Tech Memo: Got Tech Debt?

Legacy IT systems can cost you more than you think. Get a better understanding of the impacts of tech debt.

Like a carton of milk, legacy IT has a shelf life, and without proper maintenance and management, old software or systems inevitably reach an expiration date.

But legacy IT is more than just sour milk, says Joanna Pineda, CEO of Matrix Group International, Inc. It’s what she calls “tech debt.”

“It’s the cost of additional rework caused by choosing an easy or limited solution instead of using a better approach that would take longer,” Pineda says. “We also find that tech debt can accumulate as a result of not having a maintenance plan, so that a system degrades or becomes obsolete.” Pineda says many associations carry a lot of tech debt, and without a process for reviewing, maintaining, and, when necessary, sunsetting old software and systems, it only compounds over time.

Think of technology as your roads and bridges. Failure to maintain them can put them in danger of total collapse.

How to avoid that fate? “Step one is to define and describe what your tech debt is,” she says. “Some debt might simply be the stuff that didn’t get checked off a to-do list.” Maybe it’s a long-ignored project, like an upgrade to the AMS or the creation of a board portal, that’s now costing your staff and volunteers time.

To discover where your tech debt lies, Pineda says it helps to analyze software use patterns and maintenance schedules. Another indicator is if a system is vulnerable to a cyberattack.

“There have been so many cases where someone has come to me and said, ‘We’re on a really old version of ‘X’ software, and now we’ve been breached. Can you help us?’” she says. “At that point, it’s too late. The cyber risk now represents a crisis and cost.”

To minimize cyber risks and other drains on your resources, think of your IT systems and software as essential infrastructure that requires continuous investment and maintenance. “Think of technology as your roads and bridges,” Pineda says. “Failure to maintain them can put them in danger of total collapse.”

A technology maintenance plan should account for all IT systems and software currently running. And Pineda cautions against too many detailed customizations in your systems. “If you invest in a big custom software project, you’re now likely going to have to continue to invest a lot of money and time into that project,” she warns. Instead, consider the option of software as a service (SaaS), which can also reduce the need for on-premises technology.

“If you find yourself in a position where something always has to be upgraded or patched, then maybe it’s time to consider SaaS,” Pineda says. “It offers the advantage of ongoing reviews and upgrades in the cloud.”

And if you find that an IT system or software has turned sour, don’t be afraid to toss it out.

“Whether its purging or sunsetting, you have to say, ‘We are no longer going to do this because it’s costing us,’” Pineda says.

(blackred/Getty Images)

Tim Ebner

By Tim Ebner

Tim Ebner is a senior editor for Associations Now. He covers membership, leadership, and governance issues. Email him with story ideas or news tips. MORE

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