During the waning days of December 2022, one could not escape the news of the tens of thousands of flights canceled by Southwest Airlines in the wake of a Midwest snowstorm that stranded travelers across the US. That flights were canceled during an inclement weather event was not an unusual story; that those flights continued to be canceled for days on end, with no immediate improvement in sight, was newsworthy.
The underlying reasons for Southwest Airline’s inability to resume operations soon became clear:
- The airline was a victim of their size. They are the third largest airline in the US by passengers carried.
- The airline was a victim of their structure. They employ a communities-based model, with crews in place where they are needed only when they are needed, rather than a hub-based model like American Airlines and Delta Airlines.
- Most importantly, they were a victim of systemic technology obsolescence that was created by decades of accumulated technical debt – debt that came due at the worst possible travel time of the year.
Technical debt refers to the accumulation of shortcuts, quick fixes, and other suboptimal technical decisions that organizations make to meet short-term goals and deadlines. These decisions often result in a trade-off between immediate gains and long-term costs, as they can lead to more complex and brittle systems that are harder to maintain and update over time.
Technical debt is a common problem within higher education institution IT departments, where resources are stretched thin, infrastructure investment is often deprioritized, and patchwork, ad hoc solutions are the norm rather than the exception.
What strategies can be applied to suppress technical debt, so that it doesn’t create technical insolvency and negatively impact the student and campus experience?
Step 1: Identify and prioritize the most important IT systems.
The first step in addressing technical debt is to identify and prioritize systems and processes that are most affected. This can be complex, as technical debt takes many forms, including outdated software, poorly designed systems, aging infrastructure, and suboptimal processes.
A key tool in an IT department’s arsenal to address technical debt is to conduct a technical debt assessment, which involves gathering data on the current as-built state of IT systems and processes and evaluating the current state against best practices and industry standards. This will help identify areas where one’s technical debt is most prevalent and enable the organization to assess the potential impact such debt may have on the campus.
It is also vital to prioritize addressing technical debt, as not all affected areas have the same level of impact or require the same level of resources to address. Factors to consider when prioritizing technical debt include assessing the potential impact on users, estimating the potential cost of addressing the debt, and quantifying the potential benefits of remediating affected systems.
Step 2: Create a remediation plan.
The next step is to create a remediation plan for reducing the accumulation of subpar technology. This will include clear goals, timelines, and resources for addressing each area of technical debt.
It is critical to involve all relevant stakeholders in the planning process, including IT staff, faculty, and administrators. This will ensure that any plan aligns with the needs and priorities of the school, and that it has the necessary support to be successful. Implementing a technical debt remediation plan will involve a variety of activities, such as upgrading software, refactoring code, redesigning systems, and improving processes.
Sufficient resources and budget must be prioritized to implement a successful remediation plan – including accountable staff and trusted partners – to create, maintain, and support replacement systems and processes going forward.
Step 3: Continuously monitor and measure IT systems.
Finally, to keep technical debt at bay, systems and processes must be continuously monitored and measured to ensure that any new technical debt accrues only at a rate that the institution can sustainably manage with the staff, budgeting, infrastructure, and outside partners on hand.
The accumulation of technical debt is inevitable. Technical insolvency is not.
Managing the rate at which accumulated technical debt grows within your organization can be controlled through planning and processes designed to make technology choices that are thoughtful, align with the core mission of the institution, and can be sustainably managed far into the future.
At Apogee, we bring over two decades of experience solely serving higher education and have a deep understanding of how technical debt accrues, how to remediate it, and how to ensure it never accrues again. To learn more how partnering with Apogee can help you avoid technical insolvency, we invite you to talk to one of our higher education experts by filling out this form.
Apogee is also hosting the webinar “A Proactive Approach to Residence Hall Wi-Fi on January 26th at 2 PM CST. You can register here. We look forward to hosting you!