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Managing the tech debt of accelerated Digital Transformation in the wake of COVID

Managing the tech debt of accelerated Digital Transformation in the wake of COVID

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to accelerate their Digital Transformation strategies. This meant that IT departments did not always have enough time to complete their usual due diligence, which involves the management of tech debt – the off-balance-sheet accumulation of all the technology work a company needs to do in the future. Alex McMullan, VP and CTO International, Pure Storage, explains how to bypass the tech debt spiral.

In some respects, it’s hard to imagine a time before COVID-19. A time in our society, the economy and the business community, where things were less strained and before our world was turned completely upside down by the devastating impact of a deadly virus. However, experts and industry would argue that even before COVID-19 was upon us, the world was already going through a period of great change. For many years now, businesses have been under intense pressure to digitally transform or lose out to the competition. Whether businesses were focused on adapting to changing consumer shopping habits, taking advantage of the benefits of cloud or using software to create new revenue streams, change has been largely a reaction to society’s expectation for ‘everything now’ – which in turn has bled into customers’ expectations in our working life.

What is clear now is that the pandemic has amplified and accelerated this change. Last year, IDC predicted that more than half the global economy would turn digital by 2023. While Digital Transformation was previously a slow burn for many companies, it instantly became an immediate imperative in order to survive. Overnight, businesses were dealing with the challenges of meeting the demand for contactless payments, healthcare organisations had to scramble to ensure reliable, compliant telemedicine methods and small businesses had to reconfigure their entire offering to make it suitable for e-commerce. As Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, aptly explained, the reality of COVID-19 meant that businesses were forced to implement two years’ worth of Digital Transformation in just two months.

So, how did this rapid acceleration of Digital Transformation impact the IT department? And how can businesses manage the associated risks of spinning up technologies quickly?

The risk of tech debt caused by COVID

While the immediacy caused by the pandemic proved to business leaders that Digital Transformation projects could happen far faster than was previously thought possible, many IT departments were under such pressure to spin up technologies to support the business, that they often didn’t have the necessary time to complete their usual due diligence.

This involves the management of tech debt – the off-balance-sheet accumulation of all the technology work a company needs to do in the future. If this is continually deferred then it can prevent companies from being competitive as they spend their time not on innovation but managing the challenges hidden in the architecture – for example modernising systems, simplifying applications and retiring legacy databases. In fact, in a recent McKinsey survey, CIOs reported that 10 to 20% of the technology budget dedicated to new products is diverted to resolving issues related to tech debt.

However, in the COVID-19 environment, the common challenges which typically hold back Digital Transformation projects don’t simply go away. CIOs still have to grapple with old infrastructure which isn’t designed for the modern digital age in that they can’t support critical data services or business models needed today. This legacy also makes it much more difficult to consolidate, migrate, scale or provide access to data, causing IT teams to have to go through disruptive enterprise storage refreshes – which in turn cause unavoidable downtime and inconvenience which businesses can’t afford.

These challenges are amplified under the additional pressure and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, meaning IT departments cut corners on aspects such as governance, which in turn increases tech debt later on in the innovation cycle.

How to bypass the tech debt spiral?

Now that the initial shock of the pandemic has arguably passed, businesses need to move from short-term triage and build a strategy that prioritises Digital Transformation and manages this tech debt more sustainably. There are five main ways in which organisations can do this:

● Align on IT and business strategy: By clarifying the overall business strategy and defining the capabilities needed at an enterprise level, businesses can build these into the overall roadmap and allocate the necessary resource and budget.
● Prioritise automation and elevate human innovation: By automating as much as possible, time and resources can be freed up so that organisations can focus on creating a culture of innovation and enabling long-term thinking to drive revenue growth.
● Choose flexible consumption models: Enterprises need to manage costs over time without a long-term contract, particularly in a period when it may be difficult to predict on-going requirements. Therefore, by choosing flexible consumption models whereby you only pay for what you use, businesses can safeguard budgets when workloads are bound to fluctuate.
● Secure the right talent and allocate it accordingly: By ensuring you have access to the right internal and external skills, businesses can remove the risk of project delays, not being able to fulfil product demand to customers and that they don’t have spare resources in the wrong places. For example, if an organisation only has teams focused on the delivery of short-term projects then they won’t be able to reduce the mounting tech debt.
● Nurture and maintain employees as the world changes: It’s been a tough year and wholesale remote working has taken its toll on the mental and physical wellness of employees. Make sure they are being supported and educated as the world of work evolves. Further still, the dispersed workforce has led to a surge in ransomware attacks due to the wider attack surfaces in home networking and shared equipment.

While the pandemic has taught organisations that fast change is indeed possible, it is now even more critical to balance the focus of that change on business agility in 2021. A strategy of total reliance on the latest software to mitigate tech debt should also be avoided, as shown by the recent Solarwinds ‘Sunburst’ supply chain attack. There has to be an awareness that technology alone can’t solve these issues, a company’s culture and processes have to evolve with or ahead of the times. Businesses now face the challenge of getting the right balance in place between moving fast but doing it in a way that does not leave you with tech debt to solve at a later date.

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