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April 18, 2024

Retiring Technical Debt and Reducing Risk

Blog author: Fred Rocha, Senior Consultant (previously Chief Information Technology Officer for Coast Community College District)

White male technology leader, smiling

We are all familiar with the concept of financial debt; the state of owing money to someone. For many, this is an uncomfortable feeling. Many of us strive to be debt-free and feel a great sense of relief when our debts are paid. That being true, why do so many in higher education live with technical debt hanging over our collective heads?


Let’s start by examining how and why we acquire technical debt in higher education:

  • Limited Resources: Educational institutions often operate on tight budgets, which can lead to underinvestment in technology infrastructure and systems maintenance. This can result in outdated or poorly maintained systems that accumulate technical debt over time.
  • Complexity: Higher education institutions are often large and complex organizations with diverse stakeholders and priorities. This complexity can make it challenging to effectively manage and coordinate efforts to address technical debt.
  • Legacy Systems: Many higher education institutions rely on legacy systems that were developed many years ago and may not have kept pace with technological advancements. These systems can be difficult and costly to update or replace, leading to the accumulation of technical debt.
  • Organizational Culture: Some higher education institutions may have a culture that values stability and continuity over innovation and change. This can result in a reluctance to invest in updating or replacing existing systems, adding to the accumulation of technical debt.
  • Lack of Technical Expertise: Educational institutions may lack the technical expertise required to effectively manage and address technical debt. This can result in suboptimal solutions and the retention of outdated technologies because the staff knows how to keep old systems operational but is uncomfortable or not suitably trained to replace them.
  • Institutional Priorities: Higher education institutions often have competing priorities, and addressing technical debt may not always be a top priority. This can result in technical debt being allowed to accumulate over time.

So, is all hope lost? Must we live with the Sword of Technical Debt hanging over heads until we reduce technical debt? The answer is an emphatic No!

Addressing technical debt in higher education requires a concerted effort to prioritize investment in technology infrastructure, systems maintenance, and staff training. It also requires a shift in organizational culture to one that values innovation and continuous improvement. Technical debt makes our teams go slower, increases the likelihood of introducing defects, and makes “doing the right thing” even harder in the future.

Building the business case for tackling our technical debt issues must include calling out the risks we face from the cybersecurity perspective. The ramification of technical debt has significant impact our organization’s cyber security posture:

  • Vulnerabilities: Accumulated technical debt often leads to outdated or poorly designed systems, which can introduce vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can be exploited by attackers to gain unauthorized access or disrupt services.
  • Patch and Update Management: Technical debt can make it challenging to keep systems up to date with the latest security patches and updates. This increases the risk of exploitation of known vulnerabilities.
  • Compliance: Technical debt can make it difficult to maintain compliance with security standards and regulations. This can result in fines, legal issues, and damage to the institution’s reputation.
  • Impact on Incident Response: Technical debt can hinder incident response efforts by making it harder to identify, contain, and remediate security incidents in a timely manner.

Raising these issues will likely resonate with institutional leadership. Given the number of incidents that have impacted colleges and universities in the past few years, they should know and understand the threat facing higher education from cyber criminals. But while this may break the inertia that often encases technical debt, will it be enough to create the change needed to tackle this issue? In short, no. We must do more.

If we want to really address technical debt and quality issues in general, we must go deeper and find the root cause. Unfortunately, the root cause is usually organizational. Tackling this challenge requires us to honest with ourselves and those we serve. Our discussions and decision-making needs to be transparent and lead to the pathway by which the entire organization understands the challenges and sees it as an imperative to resolve them. While not an all-inclusive list, this will get us started on the road to eliminating our technical debt.

  • Define Your Debt: If we do not acknowledge and quantify the state of the existing condition along with the systems and services that are impacted, we will not be able to develop a plan for addressing it. Explain in narrative form how this debt impacts our organization. What can we not do because of it? What is the cost of the technical debt in terms of opportunities lost, services that cannot be offered and expenditures we are forced to make.
  • Identify Critical Paths: In many cases dependencies exist and tasks must be structured to solve underlying issues. By diving into the reduction tasks and identifying those dependencies, we can pursue critical path solutions that will enable the elimination or restructuring of processes, systems or services needed for debt reduction.
  • Prioritize Debt Reduction Tasks: Not all technical debt is equal. Not all reduction tasks are resource intensive. Not all tasks are technology-based. Look to take on initial work that will be impactful and achievable in a reasonable timeframe and at a reasonable cost. Demonstrate what can be achieved so that momentum and energy can be harnessed for future tasks.
  • Set Standards and Expectations: No one wants to invest in solutions only to have them undone and undermined. If we fail to set standards for product and service selection along with revised business processes, the potential risk of reacquiring technical debt is high. It takes time and effort to create new muscle memory and institutionalize practices that lead to the proper outcomes. In short, we must extinguish the use of the phrase “We’ve always done it that way.”
  • Conduct Regular Meetings with Constituents: No matter how noble and needed the work may be, lack of communication and transparency will destroy our efforts. Solution socialization is required if we are to ensure that Service Owners, Department Managers, Technical and Functional Staff not only understand the need, impact, challenges and consequences of the technical debt, but assist in the development, testing and adoption of the solutions going forward.

Resolving our technical debt issues is very similar to tackling financial debt. Once we know that magnitude of the debt, we can develop strategies to effectively and efficiently spend our fiscal, technical and human capital resources to address our technical debt balance. As we resolve these issues, additional resources will be available to take on other projects. We can then budget our resources and expend them in the most meaningful manner to those we serve. Together, through methodical practices we can assist higher education in properly managing technical debt.


Share your feedback, questions and specific challenges to and let’s talk about how our expert team can help you retire technical debt and reduce risk to your institution.

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