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What is technical debt, and why is British Airways up to its neck in it?

The concept of technical debt is a euphemism invented by the US developer Ward Cunningham and applied to the consequences of poor software development or to the deployment of hardware, highlighted by lack of updating, bad maintenance, corrected versions, problems of scalability, or the unsystematic incorporation of new functionalities.

In many organizations, the concept of technical debt is reflected in the persistence of antiquated and non-migrated software developments to more efficient technologies: so-called legacy systems. Technical debt is accumulated when certain tasks necessary to ensure the functionality or scalability of systems are postponed for budgetary reasons, poorly assigned priorities, managers’ lack of awareness of technology, and then mounts in the form of interest, increasing the cost of remedying the problem. In a few cases, the technical debt becomes incalculable and is reflected in an inability to incorporate functionalities considered critical to the operation of the business, including disruption.

On May 27, British Airways experienced a catastrophic crash of its computer systems, resulting in approximately 75,000 passengers at London’s two major airports seeing their flights canceled or delayed for days, leaving them stranded around the globe, unable to retrieve their luggage, and receiving no explanation. The incident should be seen in the context of the controversial management of Spaniard Alex Cruz, CEO of BA’s parent company IAG, which also includes Iberia, Vueling and Air Lingus, and that has been characterized by aggressive cost reductions and the steady outsourcing of the company’s systems, a common policy within the air transport industry. Cruz’s statements on the day of the crash were considered unsatisfactory crisis management, by most observers, and subsequent attempts to explain the problems by pointing to “an employee of a subcontractor who turned off the wrong switch,” do not inspire much confidence.

The persistence of legacy systems in the airline industry is extremely high. Reliance on reservation systems with complex ownership schemes and scant attention to technology-related issues has resulted in many airlines accumulating a very high technical debt: outdated systems that have evolved organically and that have been patched up over the decades, with incompatible silos between different areas, and that do not work with modern systems. It is perfectly normal, for example, for reservation systems to be completely disconnected from CRM and loyalty programs, which prevent the airline from proactively managing customer satisfaction. Over the years, the persistence of outdated, increasingly unstable systems, unable to scale up and incorporate new functionalities, has led to mounting technical debt and causing problems of all kinds. These are the consequences of a “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” culture applied to a dynamic and rapidly changing environment where not keeping systems critical to the business up to date is always a bad decision. After many years criticizing technicians because they are “like birds, always migrating,” some companies are now beginning to realize that rapid evolution was no fad, but the logical result of a constantly advancing environment.

When you see old-fashioned systems with green screens and technologies that take you back decades, remember that you are not just dealing with a conservative company that prefers to use tried and tested technology or is careful with its money: you are dealing with a company that is accumulating significant technical debt, making it intrinsically more prone to failures that will affect the continuity of its business. These companies are less reliable and that have systematically postponed modifications and critical updates and that have refused to incorporate new functionalities or that have only done so after applying repeated sticking plasters. Companies with legacy systems accumulating growing technical debt tend not to have much development talent, because they are not challenging or interesting to such talent: maintenance tasks take precedence over development and those who stay with the company are, increasingly, specialists in languages ​​and functionalities no longer seen in other companies, and are a kind of “sediment from the Dead Sea” with decreasing demand and value in the market and who tend to make the problem harder to fix.

In the context of a sector in which technology plays a critical role, nothing good can come out of technical debt, beyond proving that the directors of a company lack the awareness to appreciate its importance. In many cases, subcontracting ends up becoming the last cost-saving resource, tending to make the problem worse because managers unaware of its importance focus instead on other areas.

What happened to British Airways is a problem of unpaid technical debt, with interest accumulated over the years that is generating potential disasters. Sadly, there are many more companies in the same situation as BA, the result of many years of business conducted by people who do not understand and do not want to understand the importance of technology.

Now, digital transformation has become a critical competitive factor, and it is hard to build on outdated and patched up legacy systems. Would you be able to assess the technical debt of your company? Has it made bad decisions that leave it way behind “the state of the art” in your sector?

Debts, one way or another, always end up being paid …


(En español, aquí)