What is technical debt?
By Jeremy Norberg
Technical debt—or tech debt—is using technology to complete a function that another tool is doing, could also do, or should be doing. It’s caused by solving one problem but creating three more. Tech debt consumes resources by duplicating efforts and costs. Many retailers accumulate tech debt in the name of speed or growth and end up with a random set of tools that may solve one problem but cause another.
Tech debt is caused by solving one problem but creating three more.
The key to reducing tech debt is creating a retail-architecture-and-maintenance plan that is based on stakeholders’ functions and needs while accounting for the business's current and future needs.
Tech debt is easy to accumulate and hard to manage
Unfortunately, tech debt happens all the time. It’s not something that can be avoided. But tech debt becomes problematic when left unchecked. The longer that technology is left to its own devices, the harder that it is to maintain and update, because of things like customizations and legacy code. This becomes a serious problem when systems remain on legacy software, preventing critical security and feature updates.
Tech debt goes unchecked when centralized leadership or centralized strategy starts to get watered down or dispersed, leaving individual departments to choose tools that fit their immediate needs and solve “today problems,” without thinking about how those decisions impact future “tomorrow” and “day-after-tomorrow” areas of the business. Instead of being strategically structured to help the business grow, technology gets frankensteined together with all of the other technology solving specific today problems.
The result is a collection of siloed tools that create duplicate data that does not integrate, costs more, and results in a poor user experience for both employees and customers. The tech debt compounds, consuming the resources that the business needs to grow.
How to manage tech debt
Every business has tech debt; it’s normal because of how fast technology changes. The goal is not to eliminate tech debt, but to measure and manage it.
The 80 / 20 rule
Eighty percent of your tech systems should be standard—what everyone is using. If you are told that you need bespoke products, get a second opinion. People like to think that their business is unique, but, in reality, most retailers have three main functional areas: customer service, business intelligence, and supply chain, and technology already exists to help you manage each of these areas. When chosen intentionally and architected correctly, these systems can help you scale and grow, instead of locking you into a system that solves for today and ignores tomorrow, creating more debt.
Your business probably has many stakeholders, and each of their needs change over time. While most stakeholders are experts in their field and industry, they often do not know how their functions impact other departments. Visualizing workflows can help everyone see their needs both today and tomorrow, and find solutions that work across departments, instead of operating within silos.
The reason is simple: when it comes to implementing the right technology for your business, the solutions already exist.
If you’re part of a small business, consider hiring someone to architect your technology. The reason is simple: when it comes to implementing the right technology for your business, the solutions already exist. You just need to find the right partner to help you architect a scalable solution that you know how to maintain. At Assemble, we understand the complexity of the tools, we are fluent in retail best practices, and we combine our technical expertise with our industry knowledge to architect the right solution for you.
Solving for today and tomorrow
Assemble uses The Everyday Retail Blueprint to help retailers build tech stacks that are connected and in sync. Our process helps retailers solve for today’s symptoms, address their root causes, and prepare for tomorrow's opportunities.
When you take time to architect your tech stack around the three standard functions of retail (customer service, business intelligence, and supply chain), you can ensure that all of your systems are connected and in sync. Your inventory system is talking to your marketing system, and you are not advertising products that you do not have inventory for. The right technology investments pay dividends and allow your team to grow and scale without being held captive by technology.