Technical debt has hindered UK innovation

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Technical debt has hindered UK innovation for yet another year. The ongoing investment of time, money, and resources into maintaining legacy technology is worrying, and comes at the expense of creating a strong business for the future.

An OutSystems survey of 521 IT decision makers around the world found that enterprises spend the equivalent of 40 percent – or about five months – of their annual IT budget exclusively on maintaining legacy code. If companies continue to build new systems on top of old ones, technical debt will increase like compound interest, forcing greater amounts of IT budget to be spent on maintenance and further reducing the ability of organizations to develop new products and services. 

Technology companies are becoming increasingly vocal about the problem. OutSystems found that 69% of enterprises agreed that technical debt limited their capacity to innovate. So, it is crucial that businesses – or at least those which strive for growth – understand how technical debt builds up in their organization and actively take steps to eliminate time consuming traditional systems.

Legacy Month – when IT finally pays back

In simple terms, June - marked ‘Legacy Month’ – was the first month of 2023 where businesses could actually innovate. They had paid off their tech debt for the year and were finally able to focus on delivering new systems and solutions that drive growth. Yet, if we continue at the same pace, current systems will continue to age, and ‘Legacy Month’ will take place even later in 2024. This is a major problem for businesses in the UK but also worldwide.

This rising tide of technical debt not only drains an organization's resources, but it also undermines their innovative capacity. As the enterprise becomes more bloated with software, the ability to stay ahead of the competition fades fast. And in a world where innovation in game changing new technologies like AI is mission-critical, companies need to free up as much budget for innovation as possible.

Joe Ghattas

Country Leader UK at OutSystems.

With technical debt reaching an extreme tipping point, it is important to learn from how we got here. As businesses are driven to provide better and more customized solutions for their customers, they are competing for a limited pool of developers who can help them navigate complex IT infrastructure and operations. The research found that the two leading factors behind technical debt were the high number of development languages, which makes it difficult to maintain and upgrade systems, as well as steep turnover in development teams. 

This results in new hires becoming responsible for platforms they did not create and may not fully understand. Other significant factors include companies accepting known defects in order to meet deadlines, and the presence of outdated development languages and frameworks. As a result, businesses struggle to maintain and rework critical systems.

Over time, technical debt builds up and compounds through thousands of seemingly small decisions, before becoming a major problem preventing companies from investing in new innovations or services. In addition, potential security issues, loss of application knowledge, and even the effects legacy IT can have on reputation, can inhibit businesses from pursuing growth plans like going public and adopting new technologies. 

Usually, these short-sighted decisions are due to pressure to find shortcuts and build things fast, rather than build things in the right way that will last into the future and provide the necessary speed and agility for change. But what options are open to enterprises looking to revamp the way they develop software?

Bringing Legacy Month forward

A successful long-term strategy to managing technical debt will always require a balance between quality and speed.

The first thing businesses should do is take an honest assessment of the foundational issues at play. Reducing unnecessary turnover of developer talent and cutting the number of programming languages and frameworks will go some way to stemming the growth of technical debt.

However, the most important step to paying off technical debt is to create a development process that meets both – short and long term goals. Through carefully aligning modern application development platforms that prioritize automation and agility for change, any company can begin to steadily chip away at their debt without compromising the timelines of their current projects.

By approaching this strategy successfully, businesses can speed-up product development and improve its agility to scale solutions rapidly and cost-effectively, and ultimately, reduce the negative impact of its technical debt in a short timeframe.

Start planning for next year

In the current period of economic uncertainty, businesses have an opportunity to prioritize their software development efforts. With the correct tools and processes, a company does not need to choose between building fast and building right when developing software. By being proactive in exploring alternatives to legacy code, 2023 still has potential to be a year remembered for companies asking their IT teams to do more with less, and bringing innovation to the top of the priority list so Legacy Month comes earlier next year.

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Joe Ghattas, Country Leader UK at OutSystems.