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How to Reduce Time Spent on Technical Debt Management

John Trapani, Industry Leader, Financial Services, Appian
January 9, 2023

Raise your hand if your team has ever been forced to prioritize delivery speed over sound design. It happens all too often in the world of application development, and we’ve all been there. 

The compromises made in the rush to deliver value to your customers result in technical debt. As a delivery leader, you need to manage the repayment of technical debt, which taxes your productivity and is a potential source of functional and cyber risk.

Some of this debt is known and visible as soon as your team deploys a release. Other items on your debt ledger come from your firm’s architecture and security functions, found during their review of your applications. The popularity of static code analyzers has made it all too easy to generate long lists of issues, all of which increase the debt liability you will someday need to repay.

Do you think you can keep deferring paying down your technical debt? So did a leading airline, until its technical debt hit a tipping point over the holidays—leading to 12,000 canceled flights and hundreds of thousands of stranded customers. Every industry faces its own predicaments when technical debt accrues.

Ways IT teams accumulate technical debt.

How exactly is technical debt created in the rush to deliver? It accumulates when teams avoid following the established architectural patterns already built into an application. The first release of a new application is usually the “cleanest.” That initial version is well-designed and implemented, and represents an architectural vision that is elegant and modern. For example, maybe you built it upon a microservices architecture, utilizing a streaming database and message queues to facilitate asynchronous interprocess communication. In this initial version everything is clean and consistent, easy to read and understand.

It’s not long until the change requests start accumulating. The world keeps turning, business needs change, and regulatory drivers continue their constant evolution. When your team focuses on deploying a new feature, time constraints cause them to ignore the elegant structure and bolt on a new feature that doesn’t conform to the original architecture. At the time it can seem like a prudent decision; sometimes there are deadlines you cannot move. But once you have been through multiple iterations of this approach, avoiding following the established pattern for your application, you can find yourself with a system that is harder to change, with a very long list of items in your technical debt management ledger and a backlog of change requests.

Another category of technical debt is created simply by the passage of time, and the consequent aging of the tools and libraries that you use to build your applications. As software providers update their versions, they include new capabilities, optimizations, and security fixes. Sometimes they begin to deprecate older features, putting a sunset date on functions your applications may be using. What’s more, security researchers are finding flaws in these tools all the time, such as the Log4j vulnerability. All of this is to say that even if you are diligent about keeping your applications clean and orderly, technical debt in the form of required platform upgrades will still exist.

Unfortunately, when it comes time to prioritize work, it can be difficult to make time to service technical debt. Other needs have a way of rising to the top of the list. When grooming a backlog and working out your sprint plans you will often prioritize the features your customers need over taking time to pay off some technical debt. But wait, isn’t that how you ended up with all of this debt to begin with? Isn’t there a way you can quickly deliver the value your customers need while avoiding the compromises that add to the list of technical debt you need to manage? There is: by adopting a platform that makes creating technical debt very difficult and using this platform to modernize your legacy systems.

How to avoid technical debt in the first place.

Using the Appian unified platform is a smart way to get started with technical debt reduction, and in many cases eliminate it completely. When you build applications with Appian you are working within a robust set of architectural patterns that have been proven effective in the most challenging scenarios. The low-code tools provided by Appian let you quickly deliver solutions to your most pressing business challenges, using these patterns to deliver with clarity and consistency. It is easy to avoid the temptation to take shortcuts when using Appian since the platform by itself accelerates productivity by at least 10 times, so the pressure to deliver quickly doesn’t overwhelm the team.

Regarding security and platform updates, Appian has you covered. Our hosted customers enjoy quarterly platform updates which automatically work with your existing Appian applications. These updates provide new and enhanced features and important updates to further enhance the already superb security posture that is built into Appian. Using Appian, you can be assured of always being on the most current version, with all of the new features, and without having to perform any manual code remediation activities. So you don’t need to sacrifice design for speed and nothing gets added to your technical debt backlog.

Read the Forrester study showing how the Appian platform accelerates application development by 17x. It also enables quick and easy updates through its flexible, drag-and-drop interface and provides other economic benefits to the IT organization.