or respond to competitive threats. In these scenarios, teams might rush the development process, opting to skip thorough testing and ignore best practices in coding and system design. 

While this approach can result in meeting immediate launch deadlines, it also leads to platforms that are prone to frequent outages, performance issues, and security vulnerabilities. Over time, the need for extensive patches, updates, and complete overhauls becomes inevitable, driving up maintenance costs and diverting resources from innovation to problem-solving.

Lack of unified standards

In many organizations, particularly those that have grown through mergers and acquisitions, different departments might develop or adopt IT solutions independently. Without a unified approach to coding standards or architectural guidelines, the result is a heterogeneous mix of systems and software that are often incompatible with one another. 

** Absence of standardization leads to increased time and financial expenditure on integration efforts, system modifications, and troubleshooting. Training costs for staff to operate across diverse systems can be substantial, decreasing operational efficiency.

Legacy technology

Firms frequently continue to use outdated technology to defer the immediate financial burden of purchasing new software or hardware. While this decision avoids short-term capital expenditure, it results in long-term inefficiencies and increased error rates as these older systems struggle to keep pace with modern operational demands. 

Legacy systems often lack support for newer software standards and are incompatible with current hardware, which can lead to frequent system failures and data inaccuracies, undermining business operations and decision-making processes.

Deferred maintenance

Deferring regular updates and maintenance of IT systems is a common practice intended to reduce short-term operational costs. Postponing these key maintenance activities compromises the efficiency and security of the systems. 

Over time, the accumulation of unresolved issues can lead to critical failures, major downtime, and security breaches. The costs associated with rectifying these failures, along with the potential loss of customer trust and legal liabilities, often far exceed the savings from deferred maintenance, presenting substantial risks to business continuity and reputation.

4 major ripple effects of technical debt

1. Reduced productivity

When technical debt mounts, organizations find their IT teams spending more time on maintenance rather than on innovation. This shift in focus detracts from strategic initiatives such as new product development and enhancements to existing services. 

For instance, a software development team bogged down by outdated code may spend large portions of their workday addressing compatibility issues and debugging legacy systems instead of crafting new features. This delays product releases and affects the firm’s ability to stay competitive in a rapidly changing technology market.

2. Escalating costs

Technical debt can lead to increases in operational costs, particularly as interconnected systems become inefficient and unstable. For example, an online retailer that neglects database optimizations may face slower processing times, which in turn lead to longer loading times for customers. 

Inefficiencies can cause frequent system crashes, resulting in direct sales losses and potentially harming the brand’s reputation. The eventual cost to overhaul these systems often far exceeds the initial savings from deferring necessary upgrades and maintenance.

3. Decreased agility

High levels of technical debt severely restrict an organization’s ability to adapt swiftly to market changes or integrate new technologies. Companies entangled in a web of outdated and patchwork systems find it challenging to implement quick technological advancements or adapt their IT infrastructure in response to new business opportunities or threats. As a result, they lag behind more agile competitors who invest in maintaining a cleaner, more adaptable tech stack, ultimately impacting their market share and growth potential.

4. Lowered team morale

Teams dealing with excessive technical debt often experience decreased job satisfaction, which can lead to higher turnover rates. Developers and IT professionals face constant pressure and frustration when they must continuously “firefight” issues arising from inadequate systems and poor infrastructure. 

Such conditions produce a stressful work environment, leading to burnout and a decline in employee engagement. High turnover both disrupts ongoing operations and incurs additional costs related to recruiting, hiring, and training new staff, further exacerbating the financial strain on the organization.

Strategies for mitigating technical debt


CIOs need to identify and tackle technical debt that most significantly affects productivity and security. Prioritizing such debts involves assessing their impact on the organization’s core operations and the potential risks they pose to business continuity and data security. 

Careful prioritization makes sure that resources are allocated to areas where they can produce the most major immediate benefits, such as stabilizing critical systems or addressing vulnerabilities that could lead to data breaches or system failures.

Dedicated refactoring time

Allocating specific periods within development cycles for refactoring is essential for maintaining the health and efficiency of IT systems. Refactoring—restructuring existing computer code without changing its external behavior—improves non-functional attributes of the software. 

Scheduled refactoring prevents the accumulation of quick fixes and workarounds that contribute to technical debt by ensuring that code remains clean and efficient. Regularly planned refactoring sessions help keep the codebase manageable and adaptable, reducing the overall maintenance cost and minimizing the likelihood of severe disruptions caused by outdated or convoluted code structures.

Prevention of future debt

To prevent the formation of new technical debt, it’s key for organizations to establish robust coding standards and enforce them through thorough code reviews. Continuous training programs for developers and IT staff are key in maintaining high standards in coding and system design. 

Training makes sure that all team members are up-to-date with the latest technologies and methodologies, reducing the tendency to fall back on outdated practices that contribute to technical debt. These standards and training help in fostering a culture of quality and long-term thinking among the technical staff, which is key for sustainable IT development.

Turning technical debt challenges into opportunities

Organizations that manage and reduce their technical debt effectively can turn these challenges into strategic advantages. Proactively dealing with technical debt helps businesses improve their operational agility and competitiveness. A streamlined and efficient IT infrastructure allows companies to respond more swiftly to market changes and to deploy new technologies faster and more effectively.

Managing technical debt well contributes to a healthier IT environment, which supports innovation and strategic initiatives, driving business growth and improving the ability to capitalize on new opportunities. This mitigates risks and better positions the company as a forward-thinking leader in its industry, ready to meet future challenges.

Tim Boesen

May 10, 2024

7 Min