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Tackling Technical Debt Redux: a Deeper Dive

Technical Debt and Legacy Systems

Technical debt can be costly for organizations, with a survey by Stripe estimating that developers spend one-third of their time on technical debt. Teams working on modern, up-to-date systems and software projects will incur technical debt for various reasons, but maintaining legacy systems poses additional technical debt challenges.

This post is Part 3 of our Technical Debt series; get the rest of the picture by starting with Part 1.

What’s different about legacy software development systems?

First of all, legacy systems are dated; they use older languages, technologies, and design patterns.

If you purchased the software, it might be out of support but still running because there’s no replacement or the costs of replacing it are too high. If your team created the software in-house, the original developers have likely moved on to new roles. In both cases, a lack of expertise in the legacy system results. Current teams hesitate to cut code or turn off servers because no one is sure if it’s critical.

The extra difficulties and lack of appeal to working in older technologies and languages can affect the ability to hire developers. Up-and-coming developers may lack the training to support the older system or prefer to work on newer systems.

Despite ongoing use and maintenance by the current team, it becomes increasingly difficult to integrate these systems with other, more modern systems the organization uses or plans to use. The inability to integrate an existing legacy system can prevent an organization from adopting new, faster solutions entirely–leading to inefficiencies compared to the competition.

Options for dealing with legacy development systems

Since developers spend so much of their time on technical debt, and legacy systems are likely to have a higher-than-average amount of technical debt, companies should weigh the ROI of these older systems.

Business as usual

If your technical debt is manageable, you can continue to tackle technical debt on an as-needed basis. Over time, you can slowly shift from a monolithic to a microservices architecture that allows you to sidestep problematic code.

Migrating to an off-the-shelf replacement

Consider whether commercial solutions now exist that address most or all of the use cases for your legacy system. Although this option might require significant upfront capital or monthly SaaS license(s), it can substantially improve productivity, speed, security, and features, offering a strong return on investment. Plan the migration carefully to ensure the new system is ready before replacing the old one.

Refactoring

When companies cannot find a suitable commercial solution, they may refactor the system’s structure or architecture to modernize it and reduce future maintenance. This approach does not change the code’s functionality or add new features; it makes the code easier to work with.

Rewriting

If you’d like to re-imagine how the system works, add new features, or gain the benefits of a new language, this means getting rid of the old code and rewriting it.

Migration, Refactoring, and Rewriting approaches can take months to plan and implement while minimizing the risks during the transition and cutover. Because of the upfront investment, continuing to fix technical debt over time may sound more appealing. Still, you may be unable to predict a system outage caused by technical debt before it occurs.

To make a decision, identify how critical your technical debt load is and whether it is preventing your company from meeting its goals. If your development team was able to focus on solving new challenges instead of spending one-third of their time fixing tech debt, what could they achieve?


Migrations must be smooth to avoid delays that impact production, deployments, or ROI. Our team of expert consultants has deep knowledge and vast experience with development tools. They know the pitfalls and best practices for successful migrations.

ReleaseTEAM will document your processes and dependencies, map tools to tasks, and recommend the best approach for new tool stacks or integration of legacy tools. We collaborate with your staff to ensure limited disruption while improving your DevOps environment’s efficiencies. Contact us to explore your organization’s modernization.

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