Inertia and Technical Debt in IT

E=mc2 can a chalkboard

In a discovery meeting with a potential client this week we discussed a long list of challenges they have with their current IT provider.  Really long.  They have been with them for over 7 years.  Then he raised an interesting objection.  He said, “I just don’t want to leave one set of problems for another elsewhere.  I need to feel confident that if we make a change, it will be worth it.”

The question we posed in return was, “If they haven’t solved your problems in the last 7 years, what makes you think things will get better in the next 7?”


It’s a physics term.  Stay with me because this is important.  Inertia means that a body at rest stays at rest.  Websters says its an indisposition to motion or change.  The bigger something is, and the more mass it has, the larger inertia it also has.

This means that to effect movement or change in direction you must push harder than inertia is working to make that things stay put.  The bigger the thing, the harder it is to move.

Organizations are the same way.  They resist change.  IT departments and even Managed Service Providers are unfortunately no different.  In fact, they may have more inertia than most places.  It might be the because of the typical personality types that work in IT.  Cerebral, analytical, conservative.  They tend to suffer from paralysis by analysis.

Change is hard.  Effecting organizational change is harder.  The good news is that it can be done.  You just have to push hard enough.

Technical Debt

Southwest Airlines has been all over the news this week.  Technical debt is why.  Their IT systems are apparently so antiquated, and duck taped together that they finally failed simultaneously with one shuddering gasp.  This led to thousands of flights being cancelled, angry customers, tons of terrible press, and stranded families crying on social media about the worst experience of their lives.

Not a good look.  I don’t know what conversations have been had there.  It’s possible that you have a CTO that has been kicking and screaming to his CEO and board for years trying to get the funds he needs to fix it.  It’s also possible he fell asleep at the wheel and just wasn’t doing his job.

With the crazy high cost of operations that an airline has, and the complete reliance upon IT systems to be able to do business, this seems like an obvious gaff.  The truth is that most business owners and executives don’t stop to calculate the cost of system downtime.  Really that job should fall to the CTO. 

He should be talking to his team and translating the technical issues they’re seeing into plain language for the C-levels.  He should be talking about risk, and what it will cost the business if things break.  He should proactively be making recommendations on how to add redundancy and safeguards.

This is even more difficult for small businesses.  The scale of company may be smaller, but failed technology has a similar effect and cost for small businesses.  On average, downtime costs small businesses $6800/hr.  That means if your business operates 8 hours a day you’ll lose $68,800 every day you are down, and $481,600 in a week.  For many small businesses that would be a bitter pill, or maybe even a door shuttering event.

How To Overcome Inertia and Avoid Technical Debt

Change can be good.  Especially in technology which is a fast-changing field.  Things get outdated and insecure quickly, so change needs to be your friend.  Here are some strategies you can use for your small business to overcome inertia and avoid technical debt.

  1. Audit – Stop and take stock once a year to make sure that you have a baseline understanding of the status of your technology.  Pay specific attention to the age of your operating systems, OS and hardware end of life schedules, and warranty on key pieces of hardware.

The result of this audit should be an action plan.  If you’ve identified end of life equipment it should immediately be added to the budget to replace it and your IT team should plan for the needed transitions.

2. Don’t Wait – Technical debt accumulates overtime and has compound interest.  When systems age past a certain point the typical upgrade paths may no longer be available for you.  This could mean that what would have been a simple project is now complex and twice as expensive.  Regular audits and incremental upgrades usually save both time and money.

3. Open Communication – IT guys aren’t always known for their keen communication skills.  If you have inhouse IT, it’s possible that they are nervous to ask for budget to fix the things they need.  Make sure they are comfortable with the request process and can communicate what is needed to keep you up and running.

If you have a managed service provider assisting with your IT, they should also be communicating.  i.t.NOW conducts quarterly business reviews with our clients to let them know of any upcoming needs and budgetary items.  A similar process is needed especially if IT is outsourced and there isn’t anyone on your team that owns it internally.

4. Systematize It – Another thing that is helpful to track all the key items for IT is a proper system.  Most hardware has a 3–5-year life cycle.  However, it’s near impossible to remember that Joni’s laptop was purchased 4 years ago and is due for an upgrade.  Create a system with automated reminders for all key hardware and software.

i.t.NOW tracks all this information for our clients in our IT documentation system.  It allows us to set reminders when warranty expires when licenses need to be renewed etc.  Better still it creates a ticket when that date is upcoming so that a human responds and makes sure it gets taken care of in a timely manner.

Final Thoughts

Keeping your organization out of technical debt isn’t difficult.  You just have to push hard enough to overcome the initial inertia.  Once you make a change in the organization it starts to get easier.

Put a process in place to do regular audits, develop an action plan, don’t let it pile up, communicate with your team, and get a system that helps remind you.

If that sounds like a struggle you can always call us for help as well.  The pros at i.t.NOW are happy to assist, and we have the experience and systems already in place to make it easy.